Kerala Election: Why UDF Can Be Optimistic About Alappuzha
Pinarayi Vijayan’s two term condition may have given the UDF an opening in this crucial district.
Alappuzha, the Venice of the East, is the cradle of the Communist movement in the erstwhile State of Travancore. In the latter years, however, Congress had begun to punch above its weight in this district. It was the legendary K Balakrishnan, editor of Kerala Kaumudy and leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), who trounced Susheela Gopalan in 1971 to snatch the Alappuzha Lok Sabha seat away from the Left for the first time.
This period also coincided with the emergence of Congress Young Turks such as Vayalar Ravi and A K Antony in the land of the Punnapra-Vayalar revolutionaries. Ever since a 29-year-old V M Sudheeran retained the seat in 1977, Alappuzha has swung fairly evenly between the Left and the Congress.
Come 2021. In an election where the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has to cover a lot of ground, with nearly every survey predicting a second term for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, Alappuzha district could make a decisive difference to the tally if the UDF manages to win six out of nine seats in the district.
In the previous election in 2016, only Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala managed a win from Alappuzha but this time around, apart from Chennithala and Shanimol Usman who won the by-election in Aroor in 2019, at least five others are locked in close contests against their LDF candidates.
Did Pinarayi Vijayan’s ‘Two Term Condition’ Backfire?
Yet, this would have been a totally different contest if Pinarayi Vijayan hadn’t enforced a two-term condition for sitting MLAs – thus ruling out the candidature of Finance Minister Thomas Isaac and Public Works Minister G Sudhakaran. Their replacements, first-time contestants J Chitharanjan and H Salam respectively, are no match for these stalwarts who had a tight grip over their constituencies.
A second term for Pinarayi Vijayan has been the buzzword of this campaign but there have been allegations that this two-term clause was brought about as a result of having to accommodate the Kerala Congress (M) led by Jose K Mani as finance minister instead of Isaac.
True, it would have been inconceivable to deny a seat to someone as indispensable as Issac had it not been for some such arrangement.
Apart from Alappuzha and Ambalappuzha where Congress’ chances have consequently improved, it is also well placed in Haripad and Aroor. Congress also seems to have a slight edge at the moment in Cherthala and Kayamkulam where the youthful duo of S Sarath and Aritha Babu are locked in fierce contests. Kuttanad, contested by the UDF-ally Kerala Congress, is also witnessing a close contest.
CPI(M) Banks on a Singer
As we set foot into the CPI (M) Area Committee office in Thuravoor, State Committee member C B Chandrababu and Manu C Pulickal are closeted in a meeting with the charismatic Alappuzha MP A M Arif, the lone LDF winner in the 2019 general election in Kerala. Both Chandrababu and Pulickal were in the CPI (M) draft list for the Aroor seat but neither exhibit any disappointment at being sidelined in favour of a late entrant to the party like singer Daleema Jojo.
Asked how they can set aside their personal disappointment and work as a team for Daleema’s victory, especially in a district where three Left leaders have already jumped ship to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance as candidates, Chandrababu stated: “Both Manu and I have been part of the LDF government as representatives of public sector corporations. We also hold important positions in the party hierarchy. Our task is to ensure the victory of Daleema. As for others who deserted us for the BJP, we can’t stop them. Even our party may have people hankering after positions.”
Specifically asked to comment about his failure to secure a re-nomination after being the CPI (M) candidate in the by-poll, Pulickal replied he wasn’t the least bit disappointed. Independent analysts contend that Pulickal, who lost the by-election by a narrow margin of 2000-odd votes to Shanimol Usman, would have stood a much better candidate this time around. The LDF choice of candidates has not been optimal according to analysts and although the UDF list got delayed, many candidates have managed to put up tough contests in constituencies where Congress has traditionally trailed.
Take for example the case of Advocate S Sarath in Cherthala, a red bastion post the 2008 delimitation. There are two panchayats – Kanjikkuzhy and Muhamma – with dedicated LDF votes where people would cast their ballots for the LDF regardless of the candidate. But Sarath is hopeful of a win after staying put and working for the people in the constituency post his defeat in 2016. Contesting against Sarath is senior CPI leader P Prasad.
What has made the contest in Cherthala really tight is the presence of the NDA candidate PS Jyothis, formerly the Thannermukkom Panchayat President representing the CPI (M), whose candidature has ensured that the CPI (M) cadre in the constituency is working extra-time to ensure P Prasad’s win.
We wait for Kanhaiya Kumar to arrive for a meeting scheduled as part of Prasad’s campaign but Kanhaiya has come and gone in a flash. Speaking to The Quint later, Prasad exudes confidence that he can win despite the ‘outsider’ tag foisted on him by the Congress. “It’s a political contest where every issue will be discussed. I am confident of going to the people of Cherthala with the achievements of the LDF government”, said Prasad.
Congress’ Candidates’ Influence
In adjoining Aroor, Shanimol Usman is not banking on garnering “sympathy votes” anymore. Usman had won the by-election to the assembly on the back of her losing the Lok Sabha election to A M Arif. “I am asking for votes on the basis of work done by me in the past year-and-a-half. The people of this constituency have adopted me as their own.” Asked to comment on the Left allegation that her chances rest on the critical Muslim vote in the constituency, Shanimol gets offended. “There’s just 10-11% Muslims in this constituency. Every community will vote for me”, she said.
Daleema Jojo, the LDF candidate in Aroor looks slightly overwhelmed by the gravity of the contest and is very much the underdog here. Armed with an in-house public relations team of the CPI (M) trailing her, Daleema charms the electorate by singing famous songs of S Janaki. Daleema had her first shot to fame back in the nineties through her perfect imitation of S Janaki’s voice and although her singing career never took off, her voice sounds just as fresh.
It is assumed that CPI (M) opted for Daleema after thorough deliberations to pit against Usman. She hails from the Latin Christian community and added with the Ezhava vote bank of the CPI (M), her candidature would have been a masterstroke but for the controversy surrounding the EMCC deep sea fishing contract. The hardening of the Latin Church’s stance post the controversy could effectively kill her chances.
We head to Alappuzha where Marxist-turned-Congressman and former Alappuzha MP K S Manoj is on a strong wicket against CPI (M)’s J Chitharanjan. We are greeted with posters of “Nammude Chithan” (Our Chithan) and “Chithannan” on street corners. Chitharanjan had brought the city to a standstill on our previous visit couple of days ago with a bike rally that saw the participation of some 2000-odd bikes. He is on-the-go from one point to another in a jiffy to cover as much ground as possible with just a couple of days left in the campaign.
Hailing from the Dheevara (fishermen) community, Chitharanjan is a well-known face in the city having already served as municipal chairman and rising up the ranks steadily. Of late he has also been appearing on TV channels as CPI (M) spokesperson. Unlike his dour avatar on TV where he is not averse to sparring with fellow panellists, Chitharanjan takes all kinds of questions sportingly. “I was here with the people of Alappuzha through thick and thin while Dr K S Manoj was a non-resident politician who was nowhere in sight during the floods and Covid times and that’s why I shall win”, declares a confident Chitharanjan, before rushing off to an adjoining colony with narrow lanes.
Earlier during the day, The Quint joined K S Manoj on his road show. As the CPI (M) candidate deputed to defeat V M Sudheeran in 2004, Manoj had used desperate measures like fielding dummy candidates and appealing to communal sentiments to emerge victorious by a wafer thin margin.
Taking one round of the city, you would instantly realise that Manoj is up to familiar tactics. There are strategically-erected posters, cut-outs and flex-boards of Manoj in front of almost every church in town with a caption that reads like a code-phrase intended to appeal to Christian voters with words “faith” and “saintliness” in them.
On being asked why he quit the CPI (M) more than a decade ago, Manoj claims the politics of CPI (M) was “inconsistent with my faith”. Former Alappuzha DCC President A A Shukoor is accompanying Manoj as he traverses the city with some 300-odd auto-rickshaws following the convoy.
The AC canal that divides the city also demarcates Alappuzha from the Ambalappuzha constituency where Congress Young Turk M Liju is facing an uphill task against H Salam of the CPI (M). For all of Liju’s charisma, caste equations could go against him if pollsters are to be believed. The constituency where the famous Ambalappuzha Srikrishna Temple is located is dominated by Nairs along with a sizeable presence of Muslims.
Haripad is next as we proceed further on the National Highway where Ramesh Chennithala is in a strong position followed by Kayamkulam, where the young 27-year-old Aritha Babu is engaged in a tough contest against U Prathibha. The contest has turned deeply political after an attack on Aritha Babu’s home allegedly by CPI (M) affiliates. The factionalism in the CPI (M) unit in the constituency might prove decisive in a photo-finish. While the LDF seems at an advantage in Mavelikkara and Chengannur, Kuttanad seems closer with Jacob Abraham of Kerala Congress putting up a strong resistance. “Don’t write off Chengannur yet”, stated a top DCC functionary as he reminded that M Murali was a four-term MLA from adjoining Mavelikkara. Nevertheless, Saji Cherian should have it easy here.
In the final analysis, UDF is in with a strong chance to pull off an upset in Alappuzha by winning half-a-dozen seats unless something goes horribly wrong. Congress leaders have been depending more on road shows compared to the more localised door-to-door campaign by the CPI (M). Congress is also struggling with organisational weaknesses with many voters complaining about not receiving voter slips despite good candidates being in the fray. A local Congress representative The Quint ran into at a tea shop encapsulated it perfectly: “For the Marxists the party comes first and for us, our families”. No wonder then that the Congress exists only on paper in many booths across the district. Yet, if the UDF manages to win this election defying all odds, Alappuzha could definitely play a part in that win.
(The writer s a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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