Election time is dream time for young politicians looking for a chance to contest on a party ticket. It is their reward for years of devotion and loyalty shown to the party. It is no different for the Congress’ youth and women leaders of Kerala. Both are looking for a call from the party to represent it in the Lok Sabha polls and both hope that Rahul Gandhi would put in a favourable word for them.
“There will be good representation of women and youth leaders in finalising the candidates from the Congress in Kerala as the next election is crucial for us,” says Hibi Eden, former NSUI president and now an MLA. “I hope that more youth and women leaders will get a chance this time.” The 30-year-old Hibi got his chance to contest the election when he was just 26 and was elected to the Kerala Assembly on a Congress ticket. His father was also a Congress legislator and a Lok Sabha MP.
Hibi was lucky to get a party ticket at a young age. Others, not quite so. Many of them are waiting in the wings for a nod from the party bosses. But, with only 20 parliamentary constituencies, Kerala may not be able to fit in many new faces. “There is a high demand and very few seats,” says a senior party member. “The Congress will be contesting in only 17 seats. We have 13 sitting MPs. To fit in so many new faces, we will have to deny tickets to many of them.” He says such a drastic step could derail the party’s chances of winning in the state.
But, Bindu Krishna, state president of the Kerala Women’s Congress, is not buying the senior leader’s argument. “It’s a ploy to maintain status quo that will not help the party in the long run,” says Bindu. “We have demanded five seats for women leaders from the state. I hope that we will get our due.”
Bindu is now on a pre-poll campaign trail around the state, making all attempts to activate women party cadres before the General Election in April-May. “I’m sorry to say that not many Congressmen are keen on promoting women and youth leaders,” she adds. “They want to contest in all elections. That mindset has to change.” She firmly believes that in these changing times, with an anti-Congress wave, it is only the youth that can save the day for the party. “This election is crucial for the party and every seat is important,” she says. “It can do well only if it introduces new faces.”
Interestingly, Bindu is herself not interested in contesting the 2014 polls. A resident of Kollam, she feels the communal equations are not in her favour. As an Ezhava Hindu, she doesn’t fancy her chances. But, she says, in a state where women outnumber men, “we should have fair representation”.
History might not be on Bindu’s side though. Women have never been offered fair representation in elections in Kerala. In 2009, the Congress had only one woman candidate from Kasargod, where Shahida Kamal lost to CPM leader P Karunakaran. In 2011, Bindu had herself contested the Assembly seat of Chathannur, but had lost out to her CPM rival.
“In Kerala, the Congress fields women candidates only where there are no chances of winning,” she says bitterly. “This time, we are not sinking our teeth into such arguments.” That could also explain why Bindu has not opted to fight the Lok Sabha polls this time.
On the other hand, youth Congress leaders too feel shortchanged and are being vocal about not getting their due. However, many are loathe to come out publicly with their grievances, as they feel their future prospects could be jeopardised. “I have a good chance of winning and want to contest the polls,” says a Youth Congress leader, expressed his dismay. “But I don’t have the backing of either Chief Minister Oommen Chandy or Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala. So I have to wait my turn in the gallery.” He feels salvation could only be had with the interference of Rahul Gandhi.
During the 2011 Assembly polls, Rahul had said that more youth leaders should be accommodated in the Congress’ list of candidates. He even handpicked seven leaders to contest the election and five of them won. Despite that — as if lending credence to the allegation that seniors are conspiring to keep the youth out — Congress leaders, irrespective of factions, joined together to derail Rahul’s plan.
“Rahul Gandhi wants to build a secondary leadership in the state,” says Matthew Kuzhalnadan, national secretary, Youth Congress, “but senior leaders do not like his idea. That’s the biggest stumbling block in the party.” Mathew, 36, a PhD holder from JNU in international trade, has been working in the Congress in various capacities from his student days and is yet to get a party ticket to contest an election.
“Look at the current leadership in Kerala,” says Matthew. “All the leaders have come up during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these 40 years, only half a dozen leaders got a chance to contest elections. Others are still waiting in the wings or have been dumped in political wilderness. This situation is going to harm the party’s future.”
M Liju, former state president of the Youth Congress, also joins the chorus of disgruntled youth leaders, who feel that there may not be a deviation in the party’s affairs. “We need vibrant faces to fight elections,” he says. “But we are fielding only old faces, who have contested more than a dozen elections. It gives an indication that the youth have no future in the Congress. That’s not the right message. In fact, Rahul Gandhi wanted to project maximum number of women and youth leaders in the party leadership.”
Liju credits late leader K Karunakaran for giving maximum opportunities to the party’s youth and women. “After him, nobody bothered to nurture young leaders in Kerala,” he laments. “It created a vacuum in the leadership and the party is paying for it.”
But, while these young men and women voice their dissent at the seniors killing their opportunities, senior leaders feel the youth are power crazy and impatient. “We have become MLAs and MPs after working a long time for the party,” says a senior Congress leader. “But the new generation wants instant gratification. That kind of attitude will not do any good.” The ‘new generation’, however, dismiss that as a lame excuse to eliminate them from the fray.
“Look at the current leadership in the state,” says a youth leader. “We don’t have a credible Dalit leader to contest in the reserved seats. The party has been fielding Union Minister Kodikunnil Suresh since 1989 in a reserved constituency. We never gave any thought to his replacement.”
Despite that, most youth leaders know that there are slim chances of them getting a representation this time also, as the Congress is likely to field sitting MPs and old leaders who can win with their community’s support. However, they are refusing to take things lying down and are resisting the effort to silence their voices. The effect can be seen in almost all constituencies. The youth and the women want to be heard and they want justice to be done when the final list of candidates is prepared for the General Election.