Though the second Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government assumed office in Kerala this week, the Opposition coalition, Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is yet to finalise its Legislative Party (CLP) leader.
The uncertainty in deciding on an opposition leader three weeks after the announcement of results has come as a major embarrassment for the Congress, which suffered a massive debacle in the recent Assembly elections.
The delay is attributed to the factional fight between the A and I groups of the party. The job has now been entrusted to the party high command to choose between the main contenders— incumbent Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and Congress Vice president V D Satheesan, who is a five-time legislator.
The central leadership is expected to announce the Opposition leader this week as the new Assembly is slated to hold its first session on May 24 and 25.
Congress may become irrelevant as an Opposition party if it fails to do a course correction, say observers and party insiders.
The high command's decision on the new leader will be largely based on a report submitted by Mallikarjun Kharge, Congress leader in the Rajya Sabha, and AICC general secretary M. A. Vaidyalingam. Both of them had held meetings with all the 21 newly elected Congress MLAs individually and sought their opinion on the matter. Both Chennithala and Satheeshan camps claim that they have the backing of a majority of MLAs.
While Ramesh Chennithala wants to retain his position, the young brigade in the party apparently wants a change of guard. Sources said that majority of the young members are in favour of selecting 56-year-old V D Satheesan while Chennithala has the support of former chief minister and veteran leader Oommen Chandy. Interestingly, Oommen Chandy is the leader of the A group faction while Chennithala leads the rival I group. Satheesan too belongs to the party’s I group.
“The dismal performance of the Congress in the Assembly election is symptomatic of the rot in the leadership. Congress will implode if it doesn’t attempt leadership change. We need young leaders at the helm,” said a Congress leader who supports Satheesan for the role. Names of A group leaders Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and P T Thomas are also doing the rounds. It is learned that the rift in the state unit has put the central leadership also in a tight spot.
Sources said that while the high command also favours a generational shift, Ramesh Chennithala has the strong backing of some of the senior party leaders including P Chidambaram. Chennithala’s supporters argue that he succeeded in turning the heat on the previous LDF government by exposing many scams and corruption charges against it. Meanwhile, the clamour for a total revamp of the party is also getting louder in the wake of its drubbing in the polls.
On Friday, senior leader and former KPCC president K Muraleedhran attacked the state leadership and called for restructuring of the party. He said that it is important to bring generational shift and the party will be doomed if leaders fail to work beyond group politics. Muraleedharan’s views were echoed by many senior leaders including Raj Mohan Unnithan, who warned of serious consequences for the party.
Knives were out in the open after the UDF was reduced to 41 seats from its previous tally of 47 seats, in the 140 seat Assembly. The internal bickering among multiple groups has also intensified after the polls as leaders have been trying to shift the blame on each other for the poor performance.
Congress is at a crucial juncture and it needs to get its act together to counter the Communist party, which has emerged as a strong force after its emphatic poll victory, say observers.
A fact-finding report by AICC general secretary and Kerala in-charge Tariq Anwar has also attributed infighting among the leadership as the main reason for the defeat of the Congress in the state. Another Congress leader said that the central leadership is mulling total restructuring of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) and a panel headed by Ashok Chavan has been entrusted with the task. A section of party members has demanded the removal of Mullappally Ramachandran as KPCC president.