Slog-over aggression is smart gamesmanship by Pinarayi & Rahul

There was provocation. A day earlier, Rahul sought to know why the BJP-led government at the Centre has spared Vijayan.
That the two leaders are going at each other in the slog overs of the election campaign in Kerala is curious.
That the two leaders are going at each other in the slog overs of the election campaign in Kerala is curious.

When provoked, Pinarayi Vijayan can be quite a handful. He is economical with words but remarkably effective, a master at hitting where it hurts. That Rahul Gandhi happened to be at the receiving end is what makes his latest campaign diatribe more than just an interesting anecdote in election stories from Kerala.

Speaking in Kozhikode on Friday, Vijayan sought to remind Rahul about the nickname that was once being used to describe him in political circles and recalled what his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, did to the opposition leaders during the Emergency.

There was provocation. A day earlier, Rahul sought to know why the BJP-led government at the Centre has spared Vijayan. “Two chief ministers are in jail. How come this is not happening to the chief minister of Kerala? This is a bit puzzling,” he said, hinting at a deal between CPM and BJP. Vijayan replied sharply and with characteristic disdain. “It was your grandmother who jailed us. We are not afraid of jails,” he said. Referring to his nickname, Vijayan said: “Rahul Gandhi, you had a name in the past. It is not good to create an impression that you have not changed from what you were called earlier.”

That the two leaders are going at each other in the slog overs of the election campaign in Kerala is curious. There’s already a paradox in that while both Congress and CPM are partners in a national alliance, the blocs led by them are the main contenders in a majority of the 20 parliamentary seats in Kerala. That also means it’s not a friendly fight that is playing out in the state, but an all-or-nothing battle involving two parties that are fighting to expand, or at least preserve, their national footprint. It’s only natural then that blows would be traded and no jibes would be spared. But, was there a need for the two leaders to engage in personal attacks? Yes, because it serves the purpose of both.

Rahul’s attack on Vijayan — which was followed by a similar assault by Priyanka Gandhi — can achieve multiple objectives for the Congress. One, it can help the party cash in on the very visible anti-Pinarayi Vijayan sentiment among the people. Two, the strong and aggressive posturing, while helping Rahul boost his image nationally, can also help stem the possible erosion of its support base.

Three, reinforcing the BJP-CPM nexus theory — though not very convincing — can help consolidate minority communities, particularly the Muslims, in UDF’s favour especially when Vijayan has persistently attempted to position himself as the sole champion of Muslims.

But this strategy has one serious drawback. Upsetting the CPM cadres could end the possibility of last-minute transfer of votes to Congress candidates in seats where BJP is also in the running. BJP’s failure to make electoral gains despite being numerically strong is partly blamed on this underhand transfer of votes that is said to have taken place in the last few elections.

For Vijayan, the hostile personal attacks allow him to exhibit his trademark strongman image, which could help his party overcome the perceived anti-government sentiments.

That he cares not much for the national-level opposition alliance has been evident, and recently he made it apparent in an interview with TNIE where he said it was not an alliance but an arrangement. His focus is on Kerala, and preserving his and party’s preeminence in the state.

With factors loaded against him, Vijayan has little space to manoeuvre in an election seen as a referendum on his government. Having won just one seat in 2019, the CPM has little to lose, and everything to gain.

Any improvement, which means anything more than one seat, is to Vijayan’s advantage. Besides, the tit-for-tat attacks have helped the two main fronts sideline the BJP from the Kerala political narrative, at least temporarily. One must agree that both Rahul and Vijayan are of better use to their parties when they are angry, than otherwise.

Kiran Prakash

Resident Editor, Kerala

kiranprakash@newindianexpress.com

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