NEW DELHI: With the election campaign in full swing in India, the opposition Congress party’s president Rahul Gandhi filed his nomination papers from the Wayanad constituency of the southern Indian state of Kerala on Thursday.
This is for the first time in his 15-year political career that Gandhi has chosen to contest from a seat in south India besides running from his traditional stronghold in Amethi in the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.
“I want to send a message that India is one,” said Gandhi.
“The way Narendra Modi is working there has been a feeling among people across India that there was an attack on the culture, history, language of south India, and by coming here I want to give a message that I stand for the unity of India,” the Congress president to the media after filing his nomination.
Wayanad falls on the junction of three important South Indian states — Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala — and the victory in these states, where Congress has strong presence, is crucial for the party’s political prospects in New Delhi.
Political analysts say that since the grand old party is weak in some of the crucial states in North India, it wants to consolidate its presence in most of the 134 parliamentary constituencies in the the five South Indian states.
However, Gandhi’s foray into Wayanad has drawn sharp reaction from both political foes and friends.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main political rival of the Congress party, says that Gandhi has escaped to the south from Amethi fearing his loss and “it is an insult to Amethi.”
“This is a big sign that a person who has enjoyed power piggybacking on Amethi for 15 years has left Amethi and is filing his nomination today from some other place. Amethi will never forget the insult and betrayal,” said Smriti Irani, a senior cabinet minister in the BJP ministry in Delhi.
Parties on the left, who are Congress’ political partners, also criticized Gandhi’s decision to choose Wayanad as a second constituency.
“It goes against Congress’ national commitment to fight the BJP,” says Left leader Prakash Karat.
He said that Kerala is under Left Democratic Front (LDF) government and the BJP is not a force to be reckoned with in the state, so by choosing Wayanad “the Congress is targeting the Left.”
Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, has been Gandhi’s traditional pocket borough with the Congress president representing the seat since 2004. Before that his father, the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, also represented the seat. This is the first time Gandhi is fighting from two constituencies.
Bangalore based political analyst Aarthi Ramachandran said that it’s politically “bad move” to choose a second constituency.
“What the move does is to build in a layer of separation between Rahul and the politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh,” says Ramachandran, who has also written a biography of Rahul Gandhi, called Decoding Rahul Gandhi.
In the meanwhile, the BJP is also doing its best to capture the imagination of the people.
The launch of NaMo TV (Narendra Modi TV) a few days ago has taken the electoral battle to a new level. It exclusively features Modi’s speeches and the BJP’s achievements and propaganda.
The sudden appearance of the NaMo TV on the screen across India has taken the BJP political rivals by surprise.
They have complained to the Election Commission of India (ECI) for violating the electoral code of conduct. The ECI has sought an explanation from the BJP. The BJP, however, defends it saying it’s run by some followers of the party.
The party has also launched merchandise bearing the name of Prime Minister Modi.
Special mobile vans have been set up to sell Modi jackets, keychains, coffee mugs, wristbands, notebooks and other items.
“Modi is not a name but a big brand in India,” says Nirala, a BJP functionary.
“People want to have the merchandise in his name. The party van has been specially created to capture the imagination of the people, especially younger generation.”
Political analyst Pawan Pratay, who is based in the eastern Indian city of Patna, said that “the BJP is good at marketing itself and it does not want to leave any stone unturned to win the election.”
“But the problem is that in 2014 Modi was an untested brand and his appeal was wide. This time there are people who would not be swayed away by his appeal as happened last time,” he said.