In Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad, the only question is turnout on voting day

While opponents criticise Gandhi's sporadic presence, locals appreciate his national advocacy of their issues

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign road show for the Lok Sabha polls, in Wayanad, Kerala,15 April (photo: PTI)
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during an election campaign road show for the Lok Sabha polls, in Wayanad, Kerala,15 April (photo: PTI)

Ashlin Mathew

Despite the punishing heat, there are people waiting all along the route that Rahul Gandhi traversed while campaigning in Wayanad.

Most of them have travelled at least ten kilometres to catch a glimpse of their favourite MP. In this Lok Sabha constituency, the election result is a foregone conclusion. The question, currently, is only around the precise turnout on voting day.

In a constituency that falls across three districts — Wayanad, Kozhikode and Malapuram — it is difficult to cover even smaller distances, given the hilly topography. It sits where the Western Ghats begin, at the three-way junction of Karnataka’s Mysore and the Nilgiris in Tamil Nadu.

A constituency that sees extreme human–animal conflict, it is a region where farmers' issues remain in focus and where safe night travel through the forest is one of the locals' main demands of the administration.

Gandhi became Wayanad’s MP for the first time in 2019, and at that time as well, the conversations were about his winning margin, not whether he would. That margin ended up being 4.23 lakh.

This time, that question is up in the air. He is contesting against the Communist Party of India’s (CPI) Annie Raja and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s K. Surendran.

While both his opponents have attempted to highlight Gandhi’s irregular presence in the constituency, the voters are more forgiving. And neither Raja, nor Surendran are from the constituency either.

While his opponents argue that Gandhi did not do much for the constituency, these accusations do not stick either. Gandhi has asked 27 questions during his term as Lok Sabha MP on behalf of Wayanad alone, of the 99 questions he had submitted.

Until Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from Parliament, there may have been some disgruntlement about Gandhi not having stayed in the constituency for long enough. However, now that doesn’t seem to be the focus.

“With Rahul Gandhi as our MP, some of our issues get talked about nationally,” said Neetu, who had come with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to be part of the road show. A homemaker and the wife of a farmer, she believes Gandhi’s speech in Wayanad’s Pulpally on waiving farmers' loans took up an extremely important issue.

Both Fathuma and Kalyani, who were waiting at Pulpally too, said it was important to ensure Gandhi won from Wayanad and Congress won in Kerala. “We have to send him with maximum seats to Lok Sabha. Let us hope other states do their bit for the country,” added Kalyani. “Only then can we live in peace,” said a reflective Fathuma.

The state government’s apathy towards the people in the district too has worked in Gandhi’s favour. “What has the state LDF government done for us?” asked Janeesh, a taxi-driver, emphatically.

He added Gandhi came through in February, even during his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, when there were mass protests in the district over the deaths of three people in wild animal attacks.

Gandhi personally visited the affected families in their homes and listened to their complaints about the state government’s failure to protect the local human population from wildlife attacks. During his visit, he also urged the state government to quickly disburse the aid that was due.

The local citizens believe the forest department has been ineffectual and there aren’t enough medical facilities in the district to handle the injuries from the conflict. The state forest minister did not even show up then, says Janeesh, comparing the two implicitly. Yes, forests and wildlife minister A.K. Saseendran did visit eventually—well after Gandhi's visit, and with hardly anything new to propose.

There are three main issues in this district, reiterated Janeesh:

We want the human–animal conflict to be addressed, we want night travel through the forest and we want a medical college
Janeesh, a Wayanad resident

The Karnataka High Court, to reduce wildlife deaths, imposed a night travel ban on the forest highway through Bandipur Tiger Reserve, linking Kerala and Karnataka, in 2009. Kerala has since moved the Supreme Court challenging the order.

The night travel ban affects local farmers, as the alternate route is not just 45 km longer, but unsuitable for transporting their produce — pepper, ginger, arecanut and tea — immediately after harvest. It has caused huge losses for the farmers, therefore.

“Rahul Gandhi has always supported the farmers. He came for our hunger strike protest in 2019 too,” says Pradeesh, who was waiting in front of a hardware store in Mananthavady to catch a glimpse of Gandhi during his road show.

But that is not all. “Even staunch LDF supporters are now on the back foot here,” says Rashid, who runs a bakery near Century junction in Mananthavady. To support his claim, he asked everyone to check the LDF and CPI rallies. “Other than their core voters, everyone else is upset and it will be seen on voting day.”

The state government spent money they did not have for the chief minister’s Kerala rally. Why? Salaries are pending, pension has not been disbursed
Rashid in Mananthavady

However, Rashid is not sure whether Gandhi’s vote margin will increase. “That remains to be seen.”

The people in the district have not forgotten the death of the 20-year-old student J.S. Siddharth, who was found dead at Kerala Veterinary University in Wayanad on February 18. “At least 18 students were arrested and they are from CPI(M). The SFI activists ragged a young man to death and the LDF wants to win this district,” taunts Mani, who had come with his eight-year-old son to Gandhi’s rally in Mananthavady.

While many believe Gandhi’s margin will decrease this time, there are a few others who believe it will increase. Mani concedes that Gandhi’s margin may not cross 4.23 lakh this time, but adds “that will be a shame”.

“We will work harder to bring people out to vote. We will show our love for Gandhi, our son,” said a 70-year-old Annakutty, who was sitting outside the newly constructed Immaculate Conception Latin Catholic church in Mananthavady. Rahul Gandhi had visited the church and met the bishop on Monday, 15 April, just ahead of its consecration ceremony.

Annakutty was heard exhorting her friend Mary Jose to ensure her relatives also turn up to vote. “We have to increase the margin,” agreed Mary Jose.

And this seems to be the common refrain across the constituency.

Kerala goes to the polls all in one phase—the second one, on 26 April.

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