Why Bharat Jodo Yatra’s sheen has worn off for Congress in Kerala

The state unit of the Congress is beset with problems — from Shashi Tharoor’s actions to party leaders’ reactions to BBC’s Modi documentary, to tough competition from the Left

Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Gandhi
Congress leaders Shashi Tharoor and Rahul Gandhi at the Bharat Jodo Yatra in its Kerala leg.

When the Bharat Jodo Yatra crossed the Kerala border on September 29, after its 19-day long stint through the state, Congress party workers appeared to be rejuvenated, the grassroots level workers particularly raring to go, after their beloved leader had spent a significant period of time among them. Their enthusiasm ensured a respectable performance for the party in the subsequent local body by-elections. 

But, three months down the line, they seem to be losing steam, and are struggling to keep that momentum going.

Watch: Best of Bharat Jodo Yatra’s South India leg

The Bharat Jodo Yatra had also seemingly inspired most of the party leaders in Kerala to become active, along with fostering a greater sense of unity among United Democratic Front (UDF) allies. It was short lived, however, as Shashi Tharoor, the MP from Thiruvananthapuram, decided to run for party presidency. Senior state leaders openly opposed Tharoor and his plan, which was obvious as they openly campaigned for Mallikarjun Kharge.


Shashi Tharoor with G Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of the Nair Service Society

Tharoor ruffles feathers 

Tharoor returned to the state after losing, with some proactive steps to cement his presence in state politics, reaching out to influential caste and community organisations like the Nair Service Society and Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulama.

The party’s dormant factions took no time at all to quickly revive and band together to oppose Tharoor’s foray into state politics. The groups within the party perceived his inroads into state politics as a coup d’état against Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president K Sudhakaran and the leader of the Opposition, VD Satheesan. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) had to intervene to stop the public bashing the two Congress leaders indulged in.

Shashi Tharoor with Jifri Muthukoya Thangal, president of Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, one of the largest organisation of Sunni Muslims in Kerala

”The initial stint of the BJY had really invigorated the rank and file of the Kerala Party. The average worker was excited and had many expectations, but it is doubtful the leadership demonstrated any such responsibility. This leadership includes me, too,” MLA PC Vishnunadh, who is a secretary of the AICC, told The Federal.

“We could have avoided some communication problems that turned us into a topic of public discussion. The higher leadership should have been more open,” he added. 

Also read: Who is Anil Antony, who rebelled against Congress over BBC Modi series?

VT Balram, Kerala Congress vice-president
VT Balram, KPCC vice-president

Meanwhile, VT Balram, KPCC vice-president, told The Federal, “The KPCC executive had discussed it and acknowledged that some unwarranted incidents had occurred. We have given strict instructions that nobody should make public statements about the Parliament elections; instead, they should be getting organisationally prepared for it.”

BBC documentary reactions in Kerala

The reaction to the controversial BBC documentary series on Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the next issue the party had to tackle. Even though the Congress unit in Kerala had screened the documentary in several parts of the state, the initial response by Tharoor and the open dissent of Anil Antony, the son of senior party leader AK Antony, and the digital media in-charge of the party, had put them on a back foot.

Tharoor’s immediate response to the BBC documentary was that the Gujarat riots were something that happened 21 years ago and the people including Muslims have already put it behind them.

“So, India has moved on from this tragedy, without in any way casting aspersions on those who believe that the full truth was not indeed revealed by the official investigations. Nonetheless, we moved on. Why should a foreign television channel open the old wounds is a fair question?” remarked Tharoor in an interview with a digital channel.

He later altered his statement clarifying that he believes the wounds of Gujarat have not fully healed. But, given that the Supreme Court has issued a final ruling, we gain little from debating this issue, when so many urgent contemporary matters need to be addressed, he added.

Also read: Let anyone tell anything, I will continue my work, says Shashi Tharoor

However, the damage was already done with Anil Antony openly tweeting in support of Modi and later quitting his positions in the party. Tharoor’s views on the Gujarat riots and Modi did not go down well not only with the minorities but also with many inside his own party.

VT Balram said, “Everyone who has a clear vision on Kerala’s political conscience has taken a firm stance on the documentary. If someone has expressed a different opinion, that’s their personal views. We cannot see the Gujarat genocide as a closed chapter. Even though he was not prosecuted by any court of law, we cannot ignore Modi’s involvement or complacency in the pogrom.”

Tharoor’s comments will not go down well with the people in Kerala, observed Shobha Menon, a labour researcher and political commentator, who is a fellow traveller of the grand old party.

Menon pointed out, “Even though Tharoor clarified his stand later, his initial response will not go down well with the voters in Kerala, especially when the LDF (Left Democratic Front, the ruling coalition) is projecting itself as a formidable and credible force against the BJP. 

“It is a known fact that the BJP still uses Gujarat for communal polarisation. Even during the latest Gujarat election, Amit Shah reminded the voters that ‘they’ (the Muslims) were taught a lesson in 2002. So, BJP hasn’t repented. None of the leaders apologised. Instead, they still show the insensitivity to deepen the wounds and use Gujarat as a political weapon to create further divisions. In this context, when a leader like Tharoor, with secular and liberal credentials, talks about ‘moving on’, it doesn’t go well with the people here.”

Left upstages Congress  

The KPCC, DCC (district congress committee) and the Youth Congress had organised screenings of the controversial BBC documentary in several places in the state but not before the Left wing youth and students organisations stole the show and upstaged them by organising mass screenings across the campuses in the state. The same thing happened during the anti-CAA/NRC protests in Kerala. The Left organisations got prominence and visibility which ultimately contributed to their election victory.

Also read: Possible for BJP to lose majority in 2024, says Cong leader Shashi Tharoor

KPCC vice-president Balram disagreed. “It is a myth that the Congress always lags behind the Left parties in organising protests against the BJP-led government. It was the Congress that organised protests all over the state against the CAA/NRC. In the BBC documentary case, the Youth Congress and DYFI started to screen the documentary first.”

However, as the majority of the university unions in Kerala are controlled by the Students Federation of India (SFI), they can amplify their efforts easily, observed Balram. “In fact, the LDF and the CPM lack sincerity in their opposition to these anti minority policies. They only have the rhetoric,” he added.

According to Menon, being a mass party with a weak organisational structure, sometimes the Congress fails to reach the masses and convey the message. On the other hand, the CPM effectively combines its ‘soft power’ (support of the intelligentsia, media, social media presence etc.,) and ‘hard power’(party cadres, direct house visits etc.,) to reach out to the masses. Because of this, CPM was able to expand its vote base among the Muslim community, said Menon.

Motives suspect

Despite the KPCC intervening and taking some proactive measures, some members of the minority community are sceptical of Tharoor’s motives.

Watch:  Shashi Tharoor speaks to The Federal on Dr Ambedkar

According to CK Abdul Aziz, a political commentator who had ties with minority and far left organisations, the Congress’s stance in Kerala against the BBC documentary is nothing but opportunistic.

“The Congress at the national level does not want to question or resist the nationalist overtures of the BJP. They won’t take up the issue of the BBC documentary on a national level, as they want a share of the Hindu votes. In Kerala, the leaders know that they have to contest with the LDF. Even if it is an anti-BJP issue, their primary fight will be with the Left here,” said Aziz.

The Congress, however, is not competing with the CPM on the anti-BJP demonstrations, Balram asserted. “We do not view the anti-BJP demonstrations as a competition with the CPM. However, we will unquestionably expose the latter’s opportunistic and callous attitude,” he said.

After the culmination of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the Congress leaders in the state will be once more on the ground, as the KPCC has announced a door-to-door campaign, followed by a series of 1,000 rallies across the state as part of its ‘Hath se hath jodo’ (‘Let’s join hands’) campaign. The ruling CPM has already completed a house-to-house campaign last month.