Thiruvananthapuram/Guruvayoor: “NOTA (none of the above) should create history in the Guruvayoor constituency. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] votes that would have otherwise gone for Nivedida [Mahila Morcha state president Nivedida Subramanian], should go to NOTA. But if you ask me to choose a candidate, I would say K.N.A. Khader of the IUML [Indian Union Muslim League] should win. In Thalassery, A.N. Shamseer of the CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] should be defeated at any cost.”
This was Suresh Gopi, the actor turned Rajya Sabha MP and BJP candidate from Thrissur, speaking on a TV show the other day. He was answering a question on whom his party would support in the three constituencies where the BJP has no candidates. Gopi’s ad lib reaction on TV has put his party, which was already on the back foot after botching up the nominations for two constituencies, Guruvayoor and Thalassery, in another fix.
On March 19, the nominations of BJP candidates Nivedida Subramanian from Guruvayoor and N. Haridas from Thalassery were rejected by the returning officer, as they were incomplete. The nomination of NDA partner and AIADMK candidate Dhanalakshmi Marimuthu from the Devikulam constituency had also been rejected on similar grounds. However, the NDA decided to support S. Ganeshan, the Congress rebel candidate, in this constituency.
Even though the BJP candidates approached the Kerala high court against the returning officer’s decision, the court refused to intervene as the election notification had already been issued. Subramanian, president of the Kerala BJP’s women’s wing, and Haridas, president of the party’s Kannur district unit, are both senior BJP functionaries, thereby intensifying the embarrassment. Both of them had failed to file Form 26A and B, which are the authorisations from the national and state chiefs of the party.
“What Suresh Gopi has said is not the party’s decision, it could be his personal opinion and the party has nothing to do with it,” shrugged K. Surendran, the Kerala state president of the party. “We will take appropriate decisions on whom to support in Guruvayoor and Thalassery,” added Surendran.
The BJP later decided to support Dileep Nair, a candidate who filed his nomination as part of a newly floated outfit, Democratic Social Justice Party, which opposes caste-based reservations. In Thalassery, the BJP has decided to support C.O.T. Nazeer, a former CPI(M) municipal councillor who is contesting as an independent. Interestingly, Nazeer had earlier rejected the BJP’s support, citing political differences.
Even though BJP leaders tried to downplay the issue, the chief minister and ruling Left Democratic Front were very keen in presenting it as evidence for their allegation of a tacit understanding between the BJP and the United Democratic Front, which they call Co-Lea-B (Congress-League-BJP) alliance.
“It is not a slip of the tongue. He is a very prominent figure in their party. Other leaders would not have said it in the open, but Suresh Gopi is not a seasoned politician, that might have done the trick,” said chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in his daily media briefing amidst the campaign. “Now it is clear that the UDF has a deal with the BJP to win the constituency where the latter has a good vote share. Suresh Gopi’s statement revealed that the rejection of papers in Guruvayoor, Thalassery and Devikulam constituencies is not just an error. It is clear that the UDF will be helping the saffron party in other constituencies as quid pro qou.”
A disgruntled RSS leader and talks of a ‘deal’
‘Deal’ has become a key word during this election campaign. This came to the fore when R. Balasankar, the former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, accused the BJP state leadership of getting into a ‘deal’ with the CPI(M) after he was denied a seat in Chengannur. “The party state leadership might have struck a deal with the CPI(M) to lose Chengannur and Aranmula, to get some votes in Konni where state president K. Surendran is contesting,” a disgruntled Balasankar lashed out in a TV interview. Though the BJP leadership did not find this “allegation serious enough to respond to”, the UDF tried to use it as a weapon against the CPI(M).
The allegation did not get enough traction, even though it was levelled by a top RSS man, maybe because the ground reality did not favour this argument. The statistics also were not in his favour. The CPI(M) won the Chengannur seat in 2016 when K.K. Ramachandran Nair beat the sitting MLA, P.C. Vishnunath of the Congress. Nair polled 52,880 votes whereas Vishnunath managed to bag 44,897 votes. The BJP candidate, the then state president and now the governor of Mizoram, P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, finished a close third with 42,682 votes.
Two years later, in the by-election after Nair’s death, CPI(M) leader Saji Cherian retained the seat with an increased majority. This time, Pillai polled only 35,270 votes. It should be noted that the BJP had secured only 6,062 votes in 2011 when Congress’s Vishnunath had got 65,156 votes and CPI(M)’s C.S. Sujatha got 52,656 votes. In 2016, Nair could not increase the LDF’s vote share; he won the seat only because the BJP had eaten into the Congress’s vote share.
“Chengannur is a constituency that historically favoured the Congress and the UDF. We could taste victory only when the BJP made inroads into their pockets. It was Sreedharan Pillai’s candidature that helped us indirectly. In the by-election also, the BJP had retained a major chunk of their new voters. If the BJP fields a strong candidate, the advantage is ours. So why should we get into a pact with them?” asked Saji Cherian, the sitting MLA.
BJP workers on the ground unhappy
The allegation of a tacit understanding with the BJP is not uncommon for the Congress-led UDF, as they had fielded common candidates in two constituencies in the 1991 Lok Sabha and assembly elections. Interestingly both of them lost the battle, despite a thumping UDF victory across the state.
This time, the Guruvayoor and Thalassery fiasco has given more credence to the allegations levelled by the LDF, observe many political commentators.
“The difference between the UDF and LDF in Guruvayoor is 15,000 votes. There is a popular perception that the IUML candidate has covered this gap well by now,” said Nivedida Subramanian, who was the BJP’s nominee for the constituency. “I am not predicting the result though, it’s dependent on many factors such as the allegations against the government and other political issues. Our party has decided to back a candidate, so the party voters will stick on to that, but I cannot say for sure about the non-party votes that that we have been getting for the last couple of elections.”
The IUML candidate, K.N.A. Khader, a seasoned politician and orator, is pitted against newcomer N.K. Akbar of the the LDF. K.V. Abdulkhader, CPI(M)’s three-time MLA and a very popular leader, has been left out this time as per the party’s three-term cap policy for contesting elections. Khader had courted controversy as he offered prayers in front of the famous Guruvayur Krishna temple, drawing flak from traditional Muslim organisations.
“I am sure Lord Krishna will accept these rice flakes from me as a political Kuchela,” said Khader, who is an avid reader well versed in Hindu mythology and literature.
As it was celebrated widely outside Kerala as an example of the state’s secular tradition, the Left parties saw red. “It was obviously an effort to woo the Hindu voters, and see what has been the turnout now,” pointed out Abdulkhader, the outgoing MLA of Guruvayoor. “Setting aside the political rhetoric, one can see that the BJP sympathisers could easily vote for the IUML candidate rather than voting for us,” he added.
Many BJP workers on the ground echoed the same sentiment.
“It is really unfortunate that we, BJP workers, have to campaign for a candidate whom we have barely heard of. Nivedida vakil [she is a lawyer by profession] was a very good candidate. Last time she contested, there was a three-fold increase in our vote share. After that when Suresh Gopi ran for the Lok Sabha, we came second in many wards. This time, with the political atmosphere being very conducive, we had a real chance to put up a fight,” the despair was visible on the faces of workers like Gireeshan, who has taken a month’s leave from his private sector job in Tamil Nadu for the elections.
The mood is the same in Thalassery, despite the party deciding to back C.O.T. Nazeer, an independent candidate who had been a CPI(M) municipal councillor.
“We are not sure that all our votes will be polled for Nazeer. He was a staunch opponent of the BJP till recently. Moreover, the Congress candidate may attract more of our votes, as he is a devout Hindu,” said Sumesh, a BJP worker in Panoor, adjacent to Thalassery town.
The BJP impact
In the last assembly elections and the Lok Sabha elections, the NDA including the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) had polled around 15% of votes in the state. In 2016, they had won the Nemon seat in Thiruvananthapuram and came second in seven other segments, including Manjeswaram where they lost to the IUML by just 89 votes. (Later the IUML bettered the margin in the by-election after the demise of MLA P.B. Abdul Razzak.)
“In last elections we did get votes from the Congress camp in plenty. The booth president of the Congress who works with me in our organisation for the ex-servicemen votes for us. That’s why we are confident that we can retain the seat,” said an RSS pracharak who wanted to remain anonymous as he is a government employee. He has been actively campaigning for Kummanom Rajashekharan, the NDA candidate in Nemom.
With the entry of K. Muraleedharan of the Congress, the equation has changed. Now the statistics favour the CPI(M) candidate, V. Sivankutty, if Muraleedharan gets around 30% of the votes. But the CPI(M) camp is wary about the possible split in the ‘secular votes’ (by which they largely mean Muslim voters).
Kazhakkoottam of Thiruvananthapuram is another constituency where a fierce battle is on between Kadakampilly Surendran, the minister for temple affairs, and Shobha Surendran, the firebrand and oft-rebel BJP woman leader. Dr S.S. Lal, a medical practitioner who has some international exposure, is the UDF candidate there. With the minister in fray, this has become the real laboratory of a new politics which revolves around temples (read Sabarimala), religion and belief in Kerala.
Surendran started her high-voltage campaign by likening the minister to Poothana, the demoness in Hindu mythology. “He has come as Poothana to eliminate the Ayyappa devotees. I am sure the voters will transform into Krishnas and give him moksha this time,” she said at an election meeting. The minister, who chose not to react to this, has mellowed his stand on the Sabarimala issue, saying “those were unfortunate incidents that everyone feels sorry for”, a statement which did not go down well with the chief minister and his other cabinet colleagues.
The CPI(M) leadership feels that the minister’s apologetic tone, which brought the Sabarimala issue once again to the forefront, was uncalled for.
It is a fact that the exponential increase in the BJP/NDA vote share was one of the major factors for the UDF drubbing in 2016. In the subsequent Lok Sabha elections, a massive double consolidation of minority votes and the Hindu votes after the Sabarimala fiasco turned the tables in their favour, as the NDA could not capitalise on their struggle to ‘protect the temple traditions’. But an unbelievable comeback by the LDF, riding on the popularity of Vijayan, has made it even again. The bottom line is that even if the BJP-led NDA cannot make it to the assembly, their vote share could well be decisive once again.
Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.