Can a belligerent Sudhakaran revive Cong in Kerala? Knives are already out

Kerala’s new Congress leadership proposes a cultural overhaul in the party, but change is a tough ask when history and factional interests are at play

KPCC chief K Sudhakaran, MP and strongman from Left-leaning Kannur, wants to shake things up

Joju George, an actor hitting all the right notes, appears to have found himself on a befuddling character arc in Kerala’s political theatre. He has irked the Indian National Congress, the state’s primary opposition party, by questioning its road blockades against the rise in fuel prices. The Congress’ response also strikes you as unfamiliar role-play, as it looks beyond spokespersons to defend its ways and lets its activists express themselves in an all-out street offensive.

George, 44, was caught in one of the blockades in Kochi, on November 1, and had hit out at agitations that disrupt public life, setting off violent retaliation by Congress activists  — his SUV was vandalised — and a social media slugfest typical to the politically polarised state.

Members of the party’s youth wing have since taken out protest marches to film locations and cinema halls, reducing dissent to a roadshow that is getting increasingly disconnected from the original concerns over the fuel prices. The women’s wing of the party has demanded filing of a case against George over his alleged misbehaviour with women who had confronted him during the blockade. Interestingly, at one of the targeted film locations, the crew was shooting a film that did not even have George in its cast.

The actor has deactivated his social media accounts following the controversy but has found support in voices from the ruling Left. Reacting to the disruption of film shoots, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said all attempts to muffle expression would be thwarted. In a state grappling with a high COVID caseload and the aftermath of heavy rains in October, the dominant political discourse is pegged to street protests against an actor, over comments he made as a citizen, on how protests should be held. This, essentially, is an agitation over ways to agitate.

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The Congress, rebuilding under new Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president K Sudhakaran after the electoral debacle earlier this year, has approached the issue in a manner that feeds theories on a shift in its style of functioning. Sudhakaran, MP and Congress strongman from Left-leaning Kannur, was likely to shake things up this way; he was always seen as the disruptor who could inspire a switch from a divided old guard of moderates to an aggressive top brass that is in tune with aspirations of the party cadre.

The play on perceptions is working. The protests have found prime time TV space. On social media, the party’s supporters are on overdrive, drumming up what they call an attitudinal upgrade; the more optimistic among them are talking about the decisive revival of a depleting cadre.

The change of tack – on assuming office, Sudhakaran had talked about a new “outlook and approach” – came amid apprehensions that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was starting to dominate spaces of dissent against the CPI(M)-led Left. The tonal shift in the Congress leadership is also necessitated by the BJP staking claim, despite being a marginal electoral presence, to be Kerala’s principal opposition.

The electoral rout has led to the relegation of two prominent seniors – former chief minister Oommen Chandy and former leader of the opposition Ramesh Chennithala – and former party chief Mullappally Ramachandran. Chandy and Chennithala, leaders of the two dominant factions, are guarded about their apprehensions but are unlikely to disown a rebellion when the party holds organisational elections. Ramachandran has been more vocal about his reservations on Sudhakaran’s belligerent style of functioning.

V M Sudheeran, another veteran and former party president, has called the style “fascist”. He has criticised the aggression with which KS Brigade, an outfit formed by Sudhakaran’s supporters – it is a charity organisation with no political aspirations, claims Sudhakaran – blunts out criticism against the new leadership.

Sudheeran, who himself was targeted by the party’s group managers during his tenure as KPCC president, represents a generation of leaders who believe that the personality cult around Sudhakaran is in conflict with the party’s ethos. The fear is over the emergence of an authoritarian leadership, of an overhaul that renders internal democracy invalid.

There are apprehensions about the party’s move to a semi-cadre mode of functioning, about alienating the party’s traditional supporters. This is a party that has projected itself as an inclusive, non-confrontational alternative. The Congress in Kerala, traditionally fragmented at the top, has lacked the wares to develop a cadre-based structure.

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This is also a party that has been critical of the shutdown culture and the CPI(M) brand of mass agitations. There was a hint of what to expect, when Leader of the Opposition V D Satheesan – a vocal critic of agitations that inconvenience the public – stayed away from a mass protest organised by the party against the high fuel prices, in Thiruvananthapuram.

The counter-narrative debunks the apprehensions. While working overtime to stop the factions from all-out confrontation, while letting their leaders build their own power centres, the party has lost considerable ground at the grassroots.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front has 41 legislators in the 140-seat Kerala Assembly. The new leadership says about 46 per cent of the party’s booth-level committees in the state are inactive. Sudhakaran, 73, appears to propose that only a strong leadership untouched by factional interests could steer a revival, even if it means leaving the aggrieved veterans on the fringes.

The optics, however, will not be enough to drive the party’s run-up to 2026 when it takes on the Left after being out of power for 10 years. The protests against George show a problem of priorities. The argument for a departure from the old, familiar ways wears thin because this is still a party of ambitious men with loyal minions. Their power huddles and public takedowns of the leadership, often over denial of positions of eminence, are tropes the party has adapted to.

Structural changes also mean cultural and even if Sudhakaran, along with Satheesan, manages to set the tone for these changes, resistance is around the corner. Sudhakaran has indicated that he would contest for the KPCC president’s post when the organisational elections are held next year; he’ll be the first to acknowledge the possibility of the two factions coming together to unseat him.

Congress spokespersons have built a narrative that normalises factionalism by arguing that the party, unlike the CPI(M), does not silence criticism from within. In the party’s pursuit of a united, powerful leadership that sets the agenda for a disciplined cadre, presumably to take the Left on in its own game, this culture of free-speech factionalism could prove its biggest handicap.

Sudhakaran will have to work around contentions that he lacks the ideological standing to lead a party like the Congress; he’s a proud hardliner who reasons that he had to be one to survive in a district with intense political loyalties. His leadership style will be put to test in the organisational elections and if the party activists’ aspirations for change are validated there, he’ll be in a position to take the big plan forward.

It is significant that the Congress chief, while pushing for reform in his party, has maintained that he would not change his own style to placate his critics. When senior leader K P Anil Kumar left the Congress in September to join the CPI(M), he had equated Sudhakaran’s rise in ranks to the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. Kumar is irrelevant to the party’s roadmap but his accusation will resonate with the cynics as leaders and cadre attune themselves to the new dispensation and watch change play out, before it’s put to the vote.

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