Kozhikode/Malappuram: ‘I am sure, they will come at us again with the Citizenship Amendment Act. We will need a strong chief minister to stop them.’
A billboard by the state highway in Thritala constituency has the above words. It shows a woman in a headscarf inside a polling booth.
This ad appears at various places along the state highway. It is also popular on social media. There is no mention of who the “chief minister” is, but it is clear.
It has been a week since the Left Democratic Front has announced it candidates for the assembly election in Kerala. The United Democratic Front and the National Democratic Alliance, too, have finally zeroed in on their picks for the 140 segments.
With almost all the pre-poll surveys till date predicting the continuance of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government, the ruling front is keen to ride this wave. LDF kicked off the campaign by projecting the performance report of the government, banking heavily on welfare measures and development projects.
Northern Kerala, where minority votes play a significant role, had been the backbone of LDF’s stellar victory last time.
In the seven Northern Kerala districts from Kasargod to Thrissur, the LDF had won 49 out of 73 seats in 2016. Twenty four seats of the UDF include the 18 won by the Indian Union Muslim League in strongholds like Malappuram and Kasargod.
Chalissery, a small town situated in the border of Thrissur and Palakkad districts is in the Thrithala constituency, where youth Congress leader V.T. Balram, is in a direct fight with CPI(M)’s former Lok Sabha member M.B. Rajesh. Balram, a social media star who is often very vocal against the Sangh parivar, is contesting for the third time from the same constituency.
When this reporter reached the local Congress office in the town, a handful of workers were waiting there for the MLA to come. It was a Sunday and he had wedding ceremonies to attend. Youth Congress workers feel that this time the fight is tougher as the LDF has fielded their best available candidate – another young face who is equally known for his anti-BJP stance.
‘Thrithala constituency has a mixed population and we have had the whole hearted support of the Muslim community in the past elections. Most of the Muslim voters here are IULM supporters. But now, with the opponent also being a face of the anti-CAA protests, there could be a split in votes,” says Noushad, a Congress worker and former member of the Chalissery panchayat.
‘This is the first time that the LDF is fielding a Hindu candidate against Balram. In the last two elections, they had fielded Muslim candidates who were non-believers. This resulted in a double consolidation of both Muslim and ‘upper’ caste Hindu votes,” adds Noushad. He is still confident that the MLA’s performance alone can win the battle this time.
Balram also has the same confidence. “I am no stranger to the voters of Thrithala. I have been among them for the last decade, so they have no need for any skepticism. People here know who I am and what my stand is. The only difference is, with Rajesh coming in as opponent, the campaign could get a bit more political. That too will be an advantage for me,” says the MLA.
M.B. Rajesh, a former DYFI president, is popular among minority voters as the organiser of beef festivals in protest against the atrocities carried out by the rightwing Hindutva organisations in north India. He was one of the louder voices from the left when it came to protests against the implementation of the CAA.
The CAA dominates all issues and features in every interaction with local politicians and voters. It is also indicative of Pinarayi Vijayan’s increased supporter base among Muslims. Not just his guns blazing speech against Union home minister Amit Shah, Muslims are vocally appreciative of the Vijayan government’s undiluted stance on the issue.
“We cannot say whether this is support for the CPI(M) as a party or LDF as a group, but the community trusts Vijayan after the anti-CAA struggle. We saw his commitment when the state government passed a resolution against the implementation of the CAA and National Register of Citizens. Last year’s human chain organised by the LDF was a huge success. But this need not essentially translate into votes, as the community’s relationship with communists is always complicated,” says Mustafa Mundupara, a senior functionary of the Samastha Kerala Jamiat-ul-Ulema (EK faction), one of the top religious organisations of Sunni Muslims in Kerala. The community has traditionally backed the IUML and UDF.
A faction led by Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musliyar often supports the Left. Many leaders of Samastha and Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen, including clerics, had been part of the human chain, organised by the LDF, on January 26, 2020, to protest against CAA, but the CPI(M) would not capitalise on it, as some of their state leaders had started training guns at some of the Muslim organisations.
“During the anti-CAA agitations, the community’s affinity towards the Left, especially the CPI(M) had been even stronger but their recent stance on certain issues related to the Muslim community have not gone well with religious organisations,” adds Mustafa Mundupara. He was referring to CPI(M) state secretary A. Vijayaraghavan’s remarks against some Muslim organisations, the IUML in particular. Vijayan too had accused IUML of “taking control of the UDF,” a statement which did not go well with many Muslim organisations.
However the other faction of the Samastha – the A.P. faction – seems to be backing the LDF. The brutal killing of one of their cadre by IUML workers in Kalluravi of Kasargod has pushed them closer to the CPI(M).
Even though they have serious apprehensions on recent positions taken by the CPI(M) leadership, it is pretty clear that the gap between the traditional Muslim organisations and the communist party is slowly closing. The seat sharing between the UDF and the Jamaat-e-Islami-backed Welfare Party of India, whom the traditional Sunni Muslims see as radicals, in the recently concluded local body polls must have been a catalyst for this.
On the other hand, the Welfare Party of India, once a close ally of the LDF has started playing hardball against them. They have a string of allegations against the Pinarayi government including that they have been playing the soft Hindutva card to win ‘upper’ caste votes. WPI leaders have said that many policies of the LDF government including the ‘forward caste reservation’ further this allegation and aim for religious polarisation.
“Since the BJP is not strong in the state, the CPI(M) knows such polarisation would be to its benefit,” says Hameed Vaniyambalam, the state president of WPI. But if at all of the strategy works, it would only be for the short term. Because in the long run, such a misguided policy would only help the BJP,” he adds.
The Social Democratic Party of India, the political organ of the Popular Front of India, also holds a similar view on the LDF’s policies.
‘The CPI(M)’s love for minorities should be taken with a pinch of salt, “says Mohammed Ashraf, an SDPI functionary of Palakkad district.
“It is true that they supported the cause and even organised many anti-CAA protests, but for us, none of those were sincere. If they were, their government would not have slapped cases against many of the Muslim activists who protested against the CAA,” says Ashraf.
Even though the WPI and SDPI constitute a minuscule portion of Muslims in Kerala, they are considered to be powerful influencers. Apart from their strong social media presence, Jamaat-e-Islami owns Madhyamam, the fourth-most circulated Malayalam newspaper, the television channel MediaOne and many other publication houses. The SDPI too have an online news portal, Thejus, and other publications.
While the government and the Left have been severely criticised by a section of Muslims for going soft on Hindutva, Vijayan personally appears to have appealed to a wider section of the community.
Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist.