Among the multiple Lok Sabha and Assembly by-elections scheduled for May 28 across states, Chengannur in central Kerala has emerged as a major focal point. The two-and-a-half month long campaign saw all the three major candidates and respective parties going the extra mile to try and emerge victorious. The election was necessitated on account of the demise of KK Ramachandran Nair, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) sitting legislator.
The by-poll evokes a lot of curiosity in the wake of the unexpected BJP surge in this constituency in 2016, when they improved their tally from a meager 6,062 votes to 42,682 to finish a close third. While the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) bastion was wrested by the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the election by merely retaining their votes from 2011, it was a huge setback to the UDF as the Congress’ two-time sitting legislator PC Vishnunath’s tally came down drastically by over 20,000 votes.
Come 2018, in the backdrop of BJP’s impressive performance in neighbouring Karnataka Assembly elections (despite eventually falling short), BJP would have been expected to fare better than the previous occasion. Instead, Sreedharan Pillai is currently fighting hard to try and retain his vote share from 2016.
So, what has led to the BJP’s flagging fortunes despite their expanding footprint across the nation? We will come to that in the latter part.
Notwithstanding the triangular nature of the contest, the battle has turned out to be a direct slugfest between traditional foes – the Congress and the CPI(M) – as the campaigning progressed to the last lap. In a break from tradition, CPI(M) named their Alappuzha district secretary Saji Cherian to contest the poll while Congress named D Vijayakumar, a candidate who was passed over multiple times by the party in the past owing to group considerations.
In fact, Vijayakumar was among the Congress contenders for the Chengannur ticket in 1991, when he lost out eventually to K Karunakaran’s nominee Shobhana George.
There are interesting reasons why the LDF zeroed in on Saji Cherian and UDF re-discovered Vijayakumar to contest this crucial by-poll. With UDF and BJP fielding Nair candidates – who make up around 40 per cent of the electorate – LDF figures the Christians in the constituency (close to 30 per cent of the electorate) might swing the contest decisively. Even among Christians, the Orthodox faction of the Syro-Malankara Church is the largest denomination and Saji Cherian belongs to this faction.
Vijayakumar is the President of the Chengannur Cooperative Bank and a popular face in the constituency. He is also the national Vice-President of Ayyappa Seva Sangham (a pan India volunteer group that assists devotees on the annual Sabarimala pilgrimage). With Vijayakumar’s candidature, the UDF hopes to win back some of the Nair votes that shifted to the BJP camp last time.
If the campaign was initially driven by claims and counter-claims of development and projects sanctioned for the constituency by the alternate governments of LDF and UDF, it has taken the form of vicious personal attacks and insinuations of clandestine deals between parties in the last fortnight leading up to the poll.
Congress slow off the blocks
With the Congress campaign initially hamstrung by a massive shortage of funds, PCC Chief MM Hassan kicked off the “Janamochana Yatra” on April 7 with an ulterior agenda to raise money from party booth committees for election expenditure (though the Yathra was overtly touted as a campaign against “communal fascism and murder politics”) to tide over the crisis.
By the time Congress raised adequate finances, a cash-rich BJP and CPI (M) had booked most of the walls and billboards in the constituency. Funnily enough, visitors to the constituency now encounter the curious sight of a smiling Vijayakumar adorning plantain leaves in some parts of the constituency for want of real estate to stick posters.
But UDF leaders appear confident of winning the seat as they claim the LDF campaign peaked too early. In what appeared to be a united effort, shorn of the usual factional rivalries among them, UDF leaders have put up a spirited effort in the last leg to give an impression of a late surge. But it’s still anybody’s guess whether they have done enough to wrest back their bastion from the LDF.
In fact, the senior-most Congress leaders have a lot riding at stake in this contest. The leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala’s village falls in this constituency and former chief minister Oommen Chandy too traces his ancestry to this constituency.
Other senior Congress leaders like UDF campaign-in charge Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan and KC Joseph too have their connections with this constituency. If Congress loses nevertheless, in spite of the visible anti-incumbency against chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, it will be a huge loss of face. Curiously, Delhi-based Congress leaders seem more worried about not finishing third – as one senior Delhi-based leader hailing from the state told this writer.
The X factors
As for some of the critical factors which might influence the outcome, KM Mani-led Kerala Congress (M) finally threw in their lot with the UDF – after sitting on the fence till the last week leading up to the poll – providing a psychological boost to the UDF. This is despite the fact that this Catholic church-backed party doesn’t command a lot of votes in the constituency anymore.
After being vigorously pursued by the LDF and courted simultaneously by the BJP, Kerala Congress had to defer to the PJ Joseph faction and the general sentiment prevailing in the party to extend support to the UDF.
Three-time Congress MLA Shobhana George (1991-2006), who contested as a rebel from the constituency against Congress’ PC Vishnunath in 2016 – barely winning 4000 votes – is now officially with the LDF and expected to inflict lesser damage to Congress’ prospects. LDF candidate Saji Cherian had hailed her contribution in securing LDF’s victory in 2016 at a condolence meeting held for deceased MLA KK Ramachandran Nair not so long ago.
The Orthodox Church has given hints of backing the LDF while The Nair Service Society (NSS) has stuck to its “equidistant” stance.
That brings us to X factor Vellappalli Nateshan – general secretary of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), an Ezhava community organisation that forms the nucleus of its political outfit Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS).
BDJS is BJP’s only ally (apart from a rump Kerala Congress faction led by PC Thomas) in the state and has conspicuously stayed away from NDA conventions held in the constituency – on account of “unkept promises” made to it by BJP’s national leaders.
In fact, BDJS has been sulking for a while and couldn’t be placated in spite of the best efforts of BJP’s Chengannur candidate Sreedharan Pillai – which brings us once again back to BJP’s diminishing fortunes.
Why BJP may fare badly
A close look at statistics from the 2016 Assembly poll shows that BJP came first in 40 booths and second in 44 booths out of the total 164 polling booths in the constituency. Digging further, it becomes clear that the booths where BJP trumped – apart from their traditional strongholds – were mostly Ezhava-dominated.
This clearly indicates that apart from a marginal swing in the Nair votes, BJP’s stellar performance was on the back of BDJS’ (and consequently the SNDP) backing in the constituency.
While BDJS President Tushar Vellappally has been reiterating that they would nevertheless vote for BJP – regardless of not campaigning for the NDA – he qualifies that by stating he wouldn’t be responsible for his party cadre exercising their individual choices on account of disillusionment with the Hindutva outfit.
As for SNDP and Vellappally Nateshan, at a press conference convened at Kanichukulangara to reveal SNDP’s political stance, he stated, “SNDP workers would cast their votes without caste or religious considerations and based on the attitude of individual candidates to the SNDP union and its members”.
For a clearer interpretation of the above statement, this writer got in touch with multiple office bearers of the Chengannur and Mavelikkara unions of SNDP. (SNDP has 73 units in the constituency and some 13,000 households according to their estimate).
The Union representatives made it clear that the order from the top was to ask their members to “vote anybody but the BJP-to teach them a lesson”. If BJP’s massive swing in 2016 can be attributed to the votes of SNDP/BDJS shifting from UDF to BJP, the saffron party would clearly struggle to retain their vote share.
Perhaps the last straw would be state BJP President Kummanam Rajasekharan’s elevation as the Mizoram governor on the penultimate day of the campaign. Even if it was intended to sway the BJP fence-sitters, it looks rather badly timed. After contacting some of the senior BJP leaders in the state, this writer has come to the conclusion that this announcement came as a surprise to everyone (including Kummanam himself) as none had any inclination of it.
As for the UDF and the LDF, the last fortnight has witnessed personal and political attacks on each other and their respective candidates. It all began with a whisper campaign by CPM’s depiction of Vijayakumar as a “proxy-Sangh candidate” – by alluding to Vijayakumar’s role in the Ayyappa Seva Sangham – vitiating the atmosphere on the ground. The slander campaign attempted to portray the volunteer organisation as a Sangh outfit – when it clearly isn’t.
In fact, this organisation has successfully neutralised the decades-long attempts by the Sangh to hijack the outfit thereby finally forcing the RSS to form a separate outfit to cater to Ayyappa devotees.
This smear campaign slowly metamorphosed into a no-holds-barred war between UDF and LDF leaders with each accusing the other of striking surreptitious deals with the BJP. CPI(M) had successfully utilised this tactic to corner minority votes in 2016 by charging Congress with peddling “soft-Hindutva”.
It’s not clear if the long-term impact of this strategy might turn out to be counterproductive to the rival fronts in Kerala as reverse consolidation by a section of the majority community in favour of BJP may happen as a result. Whether Congress can wrest back their bastion or CPI(M) manages to retain it or BJP pulls off a surprise win against all the odds will be known only on May 31.