The visit of Smriti Irani, the union minister for women and child development, to Kerala has evoked curiosity in the political circles as at the centre of the tour are the programmes in the Wayanad district, the headquarters of the Lok Sabha constituency represented by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi.
Some quarters have started comparing her maiden trip to the district to her methodical expeditions to Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi till 2019 when she unseated Rahul after her defeat there in 2014. A few are wondering whether she will challenge the Congress MP in 2024 in the hilly terrain as Rahul too has been branded a “visitor” in his seat by critics in the last three years.
So why this visit and what is its significance?
Between 10 am and 4.40 pm on Tuesday, the minister has seven programmes, none of them ‘political’.
Wayanad, 450 km away from Kerala’s capital, is one of the 112 districts under the Aspirational Districts Programme (ADP) launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2018. The aim was to transform the most under-developed districts across the country, quickly and effectively.
Smriti Irani, who reached the state on Monday night, will begin her official business in the morning with a review of the ADP and interaction with the district magistrate and district officials in the Mini Conference Hall, Wayanad Collectorate.
Then she will have field visits to the One Stop Centre, Maravayal Tribal Settlement, Ponnada Anganwadi, and Varadhoor Smart Anganwadi. Before leaving for Delhi in the evening, she will meet delegates and stakeholders.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has ruled out there being any political agenda for the visit and stated that it is a continuation of its efforts in the tribal areas of the country.
“The BJP had constituted a fact-finding team after the Attappady tribal hamlet in Palakkad district continued to report infant deaths. The committee with C Krishna Kumar as convenor and former governor Kummanam Rajasekharan as chairman consisted of Dr KS Radhakrishnan, Dr J Prameela Devi, Retd Justice PN Raveendran, and myself,” said BJP spokesperson KVS Haridas. “After the creative intervention in Attappady in a meeting with our state leadership it was decided to visit Wayanad. We made a random visit and found the condition of many of the tribal colonies to be pathetic despite devoting large amounts as funds to various schemes for the welfare of the community.”
According to the 2011 Census, the Scheduled Tribe population in Kerala is 4,84,839 (1.5 per cent of the total populace). Wayanad district, with all the three assembly segments in the Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency, has the highest number of tribal people, at 1,51,443. Two of them, Mananthavady and Sulthan Bathery, are the only assembly segments reserved for Scheduled Tribes in the state. The constituency has three assembly segments— Nilambur, Eranad, and Wandoor (SC reserved) in Malappuram district, and Thiruvambady in Kozhikode district.
Incidentally, it was actor-politician Suresh Gopi— a nominated member of Rajya Sabha whose term ended in April 2022— who in his last few speeches in the Upper House raised the subject of how central schemes for the upliftment of the poor and downtrodden and for the SC/ST communities in Kerala were not getting due attention, prompting Irani’s visit.
“You may remember the intervention of Suresh Gopi in this matter. Rahul Gandhi has not visited any of the tribal colonies in his constituency including those in Wayanad as well as in Nilambur. The minister’s visit to the tribal areas will expose the three years of Rahul Gandhi as the local MP along with the CPI(M)’s claim on Kerala’s high standards of development,” said Haridas.
Now, what about the chances of a high-profile candidate for the BJP in Wayanad?
In 2019, Rahul won the seat by securing 65.67 per cent votes and a margin of 431,770 votes over his nearest rival, PP Suneer of the Communist Party of India (CPI). The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s Thushar Vellappally with just 6.22 per cent votes forfeited his deposit. However, four of the assembly segments went with the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) while the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) had to be satisfied with three. The NDA failed to garner 10 per cent votes in any of the seven assembly segments.
“Unlike in the past, it looks like a tough time for Rahul in Wayanad, if he contests again,” said a top Congress leader on condition of anonymity.