New Delhi: On Wednesday, Congress leader P.C. Chacko quit the party alleging “groupism” in the Kerala unit. Chacko said there was no Congress in the state — only Congress (I) and Congress (A).
While party members aren’t particularly troubled by Chacko’s resignation, terming him a leader “without any grassroots following”, they do acknowledge that he is right when he complains about the rampant divisions in the party.
“It is indisputable that the Congress in Kerala is essentially just these two groups put together — who belongs to which camp inevitably becomes a consideration in handing out posts, tickets, and other things,” a Kerala Congress leader said.
Chacko, in his statement, had said that the allocation of tickets was based on these divided camps, and accused the central leadership of failing to do a good job at uniting the party.
Kerala votes in a single phase on 6 April.
In 2019, another Kerala Congress leader, seen as being close to the party high command Tom Vadakkan, had quit the party citing ideological differences, and immediately after joined the BJP.
Speaking to ThePrint, Vadakkan said he agrees with Chacko’s sentiment of groupism in the Kerala Congress but is surprised that he has spoken about it after all this time.
“Yes, groupism is a reality of the Congress in Kerala. But was he blind for so many years?” Vadakkan asked. “How has he suddenly come alive to it? The fact is that he was in Delhi for so long, and on coming back to Kerala realised his acceptability has gone down.”
While the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is yet to announce its candidate list, Chacko’s resignation and allegations have set all eyes on how the list will be divided between the two camps.
Origin and history of Congress (I) and Congress (A)
Congress (I) where the ‘I’ stands for Indira Gandhi, was a camp that emerged in 1978 — the name signifying its members’ closeness and allegiance to the former prime minister.
The camp, then led by former chief minister K. Karunakaran, was at that time a faction formed amid a growing pushback against Indira Gandhi following the Emergency.
This group later went on to include Ramesh Chennithala, K. Sudhakaran, V.D. Satheesan, and Karunakaran’s son K. Muraleedharan.
Sections that weren’t entirely comfortable with the coterie, had in 1979 formed the Congress (Urs) faction led by former Karnataka CM Devaraj Urs. It was opposed to Indira Gandhi.
Former defence minister A.K. Antony was one of the most prominent leaders who was a part of this faction from Kerala. But in 1980, he split from the Congress (Urs) and formed a faction of his own — the Congress (A).
This group had back then relatively younger leaders as its members, and positioned itself as being “committed to the Congress ideology”, more than all else. Its prominent members included another former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy and M.M Hasan, among others.
“In the Congress, it is very difficult to grow if you aren’t a member of some camp. So everyone tries to be a part of a coterie in order to rise up the ladder,” the Kerala Congress leader quoted above said.
Both camps had once left Congress & joined hands with LDF
None of these leaders, however, have ever explicitly associated themselves with a group. They always maintained they were only Congress members, and nothing else.
The rift, though, is obvious and often deliberate calculations would seem to be made to keep both camps happy.
For instance, if a Congress (A) leader would become the Kerala CM, then often it would be a Congress (I) leader who would be made the Kerala Congress Committee president.
Case in point: When Antony was the Kerala CM from 2001 to 2004, the KPCC chief was K. Muraleedharan. When Oommen Chandy became Kerala CM between 2011 and 2016, Ramesh Chennithala served as the KPCC chief for a major portion of his tenure.
Both camps have claimed to fight for the party’s interests but have at different points in time quit the Congress and floated separate outfits of their own in the past, and aligned with the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
While Congress (I) was always an unofficial name given to the Karunakaran camp, the Congress (A) went on to become a separate party, thus acquiring a more formal connotation.
Antony split from the Congress (Urs) in 1980, formed Congress (A) and joined the LDF government under E.K. Nayanar. However, after the fall of the government in 1982, the Congress (A) outfit went back to the original Congress.
A few decades later, Karunakaran quit the Congress in 2005, following a rift with the party high command, and floated the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran). The party allied with the LDF for the local body polls, but returned soon after when the LDF didn’t consider it for the assembly polls.
While Karunakaran tried to take important members of his camp with him to the LDF, many members, including Chennithala, stayed back. Since then, party members and analysts say there have been musical chairs of sorts between the various camps.
“While no one really jumps from Congress (I) to Congress (A) or vice-versa, they do try and become neutral after a while and equidistant from both groups,” a second Congress leader said.
As of now, party members say that it’s Congress (A) which has developed an edge over the Congress (I), as it has contributed more chief ministers to the state.
And while Karunakaran — who was a four-time CM and a Union Minister — passed away in 2010, Antony has eventually limited his role in Kerala politics after becoming the Union defence minister in 2005.
Antony’s hold on the Kerala Congress has, however, continued despite him losing ground among the masses. Leaders say this is because of his closeness to Sonia Gandhi and the high command.
“He is primarily a Delhi leader today. He has been able to cultivate an understanding with the Gandhi family over the years, and they trust him blindly,” a third Kerala Congress leader said. “So if anything related to the economy is handed over to Manmohan Singh, similarly anything related to Kerala politics, Antony is made the final arbiter.”
It’s Chandy vs Chennithala today
As of today, these two camps are being led by Chandy and Chennithala.
“Chacko is inconsequential, but he is absolutely right when he raises issues of groupism,” said J. Prabhash, a political analyst based out of Kerala. “Today, you cannot find a Congress leader in Kerala Congress, you can only find a Congress (I) and a Congress (A) leader.
“If a person doesn’t belong to either of these groups, he or she can only exist as a marginal entity,” Prabhash added.
The third Congress leader quoted above echoed the sentiment and added that the only leader who has been able to make it despite being part of neither camp is Shashi Tharoor. “That’s because he has the hand of Delhi leadership over his head,” the leader said.
In 2013, the acrimony between the two camps peaked, with Chennithala upset over not being inducted into then CM Chandy’s cabinet. The situation became so bad that Antony had to step in and play mediator.
Matters only diffused when Chandy agreed to include Chennithala in his cabinet and handed him the crucial home portfolio.
“That made things significantly better, and the ‘I’ camp felt like it was being respected again,” the second leader quoted above said.
However, ahead of these state assembly elections, things again seemed to get uncomfortable when questions of who the CM candidate for the Congress emerged.
“There is this sense that since the last many years CM-ship has gone to the ‘A’ camp, it would be expected to have a member of the ‘I’ camp — in all probability Chennithala be made the CM if the UDF wins,” a fourth leader said.
Chennithala reportedly denied the possibility of a shared CM-ship to local media.
The Congress high command had in January said both Chennithala and Chandy will be leading the election campaign in the state — presumably to boost the egos of both the camps. However, the party has refrained from announcing a CM candidate, fearful that it might end up alienating the opposite camp.