Kerala Assembly Polls: Congress Pulls Out All the Stops for a 'Do-or-Die' Battle

Despite the fact that it faced a drubbing in last year's local body polls, the Congress, instead of getting into factionalism this time around, regrouped itself and sharpened its campaign strategy.

Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam: When The Wire reached the election committee office of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Poojappura of Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, the candidate K. Muraleedharan was addressing a small gathering of Youth Congress workers, briefing them of the tasks to be carried out as part of the campaign.

Nemom has been the cynosure of all eyes in this election, acquiring the attention from across the state and even in the national media, as the UDF has taken it as a do-or-die contest by fielding one of its senior leaders who is also a member of parliament.

It is the first and the only seat that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) have in this outgoing assembly. O. Rajagopal, a senior BJP leader and former union minister, had sprung a surprise last time by wresting the seat from the CPI (M) beating the incumbent MLA, V.Sivankutty, thanks to an unbelievably dismal show by the UDF.

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The UDF candidate only managed to secure 13,860 votes and had to forfeit his deposit amount. The CPI(M) and the Left front had been making it a point that the UDF traded votes with the BJP for their first-ever electoral victory in the history of the Kerala assembly. In the 2011 elections also, the Congress candidate had polled a mere 20,248 votes, allowing the BJP candidate to finish second behind the CPI(M).

It was the Congress high command’s suggestion to field a senior leader from Nemom eyeing the optics – which could effectively counter the “canards” spread by the LDF that the BJP and Congress are playing a friendly match – changed the entire scenario. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy was the first name to be considered for Nemom as the Congress leadership believed that his candidature at Nemom would have an effect on the Muslim votes across the state.

Congress senior leaders Ramesh Chennithala, Oomen Chandy releasing the UDF manifesto. Photo: Twitter/ Ramesh Chennithala.

“Oommen Chandy was willing to contest from Nemom, but considering the risk of losing his sitting seat – where he is an MLA for the last five decades – in his absence, the party decided against it. I have been the MLA of the neighbouring Vattiyoorkkavu for eight years, and I am familiar with the territory which made me the natural choice,” says K. Muraleedharan.

It seemed like he is facing an uphill task, where the Congress party hardly has any organisational strength. Muraleedharan will have to build from the scratch and he knows it very well. “It’s quite natural that the workers getting dejected given the drubbing we got in the last two elections, but things are getting better now and we are already on track in no time. We have left the past behind and this time the UDF will be winning, no matter who ends up second,” he exudes confidence.

If Nemom is to be taken as a cue, it’s evident that both fronts think that championing the anti-BJP tirade is the key to victory in Kerala.

An all-important battle for Congress

After the totally unexpected drubbing in the local body elections, the leaders of the Congress-led UDF toiled it hard to get themselves back on track with some success. Unlike in the past, after an initial blame game, the group/faction managers inside the Congress party understood the danger of letting it go this time as this assembly elections could well be the ‘last bus’ for them.

The first thing they did after the election debacle was to regroup and constitute a high-level committee with former chief minister Oommen Chandy at its helm. The list of candidates also looked fresh as more than 50% of the ‘fighting seats’ were given to the youth and newcomers except for the sitting MLAs.

According to the party leadership, the seat distribution was quiet and eventless, barring the rebellion by Lathika Subhash, the president of the Women’s Congress, who tonsured her head at the KPCC office in protest against the poor representation of women in the Congress’ list.  She is contesting as a rebel candidate from the Ettumanoor constituency of Kottayam district where she also was denied a ticket.

Also read: Model Code of Conduct Is ‘Conveniently Violated’: Kerala CM Writes to EC Against ED Probe

“The way I was sidelined during the election is not an exception but the rule when it comes to women’s representation across the party lines,” says Lathika Subhash. “I was not an ordinary party worker. When I was denied the ticket, I was the state chief of the Mahila Congress. If the Student wing president K M. Abhijith and Youth Congress president Shafi Parambil get tickets naturally, why not the president of the women’s wing?”

The Congress leaders, including A. K. Antony and Oommen Chandy, who had been her mentor for long years shrugged it off as she announced her candidature as an independent.

The subtle swing of the minority votes is the key factor that determines the win-loss equation in Kerala. In the recent local body polls, it is evident that the Christian community votes have been swayed in favour of the LDF, thanks to Kerala Congress (M) jumping the ship after the discord with the UDF over the chairmanship of Kottayam district panchayat.

A resurgent Congress

The erosion of votes in central Kerala, which had been a traditional UDF stronghold, did the undoing of the UDF. At the same time, in the Muslim dominated northern Kerala, the UDF did comparatively well, with the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second biggest constituent in the UDF, holding its forts in the Malappuram district in particular. But apart from the district, the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act/National Register of Citizens stance of the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been attracting the Muslim voters too.

This was not the scenario before the local self-government (LSG) elections. The Pinarayi government was reeling under controversies after controversies looming over. The gold smuggling case and the arrest of M. Shivshankar, the principal secretary to the chief minister, have put it on the back foot, but Vijayan weathered it all riding on the popularity of the government, mainly because of the welfare measures and crisis management skills during the repeated disasters from flood to the pandemic.

Even after the LSG polls, there have been many issues for the opposition on which to design their campaign, ranging from the inconclusive gold smuggling case and the recent deep-sea fishing controversy to unemployment and nepotism of the ruling LDF government, but most of the senior UDF leaders seem to be sticking on to the Sabarimala controversy. All most all the leaders and candidates, with an exception of V.T. Balram of Thrithala, who has openly backed women’s entry into the temple, rake up the issue of the government ‘aiding’ women activists to enter the Sabarimala shrine.

“They tried to take women activists to the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala shrine with a police escort to break the rituals. Keralites will never forget it nor forgive him. Pinarayi Vijayan will bear the consequences of it from voters of Kerala on 6 April,” says A. K. Antony, whose words pretty much sum up the campaign by the UDF, which has promised to bring in legislation to protect the tradition and rituals of Sabarimala in its election manifesto. Interestingly the NDA manifesto too makes the same promise.

Kerala Congress

Kerala Congress President Ramesh Chennithala addressing a campaign rally. Photo: Ramesh Chennithala

Even Bindu Krishna, the district Congress committee (DCC) president of Kollam and UDF candidate, who had backed the Supreme Court judgement allowing women’s entry to Sabarimala seems to have mellowed down.

“I am a devotee who has tremendous faith in Sabarimala Ayyappa. I am in favour of women’s entry in Sabarimala, only if it does not contravene the customs or tradition of the temple,” says Bindu when this author met her at Kollam during the lunch break on her campaign trail.

“Those women who entered Sabarimala were not devotees, but activists. Pinarayi Vijayan has hurt the feelings of genuine devotees like me by aiding them to get there with police protection. It is indeed an election issue here,” adds Bindu.

Also read: Is the Anti-CAA Rhetoric Enough for Pinarayi Vijayan to Garner Traditional Muslims’ Support?

No UDF candidates, inclusive of the IUML nominees, are refraining from raking up the Sabarimala issue.

Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala’s petition to stop the Kerala government from distributing rice to school students, welfare pensions and Easter-Vishu food kits are some of the latest highlights from the UDF’s campaign.

Chief minister Pinarayi has cried foul as the decision was not taken after the model code of conduct came into effect. He asserted that UDF will have to pay dearly for derailing the pro-people measures during the festive season.

On the other hand, Chennithala in his tweet said, “Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan should answer to the people on why the rice disbursement was kept pending for last 8 months and why you want to disburse it just before elections. It’s not strange that LDF remembers people only at the eve of elections.”

As the welfare schemes, including the pension for the elderly, becoming the trump card of the Vijayan government, many inside the Congress also are wary about the Opposition Leader’s decision to approach the Election Commission to stall the rice distribution.

“I am not very sure that it was a wise move, at this point in time. Our leaders could have tread carefully on this matter, as the welfare pension and the food kit are very popular among the voters,” says an IUML worker on the condition of anonymity.

The UDF seems to have taken a double-pronged attack, taking on the CPI (M) alleging that it is hurting the feelings of both the Muslim and Hindu community, instead of criticising any governmental inaction and policies.

On the ground, the Congress workers and the IUML leaders are desperately trying anything and everything to hit hard at the government, as they all know this is a do-or-die situation for them.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.