Puthuppally bypoll: Historic win for Chandy Oommen. What backfired for the LDF?

Victory a sign of anti-incumbency, says Congress; CPI(M) calls it 'sympathy wave'

PTI09_08_2023_000161A Congress leader Chandy Oommen greets supporters celebrating his win in the Puthuppally by-election | PTI

When the Election Commission of India announced that Puthuppally by-elections would be held on September 5, with the counting scheduled for September 8, three weeks had passed since the death of veteran leader and former Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandy. The emotional impact of Chandy's death and the unforgettable farewell he received from the masses still resonated in the state, particularly in the Puthuppally assembly constituency which had favoured Oommen Chandy for 53 years.

The UDF was determined to tap into this emotional sentiment, and shortly after the election commission's announcement, they introduced Chandy Oommen, Oommen Chandy's son, as their candidate. The results on Friday clearly demonstrate that the UDF's strategy was highly successful in the by-elections, as Chandy Oommen won by an unprecedented margin of 37,719 votes.

Although the BJP was also a contender, the Puthuppally by-elections were primarily seen as a direct contest between the ruling LDF and the UDF. The LDF had declared that it would not be a one-sided affair but rather a closely fought battle. Nevertheless, the results reveal that the LDF did not perform well in any part of the constituency. The substantial margin of victory suggests that it was not solely attributable to the emotional aftermath of Chandy's passing; the election outcome also reflects the general sentiment against the Pinarayi Vijayan government.

Strategies gone wrong?

The UDF and their candidate Chandy Oommen employed a straightforward strategy. Chandy Oommen consistently referred to his "Appa" [father] and sought voters' blessings in his father's name. At certain times, his actions and mannerisms bore a resemblance to those of his late father's, although there were claims that he was deliberately emulating Chandy Sr's style.

In previous elections, the UDF lacked a robust organisational structure for campaigning in Puthuppally. However, the name Oommen Chandy alone sufficed to compensate for this deficiency. This time, however, the Congress leadership was attentive to activate its organisational capabilities within the constituency. They were mindful of the fact that in the 2021 elections, LDF candidate Jaick C. Thomas had significantly reduced Oommen Chandy's vote margin from around 27,000 votes in 2016 to less than 10,000 votes. This effort involved regular home meetings and booth-level gatherings. Opposition Leader V.D. Satheeshan and senior members of the Congress leadership actively coordinated the campaign activities.

Despite having grievances following the reconstitution of the Congress Working Committee, leaders like Ramesh Chennithala and K. Muraleedharan maintained silence until September 5 to ensure that internal conflicts did not affect the party's electoral prospects in Puthuppally.

The LDF's strategy was notably intricate, involving several shifts in direction. Minister V.N. Vasavan spearheaded the LDF's campaign efforts. Initially, they aimed to steer clear of discussing Oommen Chandy and instead focus on projecting a forward-looking narrative, emphasising on the “lack of development in Puthuppally”. The LDF challenged the UDF to engage in debates centred around Puthuppally's development and other LDF-represented constituencies. However, it proved challenging to convey this narrative without attacking Oommen Chandy. Their narrative that Oommen Chandy did not do anything for Puthupally was destined to backfire.

Interestingly, even as they discussed development, the LDF made a concerted effort to avoid making the election a platform for discussing the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s major projects like K-Rail. Last year, during the Thrikkakara by-elections following the demise of Congress leader P.T. Thomas, the CPI(M) had based its election strategy on showcasing the "developmental model" of the LDF government. Thrikkakara is predominantly urban, and projects like K-Rail were prominently featured in campaign materials. However, this strategy did not yield success in Thrikkakara.

Puthupally is less urban than Thrikkakara, and the LDF decided to remain silent on major projects. The project's uncertain status, coupled with the fact that Madapally—the epicentre of anti-K-Rail protests—is closer to the Puthuppally constituency, may have influenced this decision.

As the campaign phase advanced, CPI(M) activists themselves shifted their focus away from the "development" issue and adopted more aggressive tactics, particularly on social media. Cyber attacks were directed at Oommen Chandy's daughters, particularly Achu Oommen.

In the last week of the campaign, the CPI(M) raised the allegation that the UDF resorted to cyber attack tactics against the LDF candidate’s pregnant wife, too. But this counter-allegation could not balance the allegations against CPI(M) cadres. In the final days of the campaign, audio clips and a social media campaign insinuating that Chandy Oommen was responsible for denying proper medical care to his father were also circulated. Additionally, a controversy arose concerning the dismissal of a sweeper from a veterinary hospital in the constituency, reportedly for praising Oommen Chandy on television channels. This controversy stirred significant outrage. The election results indicate that the residents of the Puthuppally constituency perceived all these actions as personal attacks against Oommen Chandy himself.

A verdict against Pinarayi 2.0?

The LDF, especially the CPI(M), is currently grappling with a phase where its leadership is facing multiple allegations simultaneously, including those against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The substantial defeat suffered by the CPI(M) suggests that these controversies did indeed influence the voting pattern during the Puthuppally bypoll on September 5.

One significant controversy soon after election announcement stemmed from a Malayala Manorama report. This report revealed that CM Vijayan's daughter, Veena Thaikandiyil, had allegedly accepted Rs 1.72 crore from Cochin Minerals and Rutile Limited (CMRL), a contentious company involved in the production of synthetic rutile and Ferric Chloride from ilmenite, under questionable circumstances. The report was based on a decision from the New Delhi branch of the income tax interim settlement board, a quasi-judicial body, which found that Veena, former owner of an IT company, received this sum from CMRL despite not providing any IT services to the company. The quasi-judicial body concluded that CMRL, a company facing various allegations, including those related to pollution, had made payments through banking channels to "individuals associated with a prominent person, claiming it as a deductible expense and asserting compensation for a service that had not been rendered or received."

Despite this serious corruption allegation against his daughter,the chief minister chose not to respond to it. Even during election campaigns in Puthuppally, Vijayan refrained from addressing the issue. The chief minister has not engaged with the media since last February, necessitating the CPI(M) leadership to provide all the defense for the CM and his daughter. Disregarding the findings of the I-T interim settlement board, the state leadership of the party declared the contract between CMRL and Veena's company, Exalogic, as "transparent" and dismissed the controversy as a conspiracy in light of the assembly polls declared in the Puthuppally assembly.

Furthermore, CPI(M) supporters resorted to cyber attacks against Oommen Chandy's daughters, arguing that not only CM Vijayan's daughter but also Achu, a social media fashion influencer, deserved "social media auditing." They misused Instagram content from Achu as part of their "auditing" process, attempting to create the impression that Achu was living a lavish lifestyle. However, this strategy ultimately backfired.

Another incident that significantly impacted the CPI(M) during the election phase was a raid conducted by the Enforcement Directorate at the residence of former minister and CPI(M) MLA A.C. Moideen. This raid was connected to a Rs 300 crore scam at Thrissur's Karuvannur Cooperative Bank. It is reported that the ED is investigating the case with the assumption that the former minister played a pivotal role in facilitating the disbursement of illicit loans from the bank.

In response to these allegations, the CPI(M) state secretariat issued a statement, highlighting that these accusations coincided with the Puthuppally by-polls, where "false narratives" were circulating about CPI(M) leaders and their family members. The party also reiterated the narrative that the ED raids were part of the BJP government's efforts to utilise Central agencies to target opposition parties, including the CPI(M). Additionally, during the election phase, a financial fraud of Rs 100 crore at Kandala Bank, previously led by LDF ally CPI's leader N. Bhasurangan, also came to light.

The fiscal challenges faced by the state further weakened the CPI(M) and LDF's position in the bypoll. Towards the end of August, actor Jayasurya strongly criticised the government's "failure" to settle debts owed to paddy farmers, during a public event attended by state ministers. Although the minister provided an explanation, the actor's speech went viral and sparked a major controversy. This incident, just a week before the elections, undermined the "welfare politics" and developmental model presented by the LDF. The Pinarayi Vijayan-led government's main defense was that the financial constraints in the state were a result of the Central government's policies. However, Puthuppally clearly indicates that the CPI(M) has to take care of the growing dissatisfaction in the state with the performance of Pinarayi Vijayan 2.0.

Facing a fund crunch, the Kerala government had limited the distribution of free Onam food kits this year only to yellow ration card holders. Last year, 83 lakh ration cardholders were given Onam kits. This year only 6,07,691 persons were eligible.

Changes in two years

Despite Oommen Chandy serving as the MLA in the constituency for 53 years, the LDF has established a strong organisational presence in the area. Currently, the LDF governs six out of the eight panchayats within the constituency and boasts of an estimated 45,000 "party votes." However, in the days to come, the party will need to assess whether their reliable votes also eroded in the electoral wave. This marks Jaick C. Thomas's third consecutive loss in the constituency. In 2021, during his best performance for the LDF in the assembly, he garnered 54,328 votes. Two years later, he experienced a shortfall of 12,684 votes, securing only 41,644 votes. Notably, he could not even reach the vote count he achieved in 2016, which was 44,505, during his first contest against Oommen Chandy.

Interestingly, it is not just the CPI(M) that suffered a significant setback, but the BJP as well. In 2021, the BJP's N. Hari secured 11,694 votes. Two years later, Lijin Lal managed to gather fewer than 7,000 votes in the constituency. A day after the polling, CPI(M) state secretary M.V. Govindan suggested that if the UDF were to win the election, it would be because they received votes from the BJP. Following the counting, KPCC president K. Sudhakaran stated that the UDF had secured votes not only from BJP supporters but also from CPI(M) cadres. He further declared that the UDF was winning over these votes from both the BJP and the CPI(M). The leader from Kannur didn't hold back in criticising the Vijayan government, describing the election result as a strong backlash against the "arrogance" of the CPI(M) and the chief minister.

Significantly, several of the topics that were prominent discussions in the constituency during the 2021 election were conspicuously absent from the narratives shaping the by-elections. One of the major issues that fall into this category is the feud between the Malankara Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Church. Both of these church denominations have a substantial presence in the constituency, which primarily consists of a Christian-Hindu demographic makeup.

Effects of the wave

As the country approaches the general elections, the lessons learned and tested during the by-elections will prove to be critical for all political alliances in the state. The victory in the bypoll will undoubtedly boost the morale of the Congress-led UDF, while the CPI(M) will need to engage in substantial introspection regarding their election strategies. It has become evident that they will also need specialised approaches to counteract anti-incumbency sentiments in the state, even though the elections are for the Lok Sabha.

Although the chief minister and other ministers were not actively involved in campaigning in Puthuppally, unlike their efforts in Thrikkakara, it is highly likely that the CPI(M)'s poor performance may raise questions about the effectiveness of governance. Interestingly, the UDF leadership is striving to portray the victory as purely a "political victory." Such a narrative is crucial for the UDF as it allows them to target the defensive LDF leadership.

The Congress leadership emphasised that they gained votes even from CPI(M) cadres, aiming their criticism at Pinarayi Vijayan. AICC general secretary K.C. Venugopal, for instance,told media that the Congress received these ‘red votes’ because these cadres are also "disenchanted with the Pinarayi regime." Notably, the national leader did not criticise the entire CPI(M) party but specifically targeted CM Vijayan. This approach of distinguishing between the central leadership of the CPI(M) and the Kerala CPI(M) under Pinarayi Vijayan's leadership will likely persist when it comes to the Lok Sabha elections as well.

The Puthuppally bypoll marked the first major election faced by the CPI(M) since M.V. Govindan assumed the role of party state secretary in August 2022. It is highly likely that questions will be raised about his leadership at a time when the party and the party-led LDF government are both on the defensive. The response from the Congress leadership also suggests that they are eager to see some internal conflicts within the Kerala CPI(M) following the Puthuppally setback.

Big responsibility

Chandy Oommen is scheduled to be sworn in as the MLA in the state assembly on September 11.

The 37-year-old leader, who embarked on a national padayatra during the Bharat Jodo Yatra, will have two and a half years to demonstrate his capabilities. Given that Chandy Sr was known for his accessibility to all, there are high expectations from Chandy Oommen as well. He must navigate the challenge of living up to these elevated expectations.

Following the release of the election results, Chandy's initial reaction was that his father had once again emerged victorious in Puthuppally. Undoubtedly, the late leader had generated a significant wave of support, but his statement neutralised the party’s leadership’s stance that this was a “political victory”. The statement was also used by the CPI(M) state secretary Govindan to evade questions whether this poll debacle is a verdict against the Pinarayi Vijayan government, too.

When asked about his plans for development earlier, Chandy Oommen had mentioned that he had many ideas in mind and would unveil them at the appropriate time. Now, it is incumbent upon him to execute those plans and live up to the considerable expectations set by the people of Puthuppally and his own political party.

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