In one fell swoop on Sunday Rahul Gandhi announced the decision to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Kerala. The decision had been taken exactly a week earlier, but the CPI-M-led Left Front in Kerala had fought tooth and nail against the idea. However, the inevitable was confirmed a week after Congress leaders said Rahul would contest from Wayanad in North Kerala.
Sunday's decision rankled CPI-M nerves. Overnight, Rahul Gandhi became a villain for the Left, and a full-on attack against the Congress chief was unleashed in no time. The mighty cyber wing of the Communist party led from the front, while the party mouthpiece, Deshabhimani newspaper, dusted up the 'Pappu' barb against Rahul.
Why did the Left shed the dovish stance on Rahul all of a sudden? The Kerala Left, even as it is locked in a frontal fight against the Congress in the state, had handled Rahul with kid gloves until now. It had veered around to accepting Rahul as the neophyte anti-Modi crusader. All this changed on Sunday. Anger, sarcasm, venom and vitriol poured out soon.
All of a sudden the Left Front leaders in Kerala realised that Rahul Gandhi was running with the hare and hunting with the hound. What irked them most is that, In this case, the hound is Mamata Banerjee, who decimated CPI-M in its erstwhile bastion of West Bengal.
The Bengal factor
A look at the chronology of events during those tense seven days would offer clues. It was during the last week that the much-touted electoral understanding between the Congress and the CPI-M in West Bengal fell through. An electoral understanding between the Left and the Congress looked like a foregone conclusion a week ago. The left truly believed the alliance with the Congress would help them retain the two Lok Sabha seats they won in 2014, and probably add a few more. They didn't see a reason why the Congress would throw away that offer.
The Congress and the CPI-M, the pariah undergoes, had lots to benefit from an understanding; at least a hopeless four-way fight could become a three-way fight. But Congress spurned the offer at the last minute and decided to go it alone. This decision was taken in Kolkata at a time when the CPI-M leadership in Kerala pulled out all stops in thwarting Rahul Gandhi's plan to contest from Wayanad in Kerala. Opposition big shots like Sharad Pawar and Sharad Yadav were pressuring Rahul into walking away from Wayanad. Even inside the Congress party, Rahul faced enormous pressure to back off.
The late snub
The CPI-M's academically justified argument was that Rahul shouldn't give a wrong message about the fundamental nature of this Lok Sabha election. The Left reasoned that the fight is against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. Rahul is the pan-Indian face of the anti-Modi movement. Therefore it didn't make sense for him to contest in Kerala, where the BJP is the weakling. The Left urged Rahul to stay away from Kerala for the sake of opposition unity.
Finally, Rahul's decision to snub the Left came on the day when the CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury arrived in Kerala for the election campaign. Why did Rahul make the most unkindest cut of all?
The Congress must have realised that elections and altruism don't sit together well. It would be a stretch to say the Congress has got into a pact with Mamata, but it cannot be ruled out entirely. Mamata is poised to win a lion's share of seats in West Bengal while the Left's tally in this elections across India is guaranteed not to cross single digits. Post-election coalitions are hard to predict, but what if Mamata offered the Congress outside support? Or what if Congress, among others, supported Mamata to form a government at the centre? If either were to happen, the Left would be clear losers. They would have no role to play and no grand theories to proffer. Obviously that's a meatier proposition for Mamata. She's already seeing rising numbers at CPI-M rallies in West Bengal. She wouldn't want to see them closer in the rear view mirror.
What would the Congress gain in Kerala with Rahul's candidacy in Wayanad? The clue lies in the anger with which the CPI-M leadership responded to Rahul's decision. The Congress thinks that Rahul's entry will galvanise the cadres and help them win a vast majority of the 20 Lok Sabha seats -- if not all of them -- in the state. That's a huge gamble, though.
If the Congress-led alliance doesn't win at least 16 seats in Kerala, Rahul would clearly lose face. If the alliance wins that many, or more, and if the BJP comes grabs the second spot in a handful of constituencies, the Left would be in serious trouble. Their claim as the real anti-BJP political force in the state would lie in tatters. A BJP win in Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta would exasperate the situation for the Left. They wouldn't want to be in a situation where in their LS tally from Kerala -- their last bastion -- compares evenly with the BJP's.
It's not sure if that bad a fallout for them would happen. But the Left clearly has serious apprehensions. That's clear from their angry, panicked reaction. If such a scenario happens, it would be a complete backlash for the Left. Just a months ago, the Left in Kerala plotted the liquidation of the Congress in the state. The Sabarimala issue was used by the Pinarayi Vijayan government to cleave the Kerala society right into two equal halves - one for the left and the other for the BJP. There was no future for the Congress, it looked like. Or so the Left strategists thought.
Now, Rahul's entry is threatening to make the Kerala contest a Congress-BJP fight. Moreover, the changed dynamics leaves the Left in a bind. Each time they shoot at Rahul the recoil hurts them. If their primary foe, as per the postulations, is BJP, then why should they viciously attack Rahul? They know this full well but can't do anything else.
(The author is Managing Editor, International Business Times, India. Views are personal)