Rahul Gandhi's choice of Wayanad as his constituency in south India has set tongues wagging. Is this an insurance just in case there is a shock reversal in Amethi? Since he is fighting the BJP in the company of regional parties, is the Amethi-Wayanad arc designed to give him, and his party, an all India aura?
There was a resonance about "Indiramma" in the south. Even when Indira Gandhi was trounced by the electorate in 1977 for her emergency misdemeanours, she retained her hold in Hyderabad and Bengaluru. Chenna Reddy and Devraj Urs were among the most powerful Chief Ministers the Congress ever fielded anywhere.
True to form, Indira Gandhi removed the powerful Chenna Reddy from Andhra Pradesh and placed on the Gaddi in Hyderabad a weak, even a comical Tangutri Anjaiah whom she had known as a junior Labour Minister at the Centre.
Subsequently, Rajiv Gandhi and his cocky cousin and adviser, Arun Nehru, roundly insulted the Chief Minister by keeping him outside the Hyderabad airport lounge while he and the young Prime Minister discussed matters of moment. It was only after the "insult" became part of popular gossip that N.T. Rama Rao placed his cinematic charisma at the disposal of "Andhra Pride". That is how the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) was formed. N. Chandrababu Naidu, a talented administrator, is the late NTR's son-in-law.
If the space for Rahul was a little dicey in Andhra and Telangana, a seat in Karnataka would have been custom made for the Congress President. His arrival would have given further coherence to the Congress-JD-S alliance which is pitted against a fiercely competitive BJP. The party leader B.S. Yeddyurappa leapt with joy when Balakot happened: "The BJP will now win 22 out of 28 seats in Karnataka." Rahul's participation in this battle would have boosted the combine's chances and his image as an anti-BJP campaigner.
In Wayanad he is not fighting the BJP. He is fighting the Left Front. This confusion has been persistent in the Congress' approach to 2019. A party with 44 seats in Parliament cannot dream of fighting the BJP on its own. It needs allies. The difficulty is that its quest for allies collides with its innate urge to revive. This causes it to lose focus of the main target, the BJP, and poach in the turf of its would-be allies.
Ideally the dominant parties in the regions, (Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, for instance) should have been given the luxury of concentrating on one target - the BJP. In this framework, the Congress should have concentrated in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh where the party did well in the recent Assembly elections. But this conflicts with the party's self-image of a national party.
How realistic is this "self-image"? In 1947, the Congress represented shades of interests federated behind a programme for freedom. Extreme, sometimes conflictual ideologies, simmered in the Congress cauldron. Take this as an example. Krishna Menon, a leftist in the Congress, fought an election from Mumbai the same year that arch capitalist S.K. Patil did from another district. In 1967, eight seats were lost to Indira Gandhi. The diversity in the Congress womb left it one by one. The "Hindu" in the Congress DNA was always pronounced. Madan Mohan Malaviya, Purushottam Das Tandon, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant were never creatures of what Jawaharlal Nehru sought to market as "composite culture". They wanted a Hindu India; Nehru a Hindu-led secular India.
The post Babri Masjid haemorrhaging was in two streams. The lower end of the caste pyramid flowed to the caste parties. The reminder, by and large, became interchangeable with the BJP. There has been a bewildering volume of toing and froing between the two parties.
It is against this backdrop that observers will gauge the party's long term intentions. The irony is that the manifesto that Rahul unveiled is a document of substance which qualifies the party to be slotted as a progressive, Left of Centre force. This image alone will distinguish it from the BJP whose B team it had begun to look like in its recent behaviour.
It is possible to argue that whichever way Kerala's 20 parliamentary seats are divided, all the seats will be listed in the margin of parties in opposition to the BJP. But there is a nuance in Kerala's electoral politics which needs to be understood.
After decades of trying, the BJP has only one seat in the Assembly. This is not for want of RSS cadres. The initial thrust of the Sangh in the state was to weaken the Left in Kerala. Congress leaders like K. Karunakaran exploited the BJP's anti-Left slant to the UDF's advantage. In fact, there was a phase when two diametrically opposite attitudes towards the BJP had legitimacy within the Congress. Arjun Singh, the Nehruvian secularist in the Congress, fought the BJP tooth and nail in Madhya Pradesh. Karunakaran, on the other hand had a subtle, unstated co-ordination with the BJP in Kerala.
By taking Wayanad in preference to other constituencies in the South, Rahul has decided to take on the Left. This, in my view, is not a happy perception to market. Particularly after having led the CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury up the garden path in West Bengal. It did not agree with the Left's meagre terms. And now it fights it in Kerala.
It appears that the electronic media as a noisy Modi drum beater and the Prime Minister's own ranting style has begun to pall to a point where it has begun to affect the electoral turf. The BJP is in some disarray. These are just the moments when all the opposition parties, including the Congress, should in their own interest, play keeping in mind the people's pulse.
(A senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal.)