When crisis becomes opportunity: Kerala Congress finds political bearings after attack on Rahul’s office
On June 24, more than 100 SFI workers marched to Rahul’s office in Kalpetta, Wayanad district headquarters, and allegedly vandalized it while demanding that he intervene to ease the anxiety of residents in his constituency at the following a recent Supreme Court directive that made it mandatory for every protected forest area and wildlife sanctuary to have an Ecologically Sensitive Zone (ESZ) one kilometer from its boundaries.
While the CPI(M) was quick to lament the alleged attack on Rahul’s office, the incident not only gave Congress a stick with which to beat the ruling CPM, but also energized the leadership of the gone as they took to the streets on the issue of the buffer zone. .
After the SC verdict, the CPI(M) had organized hartals in the hill districts to protest buffer zone standards and demanded that human settlements be kept out of ecozones. As Congress was slow to get off the ground, the SFI vandalism recharged the state leadership of Congress, which turned the tables on the CPI(M), pointing to a 2019 decision by the Pinarayi Vijayan-led by the State Cabinet on the declaration of 1 km around protected forests as ESZ.
Sensing public outrage in Wayanad over the attack on the MP’s office, the Congress held a massive rally for Rahul in the Sulthan Bathery area of the district against buffer zone standards. Although the three-day visit had been planned earlier, the rally against the buffer zone was not planned until after the attack on his office.
The incident also forced the party to adopt a pro-farmer stance at a time when several independent farmer groups and religious groups were leading the protest.
Over the past decade, the Kerala Congress has often come under fire for championing pro-environment positions that are generally considered politically reckless.
During the farmers’ protest against the Kasturangan report (which wanted 123 Kerala villages in the Western Ghats to be declared fragile areas), Congress was divided on whether to support farmers who would be affected by the committee’s proposal. Opposition leader VD Satheesan, then a congressman, had often been ridiculed as part of a group of “green lawmakers”. The position taken by these lawmakers – who even raised a banner of revolt within the party against the Kasturangan report – had been blamed for alienating Congress from farmers in the hilly regions. The party’s loss in the Idukki Lok Sabha seat in 2014 was attributed to its lukewarm approach to the report. The turn of events in Wayanad after the vandalism incident, however, helped Congress put that past behind it.
The attack on Wayanad’s office came shortly after Rahul was grilled for five days by the Directorate of Law Enforcement in the National Herald case. The Congress used this opportunity to attack Vijayan, claiming that the CPI(M) had joined with the Sangh Parivar to target the Congress.
During his visit, Rahul drew a huge crowd, matched only by his campaigns for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.