Bengaluru: Rahul Gandhi, the Congress president and face of the party across the country, embarked on a three-day tour of Kerala’s Wayanad on Friday. This is his first visit to his constituency as its Member of Parliament (MP).
Gandhi’s contest from the hill station, a tourist hotspot in southern India, gave the Congress a major leg-up in the region, fuelling the party’s historic victory in the state. Although the Congress faced a setback across most of the country, it swept 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala.
But what are Gandhi’s plans for Wayanad, because what he does here may determine his political career, not to say the party’s fate.
The constituency is now clearly more than a safe second seat for Gandhi, after losing his family’s pocket bourough Amethi to Bharatiya Janata Party’s Smriti Irani in the recently concluded general elections. Wayanad is where the Congress leader has to now prove his mettle as an elected representative to retain the seat. Kerala’s voters have a history of judging their elected representatives harshly based on performance, no matter how high-profile is the leader.
Fortunately for Gandhi, Wayanad has many issues waiting to be tackled; it is one of the most backward districts of Kerala with the lowest per capita income, lowest literacy rate, and lowest sex ratio in the state, apart from poor infrastructure and medical facilities. The relative progressiveness of other districts in Kerala, a state that tops the country’s development indicators, takes a back seat in Wayanad.
When compared with its neighbor, the Malabar region appears to be miles ahead. Back in 1956 when Kerala was formed, Malabar lagged substantially behind the state’s other two regions, Travancore and Cochin. But today, with appropriate state intervention and a windfall in remittances from migrants leaving for West Asia through its airport every year, things have changed significantly.
Wayanad, on the other hand, is home to the largest concentration of tribals in Kerala, at 18.55%. Their houses are crude, made of clay and wild cane. This is also the least populated district in Kerala with poor education and medical infrastructure. Some pockets in the district still do not have piped water or electricity.
It is, however, still better off than Amethi in many ways. To give an example, Wayanad’s sex ratio is 1,035 females per 1,000 males and the literacy rate is 89.32%. Amethi has a sex ratio of 965 females for every 1,000 males, and has a literacy rate of 60%.
“I travelled through Amethi during the elections. Even Wayanad's tribal villages are far ahead of farmer pockets in Amethi," said writer O. K. Johny, the unofficial chronicler of Wayanad and author of a seminal collection of essays on Wayanad’s past and present, called ‘Wayanad Rekhakal (Wayanad Notes). “But tribals are facing pressing issues here. Their poverty, homelessness, the educated among them not getting any jobs — these should be the first priority for Gandhi."
“Historically, primitive tribes in Wayanad did not receive justice because nobody spoke up for them. Reservation for tribes usually benefits two forward castes among the tribals — Kurumbar and Kurichyar. Primitive tribes are in need of separate reservation and projects because they are not able to compete with the others. Gandhi can perhaps push a bill in Parliament to this effect. He can also pressurise the state government," said Johny.
KA Shaji, a senior journalist and writer who hails from Wayanad, thinks Gandhi should urgently focus on two of the district’s most pressing issues: agrarian distress and environmental deterioration.
“The agrarian distress has peaked of late. Production of cash crops and agricultural crops has witnessed a steep fall and we are seeing a return of farmer suicides that rocked Wayanad in the previous decade. Many of them are linked to the banks invoking loan foreclosure law (Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Security Interest Act, a debt resolution tool for bankers to collect unpaid loan dues). It needs intervention from a national leader," said Shaji.
“Rahul also needs to have an environmental agenda for Wayanad, to return the balance between tourism and ecology. It has the biggest tribal population in a district, and the majority of them do not own their land. I am waiting to see Rahul to do something about these issues too," he said.