The party is trying to turn the by-poll into an anti-Modi platform.

 

The Assembly byelection in Chengannur in Kerala’s Alappuzha district on 28 May, Monday, is considered to be a referendum on the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government in the state as it coincides with the second anniversary of the Left Front in power. Since the CPM has nothing much to boast about its achievement, the party is trying to turn the election into an anti-Narendra Modi platform, as is the case elsewhere in the country.

The other two fronts, Congress-led United Front and the BJP-led NDA, have failed in capitalising on the failures of the Left government and instead are trying to consolidate their vote share among the prominent communities in the constituency. Nair and Christian voters constitute almost 50% of the electorate here, with 24% and 26%, respectively.

Ezhavas account for 19% and Dalits 13%. Chengannur is one of the constituencies where the BJP had done exceptionally well in 2016. Its candidate P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, who is contesting this time also, had polled 29.36%, bagging 42,682 votes, just about 2,000 odd votes behind the second placed Congress candidate.

CPM had wrested this traditionally Congress seat last time and hence the stakes are high for the party. For the Congress it is sort of a do or die battle, since the soil under its feet in the state is slipping fast, almost giving way to BJP as the main opposition party. BJP, despite its improved showing last time, has not lived up to its promise to lead the state, which has lost its way, on the right path. While the CPM has fielded a Christian candidate, the other two belong to the Hindu community.

However, rather than issues like custody death and the Keezhattoor farmers’ agitation, two individuals seem to hold the key here. One is the mercurial Vellappally Natesan, general secretary of the SNDP, the socio-cultural wing of the Ezhava community, and the other is K.M. Mani, who heads his own party, Kerala Congress.

In the run-up to the last Assembly elections, Natesan had sort of raised the flag of revolt against the LDF and UDF and chose to chart his own course by launching a political outfit, Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) and cast his lot with the BJP-led NDA.

At the time, Natesan had handed over the reins of the party to son Tushar Vellappally, but there was no doubt that his was the final word when it comes to crucial decisions. NDA gained much from the tie-up, raising its vote share in the state almost to 14.5%. But it was all too clear that Natesan had failed to deliver what he had promised or hoped to, as the Ezhava community stuck to its age-old allegiance to the communist parties. Since then, Natesan’s relationship with the state BJP leadership deteriorated as his party did not get any rewards from the central leadership.

Grapevine had it that Natesan was bargaining for a gubernatorial post for himself and a Union Cabinet berth for son Tushar. Nothing of this sort happened as Amit Shah had seen through the game that the father-son duo was only interested in advancing their own interests and not of the NDA per se. So Natesan has now given a call for a conscience vote.

This will result in a lower vote share for the NDA candidate. Sreedharan Pillai, however, doesn’t believe so. “BJP’s acceptability among the minorities has gone up,” he has said. Hope lives, and Pillai, the local man, may know better.

After leaving UDF, K.M. Mani on his part was hoping to join the Left Front, but found it difficult thanks to stiff resistance from CPI and also objections within the party. He has now decided to support the Congress candidate, but not join the front.

“The decision will help boost our morale,” a Congress worker said. The Church too is supporting the UDF, contrary to the expectations of CPM, which has put up a Christian candidate with an eye on that vote share. The Church is unhappy with the government over its decision to water down the liquor policy by opening as many bars as possible that were closed down during the last regime. With the Nair Service Society too keeping equidistance from both the traditional fronts, CPM is finding the going tough this time.

It is at this point that the CPM has deliberately brought the communal element into the electioneering, hinting an unholy alliance between UDF and BJP. State party secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan has alleged that Congress candidate Vijayakumar is a Sangh Parivar man.

In this case, raising the bogey of communalism may not hold since Vijayakumar is the national vice-president of the Ayyappa Seva Sangham, an organisation helping devotees of Sabarimala temple and Chengannur is a major base for pilgrims heading to the temple. He is known in the area for his services to Ayyappa “bakths” known simply as “swamis”.

Though this shows the desperation of CPM, it has succeeded in blunting opposition attacks against Left misrule. Both BJP and Congress have gone on the defensive.

While the BJP has repeated its charge that Congress is helping CPM, Congress claims that it is the CPM which is consciously encouraging the growth of BJP in the state. However, this communal card may not work in favour of CPM. It may help Congress regain the seat, but the verdict may not be considered as one against the Pinarayi government. That is what the CPM wants.

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