Nestled in the Western Ghat mountains, an otherwise sleepy Wayanad has been abuzz over the past few weeks.
Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the main rival to prime minister Narendra Modi, is here today (April 17) to campaign. This is the first time he has set foot in this constituency of the southern coastal state of Kerala since filing his nomination on April 04. Usually, when a politician decides to contest, hectic campaigning begins almost immediately.
“But Rahul doesn’t need to campaign because everyone already knows him and so he will win even without it,” said N Subrahmanya, a mid-level Congress functionary in Kerala. His sentiment is echoed by most others in the party and a fair segment of the public in Kerala.
“I did not see the last leader, MI Shanavas either, so it doesn’t matter if Gandhi hasn’t been campaigning here,” said Somas (identifying himself only by his first name), a mobile phone accessories vendor in Wayanad’s Kalpetta town. He was referring to the Congress parliamentarian from Wayanad who passed away last year. “If in future, Gandhi ends up as prime minister, it will be a matter of great pride for us,” said Mohammed Azhar, a student in Kalpetta.
In short, the Congress is upbeat about its campaign—with or without Gandhi’s presence.
What’s the preparation?
The hub of all its activities in Wayanad is an office in Mukkam, 70 kilometres south of the district headquarters. Subrahmanya is in charge of this office. Here, a digital media cell has specially been created to tackle any negative news against Gandhi.
This is over and above the party’s main digital war room in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.
A special Twitter account has been created, with most of Gandhi’s tweets going out in Malayalam, Kerala’s native language.
In the meantime, rivals Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance and the communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) have been circulating videos about the lack of development in Amethi, claims Congress.
“No area can be fully developed, there are going to be some issues such as poverty in every area and, therefore, these videos are just slander,” said Niyaz Bharati, former Kerala vice-president of the party’s youth arm, Youth Congress. “So now we are making videos highlighting Gandhi’s relationship with farmers and students in the state and circulating it everywhere.”
Yet, digital is only a part of Congress’s game plan.
In the busy market area of Wayanad town, loudspeakers clumsily strapped to minivans incessantly exhort people to vote for Congress. Though nobody pays any particular heed, this is an integral mode of campaigning in Kerala as it is in other parts of India.
The party’s main focus, though, is on its more than 100,000 grassroots workers campaigning door-to-door. While usually the main candidate, too, makes an appearance during such knock-on-the-door visits, Gandhi hasn’t so far. “His surname is enough,” Congress workers say.
Located 450 kilometres north of the state capital, the picturesque hill district has proven to be one of the most secure seats for the Congress so far. Sharing its border with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states towards its east, Gandhi’s presence here is expected to fortify the Congress’s chances in southern India.
“There is a general belief here among people that the BJP government at the centre, and especially Modi, completely ignore south India. At such a time, a national leader coming here to contest election is a big deal for the locals and works in our favour,” said Suresh Babu, a senior UDF member.
The Wayanad parliamentary constituency was carved out of Malappuram and Kozhikode districts in 2008. Since then, the late Shanavas had won it, though his voting-winning margin fell sharply from over 1,50,000 in 2009 to just over 20,000 in the 2014 election.
Apart from being the main hub for coffee and tea plantations, and a tourist destination, Wayanad is also well known for its spices. However, agrarian distress, like in the country’s other regions, has also emerged as a key issue.
“Prices have come down and, as a result, farmers are unable to get their money’s worth. There have even been farmer suicides because of this,” said a coffee and tea merchant in Wayanad.
Besides, Wayanad also has the highest concentration of tribals in Kerala, forming 18.5% of the constituency’s 1.2 million population, according to Subramanya of the Mukkam Congress IT unit.
To tap this cumulative voter base, Gandhi is focusing on the minimum income guarantee scheme announced in the party’s manifesto. It has promised the country’s 50 million “poorest families” a minimum income of Rs6,000 per month. This would cover 250 million people, a fifth of the country 1.3 billion people.
For the poverty-ridden tribal population, this could be a big pull, believe local Congress leaders.
“We know he is not as well-versed in vocabulary or as sharp a critic as Modi, but there is a big sympathy wave for Gandhi which is something that will work in our favour,” said a senior member of the party, seeking anonymity.
Will he win?
Gandhi’s main opponent in this elections is the Communist Party of India’s PP Suneer. In the last two polls, the CPI had come second with a vote share nearing 39%.
The Left front, led by chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, rules Kerala and local leaders in Wayanad believe they have a fair chance this time. “We were able to reduce the gap in terms of votes significantly in the last election. So, we are sure it is achievable this year,” said CK Saseendran, representative of Wayanad’s Kalpetta constituency in the state assembly. Saseendran is a member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a CPI ally.
He also counters the narrative about Gandhi’s popularity, saying chief minister Vijayan’s visit to Wayanad was able to pull a far bigger crowd than Gandhi could during his road show at the time of filing nomination.
Besides, unlike Gandhi, Suneer has been personally campaigning regularly in the constituency.
The BJP and its allies are hardly in the race. Wayanad goes to the polls on April 23.
Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.