Sweating it out

48Sudhakaran All for a vote: UDF candidate in Uduma in Kasaragod, K. Sudhakaran, during a campaign event | Fahad Muneer

As summer intensifies in Kerala, so does the battle for winning the hearts and minds of voters

  • The Congress campaign is centred on the development initiatives, including the Kochi Metro, the Vizhinjam port and the Kannur airport.

In one of the hottest summers in years, Kerala is witnessing an intense battle. If history repeats itself, the Left Democratic Front will come to power next month, underlining the shift that happens every five years. The ruling United Democratic Front hopes to buck the trend, and has peppered the state with posters and hoardings exhorting people to vote for continuance, for progress, in the assembly election on May 16.

The LDF, on the other hand, wants people to give it a chance so that it can 'set everything right', an obvious reference to the scandals of the last five years. The intention was clear when it announced its candidates' list ahead of the UDF. While some parties who were hoping to join the LDF, like veteran left leader K.R. Gowri's Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi, missed the bus, a breakaway faction of the Kerala Congress (Mani) jumped the queue and was warmly embraced. The logic was perfect: the faction, led by Francis George—his father, K.M. George, was one of the founders of the Kerala Congress in the turbulent 1960s—would boost the chances of the LDF in central Kerala and the high ranges, where the Catholic Church plays an active role in politics. Kerala Congress (B) was also accommodated when former UDF minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar was given a chance to retain his Pathanapuram seat. The LDF chose to overlook his derogatory comments about opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan, whom he called a 'sex maniac' and 'pervert'. But it refused to humour his father, R. Balakrishna Pillai, who was jailed for graft after a protracted legal battle led by Achuthanandan.

Unlike in 2006 and 2011, supporters of Achuthanandan, 92, did not have to take to the streets to ensure a seat for their leader. This time round, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury saw to it that the veteran's interests were taken care of. However, many VS loyalists have been left out of the candidates' list this time, including sitting MLA and former minister P.K. Gurudasan.

Though the outcome is a foregone conclusion, all eyes are on the battle in Dharmadom, Kannur, where politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan is contesting after an 18-year break from electoral politics. He is widely tipped to be chief minister if the LDF makes its date with history. State electricity minister during 1996-98, Vijayan, 72, is known for his pro-development outlook and pragmatism.

The UDF entered election mode in the last week of March in Delhi, when state Congress president V.M. Sudheeran and Chief Minister Oommen Chandy locked horns over five MLAs whom the former wanted out. The week-long drama saw the Congress losing precious ground and Sudheeran some prestige. He could keep out only one of the five, Benny Behanan, a first-time MLA from Thrikkakara in Ernakulam. “The state Congress chief's role is to take everyone along,” said a senior Congress leader. “The delay and the controversies were avoidable. Considering the fact that there was a possibility of the Congress being voted back to power, preparations should have begun last October or so. Instead, even by the end of March, we were discussing who should be kept out.”

Three of the five MLAs were from Ernakulam district, where, in 2011, the UDF won 11 of 14 seats. This time, too, the front is confident of repeating or even bettering the tally, said Hibi Eden, who is looking to retain his Ernakulam seat. “There is no anti-incumbency factor,” he told THE WEEK. “The people are not bothered about the needless controversies. They are more worried about their own lives, whether it has become better. They want the UDF government's development initiatives to continue, not discuss non-issues.”

The Congress is hoping to add Angamaly in Ernakulam district to its tally, as National Students Union of India president Roji M. John is expected to do well against the Janata Dal (S) candidate Benny Munjely. Perumbavoor and Vypeen, which went the LDF way in 2011, are also witnessing tough fights. Incidentally, the two rival fronts and the BJP front have put up a number of young candidates—as many as 10 are below 40 years. Among them is Eldhose Kunnappilly of the Congress, who became the youngest district panchayat president six years ago. He takes on three-time MLA Saju Paul in Perumbavoor.

IN THE NEIGHBOURING Thrissur district, where it once held sway, the Congress is having a difficult time, thanks to last-minute chopping and changing of candidates. It all started with Kodungallur MLA T.N. Prathapan volunteering to stay out of the fray, so as to make way for the youth. The high command then asked him to contest from Kaipamangalam. Just as Prathapan indicated his willingness, there appeared a letter that he allegedly had written to the high command seeking the Kaipamangalam seat. Though the party denied the existence of the letter, the damage had been done, both for the party and Prathapan, who withdrew a second time.

The Indian Union Muslim League, which is in the UDF, is likely to retain its fortresses in Malappuram and Kozhikode districts and its tally should be more or less what it was in 2011. The K.M. Mani-led Kerala Congress (M) might take a hit or two in Idukki and Kottayam districts because of the split. “I have done so much development activity in the constituency that I am confident about my victory,” said Roshy Augustine, three-time Kerala Congress MLA from Idukki, who is facing a stiff fight from Francis George, former Idukki MP. “Apart from a medical college and more than a hundred roads, I also facilitated Kerala's first volleyball academy in the constituency. I am confident about the support of church as well.” The other constituencies where the rebels and KC(M) MLAs face off are Poonjar and Changanacherry in Kottayam district.

The Congress campaign is centred on the development initiatives of the UDF government, including the Kochi Metro, the Vizhinjam port and the Kannur airport, and the prohibition policy which saw bars without five-star rating being closed down. The intense campaign unleashed by the Congress on the ban had Sitaram Yechury almost endorsing the UDF's liquor policy.

THE SOLAR SCAM, as the Congress sees it, will have little or no impact on the poll outcome. The media recently published a sensational 'letter' written by Saritha Nair, an accused in the solar scam case, while in jail in 2013. But with Chandy going to court against them, the issue is likely to be in the cold storage for some time now. “There was a situation where anything could be said against anybody, and a feeling had set in that the chief minister was not reacting enough,” Chandy told THE WEEK.

The BJP, which at one point was talking about winning more than one assembly seat, is now pinning all its hopes on Nemom, where its veteran leader O. Rajagopal is contesting. He had a massive lead of over 18,000 votes here against Shashi Tharoor of the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. What could upset his calculations would be the presence of the UDF candidate, V. Surendran Pillai, who was till recently part of the LDF.

In a long campaign, it is too early to talk about trends. As Eden said: “In a long campaign, trends come and go.”

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