The long campaign has been to Joseph’s advantage. After the initial hiccup, the Congress machinery has woken up.
Excise Minister K. Babu faces the electorate at a most difficult time in his long and successful political career.
The early decades of the 20th century saw waves of Syrian Christian migration from central Kerala to Malabar, which was under the British rule. It peaked during the 1940s. In later decades, people from Kottayam and Idukki districts continued to migrate, albeit in smaller numbers, in search of cheap, arable land. By the 1970s, when it all but stopped, the hilly terrain of Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad and Kozhikode districts had become a stronghold of the hardworking migrants who fought and won wars against deadly diseases and hostile wild animals.
K.C. Joseph, the culture minister from Kottayam, was the state president of the youth wing of the A.K. Antony-led faction of the Congress in 1982. When he ‘migrated’ to Irikkur to fight his first electoral battle in that year, the constituency in Kannur district was a mountain the Congress never managed to scale. “He was without pretensions, and it was easy to like him,” recalled Congress leader Jacob Marippuram, who has been active in Joseph’s campaign right from the 80s. “He contested on the two-leaves symbol and won by over 9,000 votes.” Since then, Irikkur has elected him seven times in a row. His toughest fight was in 2006, against James Mathew of the CPI(M), also a migrant, when he won by less than 2,000 votes. Five years later, he sailed through with a margin of over 11,000 votes.
This time round, Joseph was one of the five Congress MLAs whom state Congress chief V.M. Sudheeran did not want to renominate. Sudheeran wanted a fresh face to be considered in place of the veteran. On the probables list were Satheesan Pacheni (currently, the Congress candidate from Kannur) and Sajeev Joseph, state Congress general secretary from Kannur. Apparently, the party high command was keen on Sajeev, who was also being considered for the neighbouring Peravoor, which ultimately went to sitting MLA Sunny Joseph. As Sudheeran locked horns with Chief Minister Oommen Chandy over the five seats—Tripunithura, Thrikkakara, Kochi and Konni being the others—a feeling gained ground among the youth in the constituency that Joseph was blocking the path of youngsters in the area which has a sizeable migrant population. According to Congress sources, the propaganda machine worked overtime on social media to discredit Joseph. And the fact that he did not own or have a rented property in the constituency was used to the hilt. “Whenever the assembly is not in session, three days a week he is in Irikkur,” Marippuram defended the MLA. “The work he has done in the constituency is considerable, be it setting up a Kalagramam [arts village] near Chempanthotty, or a dairy plant in Sreekantapuram.” Joseph is pitted against K.T. Jose of the CPI.
The long election campaign has been to Joseph’s advantage. After the initial hiccup, the Congress election machinery has woken up and started running. The election conventions held so far have drawn large crowds, said Marippuram. “Joseph will win, and the victory will be as comfortable as in 2011,” he said.
In Thrikkakara, in Ernakulam district, former MP and veteran Congress leader P.T. Thomas came to the scene after sitting MLA Benny Behenan beat a hasty retreat when it became clear that the party high command was unlikely to clear his name. He became the proverbial sacrificial goat in the struggle between the CM and the state party boss. The transition was smooth because Thomas has a spotless political career and he belongs, like Behenan, to the Chandy faction in the Congress. In a constituency where the Congress clearly has the upper hand, the CPI(M) has fielded Dr Sebastian Paul, who has been the face of its experiments in Ernakulam in recent years. It is for the first time Paul is contesting as a party candidate; in earlier elections, he contested as a CPI(M) backed independent with an eye on the neutral votes.
Kochi, another constituency where the Congress has traditionally been strong, is seeing a pitched battle, with former minister Dominic Presentation struggling to retain his seat against K.J. Maxi of the CPI(M). Between him and victory is the Latin Catholic Church and a Congress rebel, K.J. Leenus, who has considerable influence in the Congress strongholds of Chellanam, Kannamaly and Kumbalanghi, a model tourism village and home to former Union minister K.V. Thomas. “There has been a feeling that the constituency deserves a local candidate who is well aware of the area’s development needs,” Leenus told THE WEEK, taking a dig at Presentation’s outsider tag. Leenus, a frontrunner for the seat till Chandy put his foot down, also acknowledged Sudheeran’s efforts to ensure his candidature. “He asked me to withdraw from the fray, but I reasoned with him that it would mean ditching the people who have been supporting me,” said Leenus, former president of the Chellanam grama panchayat and district panchayat member for two terms from the coastal region.
Revenue Minister Adoor Prakash found himself in the eye of a storm, thanks to the last minute land deals okayed by the government, subsequently kept in abeyance because of widespread protest. It resulted in the MLA from Konni getting into Sudheeran’s hit list, but Chandy’s defence worked for him as well. Konni, known for one of the oldest elephant training centres in Kerala, is in the hilly terrains of Pathanamthitta district, home to the famous Hindu pilgrimage centre Sabarimala. Till Prakash claimed his first electoral victory in 1996, Konni had mostly favoured the Left Democratic Front. Eyeing a fifth straight victory from the constituency, Prakash is hoping that his development work in Konni will help him trounce R. Sanal Kumar of the CPI(M). Burying his differences, Sudheeran attended Prakash’s election convention in Konni on April 27. Citing the development work done by Prakash, he urged the voters “to elect Prakash once again with a thumping majority”. Caste equations and the fact that Prakash has nurtured the constituency so well make the United Democratic Front count Konni as one of its sure seats.
Another minister who shares Prakash’s confidence is K. Babu, whose constituency, Tripunithura, continues to be a Left bastion except when he hits the streets every five years. The excise minister faces the electorate at a most difficult time in his long political career. His name was dragged through the bar bribery dirt that threatened to derail the UDF government at a point. Babu has been winning from the constituency since 1991, when he defeated CPI(M) veteran M.M. Lawrence. Many expect him to win, though they say this could be his toughest battle yet. Taking him on is the young CPI(M) leader M. Swaraj, who has shaken off his outsider tag. But his utterances against former chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan in a party forum might work against him in the constituency where the veteran leader has a faithful following. Though Achuthanandan addressed a campaign meeting in one of the strongholds, Udayamperoor, the ice has not thawed yet.
“When there was uncertainty over the party giving me a ticket, many people who have voted me over the years said they would not vote this time,” Babu told THE WEEK. “Some promised offerings at places of worship. My confidence stems from their faith in my ability to work for them.” Babu’s connect with the voters is legendary. “I am with them in all their important moments,” he said. “They will not listen to the rumours.” But he seemed worried about the intense campaigning of the BJP candidate, Prof Thuravoor Vishwambharan. “I can’t say how many votes they will get this time,” said Babu. “But I know that I will win comfortably.”