A motorcade drove into the nondescript Paravayal Tribal Colony near Kalpetta in Kerala’s Wayanad on 13 February.
It brought Rahul Gandhi, then the region’s MP, to the grieving family of S Viswanathan, who was found dead, hanging by the neck from a tree on the Kozhikode Medical College Hospital premises two days before.
The family was in deep despair when Gandhi visited them. They had lodged a complaint saying Vishwanathan was lynched.
A group of hospital staff, including security guards, had roughed up the man on 9 February, accusing him of theft. The 40-year-old man’s wife was then in the hospital for delivery.
Gandhi’s visit was his first to the constituency after the conclusion of his 4,080-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra at Srinagar’s Lal Chowk on 29 January.
Sense of disbelief
There was disbelief at first for S Gopi and his family belonging to the bonded-labour community Paniya, when they heard of Gandhi’s disqualification from the Lok Sabha on Friday, 24 March.
“He was the only state- or national-level leader, who visited us after my brother Vishwanathan’s death and consoled us. He spent much time with us and spoke to us through translators. The investigation in the case has reached nowhere, but we greatly value his intervention,” Gopi said.
Gandhi had then given the family a patient hearing and promised his intervention.
Gopi had come to terms with reality when South First contacted him on Saturday, 25 March.
“How can we forget his compassion and willingness to stand by a tribal family that was denied justice,” the man said.
The MP’s visit was a huge relief for Bindu, who was under trauma after the unexpected death of her husband Vishwanathan, he added.
The politician had then also visited the family of Thomas alias Salu. The 52-year-old farmer was mauled to death by a tiger at Thoranadu in Wayanad’s Puthussery area in January.
Thomas was the sixth person to fall prey to Wayanad’s tigers in eight years.
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Gandhi and political equations
Not many were not happy when Gandhi chose Wayanad as his second constituency in 2019. They felt the move would disrupt the larger Congress-Left political equations at the national level and weaken the Opposition unity against the ruling BJP.
In Wayanad, the BJP has been almost non-existent, and the electoral battle was between Gandhi and CPI’s PP Suneer.
Despite the Gandhi scion defeating Suneer by a margin of 4,31,770, the CPI has been lenient towards the Congress, unlike the CPI(M).
CPI leaders attended the concluding function of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, though the Congress had accorded a warm welcome to the Left party’s young firebrand leader, Kanhaiya Kumar, in September 2021.
Gandhi’s presence in Wayanad also helped the Congress-led UDF to win 19 of Kerala’s 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019. Alappuzha was the only seat the UDF lost.
Even three days before the Lok Sabha secretariat disqualified him and listed Wayanad as vacant along with Jalandhar and Lakshadeep, Gandhi was among the voters in the constituency.
The latest visit was amidst hectic political activities in neighbouring, poll-bound Karnataka, where he urged his party leaders to take on the BJP unitedly.
He visited the family of VV Shareef, an auto-rickshaw driver, killed in a road accident on 25 February. Shareef grabbed headlines when Gandhi hired his three-wheeler to travel around the constituency on 4 April, 2021.
Related: Gujarat court sentences Rahul Gandhi to 2 years imprisonment
New identity for Wayanad
Malayalam short-story writer Arshad Bathery has ideological differences with Gandhi and the party he represents. Still, he felt that the disqualified MP gave the hilly, backward district a new identity and respect all over the world.
“The world outside came to know of Wayanad through him. He performed remarkably as an MP. We may have political differences, but he is our leader,” he told South First.
The constituency is spread over Wayanad and Malappuram districts, and Thiruvambady in Kozhikode.
P Gagarin was still angry over the BJP challenging the basic ethos of democracy when South First contacted him.
“I don’t consider him a well-performing MP. I have differences with his style of functioning and politics. But we all stand with him in the face of this fascist onslaught on democracy,” Gagarin, the district secretary of the CPI(M) in Wayanad said.
Gagarin was the first among the Left leaders in Kerala to justify a few SFI activists, who vandalised the MP’s office in Wayanad on 24 June last year. The attack grabbed national attention, forcing the ruling CPI(M) on the backfoot.
The SFI had then accused Gandhi of inaction after the Supreme Court directed the state to establish Eco-Sensitive Zones — or buffer zones — around all reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and national parks in the country.
The local MP had no role in the matter as it involved the state and the Centre, though Wayanad would be one of the most-affected districts in Kerala by the ESZ.
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Murder of democracy: Rival candidate
Suneer buried political differences with Gandhi when South First contacted him. The CPI leader, who lost to Gandhi, said he always considered him a towering leader with a genuine concern for the people.
“I fought an election against him and lost. But that won’t prevent me from raising concerns over the current developments, which can be termed the murder of democracy,” he said.
“The Opposition must collectively take up the challenge,” Suneer added.
LDF insiders felt that the latest development augmented the Congress leader’s popularity in Kerala, which would give the UDF an edge in the Lok Sabha polls, and 2019 would repeat itself.
The UDF might sweep Kerala since people prefer a better alternative at the national level, they opined.
“People organised spontaneous protests on 24 March across the constituency and the anger against the Modi government is palpable. People know who Rahul is and his concern for Wayanad,” PK Basheer, the IUML MLA representing Eranad, part of Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, told South First.
“We are with Rahul. Wayanad is a UDF citadel, with Muslim, Christian, Dalit, and tribal votes deciding the political fortunes. Fighting the next election or not is just technical. Rahul will be our face at the national level,” he added.
Related: Congress protests across India after Rahul Gandhi disqualified
Wayanad recalls Gandhi’s contributions
Across the constituency, people recalled Gandhi’s contributions during the second consecutive flood in 2019. He ensured relief and rehabilitation for over 18,000 flood-hit families, besides coordinating with different agencies.
He also raised funds to provide relief packages and cleaning kits to thousands of families.
In Parliament, he raised several key issues concerning Wayanad’s economy, including extending the moratorium on repayment of farm loans, urgent repair of road infrastructure, and the expansion of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, or MGNREGS.
Gandhi was a model in using the MP’s Local Area Development (MPLAD) fund. He ensured the total utilisation of allotted funds.
During the peak Covid-19 days, he made sure that relief measures were taken up in Wayanad. Medical equipment, PPEs, masks, etc, worth ₹2.7 crore, were procured under MPLAD.
Incidentally, Kerala ranks fourth in the highest utilisation-to-released fund ratio — Telangana topped the list.
Related: Disqualification brings political rivals in Kerala on same page
Language no barrier for winning hearts
Projects ranging from the purchase of vehicles for community healthcare centres, equipment for computer labs, and construction of Anganwadi centres, too, were sanctioned.
In his personal capacity, Gandhi donated 50 thermal scanners, 20,000 masks, and 1,000 sanitizers to hospitals in Wayanad. He also contributed 28,000 kgs of rice and 5,600 kgs of pulses to community kitchens.
He advocated repealing the night traffic ban on NH-766, the construction of a government medical college in Wayanad, and the urgent completion of the Nanjangud-Nilambur railway line.
“I have never seen any leader more humble and approachable than Rahul. He came to my eatery several times and relished whatever we served. He mixes with people freely,” P Sathar, who runs a popular eatery in Sulthan Bathery, said.
“In Wayanad, most people are educationally backward and not proficient in English or Hindi. Rahul proved that language is not a barrier. He won hearts in a way nobody else could,” he told South First.