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Rediff.com  » News » Election 2024: The Big Fights In Kerala

Election 2024: The Big Fights In Kerala

By SHYAM G MENON
Last updated on: April 01, 2024 12:02 IST
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Kerala's election discourse operates surreptitiously.
Its explicit face focuses on important national and local issues. At the same time, it seeks to secure apt communal equations to ensure votes, notes Shyam G Menon.

IMAGE: Shashi Tharoor, the Congress candidate from Thiruvananthapuram, leads a United Democratic Front march to Raj Bhavan in Thiruvananthapuram, March 23, 2024, to protest Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's arrest. Photograph: Kind courtesy Shashi Tharoor/X

Kerala has 20 seats in Parliament. Courtesy selection of candidates and the general political climate, the 2024 elections to Parliament in Kerala feature at least half a dozen interesting contests.

While the Congress and the Left parties have their established vote banks to dip into, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which hasn't yet opened its Lok Sabha account from the state, has been growing its vote share in polls at various levels.

Kerala's election discourse operates surreptitiously.

Its explicit face focuses on important national and local issues. At the same time, it seeks to secure apt communal equations to ensure votes.

The state goes to the polls on April 26. The following constituencies have emerged engaging tussles between the competing top political parties.

 

Thiruvananthapuram and Attingal

There is one thing most people agree on in Thiruvananthapuram. This year's election to the Lok Sabha won't be easy sailing for any of the top candidates here.

It is a tight fight between three outsiders in a capital city long feeling neglected by every state government occupying the secretariat.

Thiruvananthapuram spans topography ranging from the sea coast to the Western Ghats.

Lifestyle, religion, caste and political views vary within that distance. There are fisherfolk and hill farmers at the extremes and government employees, businesses and infotech workers in between.

In the punishing heat of the ongoing summer, covering the constituency is not a joke.

At 78 years of age, the Communist Party of India's Pannyan Raveendran is the oldest candidate among the leading contenders, followed by Shashi Tharoor, 68, of the Congress and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, 59, of the BJP.

None of them have roots in Thiruvananthapuram although Tharoor, the sitting MP, was elected thrice from the constituency (he is seeking a fourth term), Raveendran once and Chandrasekhar is altogether new.

All of them hail from north Kerala, an angle that is a pet peeve of the capital in Kerala's south, which bemoans occupation by state governments with a northern slant and itself overlooked.

Although a MP signifies local representation in national affairs, the dominant strain in campaigning so far by the three candidates has been development projects for Thiruvananthapuram.

Tharoor representing the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Raveendran, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) -= both traditional choices in Kerala -- are mutually competitive but generally on the defensive.

Chandrasekhar, his posters sporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'guarantee' and promising to implement things, is new flavor in the game.

As the title defender and MP thrice from Thiruvananthapuram, Tharoor emerged easy target for his opponents.

He had to come out with a list of development projects initiated during his tenure. Upon speaking to sections of the electorate, the noted author's weakness appeared to be his persona.

Given its mix of ordinary, level headed people and those still relishing aristocracy (a hangover from Travancore days), Thiruvananthapuram is a constituency that is difficult to please.

The no nonsense part of the electorate values an accessible, down to earth MP, who gets things done.

Tharoor's life in literature and the United Nations, appears not to have impressed some people and their craving for an elected representative they can identify with.

On the other hand, it cuts ice with the aristocracy (valuing status and scholarship), which constitutes a local swing element along with the denizens of the coastal belt.

Tharoor is known to cope with a state Congress unit that has rarely been welcoming of him.

Still, he is a solid example of improvement in communicating with the public and thrice elected is no small matter.

The respect, awe and affection many people have for him in Kerala's capital city is evident.

IMAGE: Rajeev Chandrashekhar, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: Kind courtesy Rajeev Chandrashekhar/X

An untested entity in Thiruvananthapuram, Chandrasekhar enjoyed acceptance with the Hindutva brigade and the city's aristocracy including retired military personnel therein.

Anything more, remained to be seen. A successful businessman and Union minister, he had the backing of India's wealthiest political party and cadres known for their systematic work.

Not to mention -- in Thiruvananthapuram, the BJP has finished second in previous parliamentary elections (it was also from Nemom in the constituency that the BJP secured its only assembly election win in Kerala to date, in 2016).

Within days of Chandrasekhar's candidature announced, there were those from the city's elite who unilaterally proclaimed him the frontrunner.

Past mid-March, an invitation to meet Chandrasekhar and Suresh Gopi (the BJP candidate in Thrissur) on March 20, got widely forwarded on social media.

At the venue, a club of Thiruvananthapuram's elite, apologetic hosts informed that the meeting was a private affair featuring select invitees.

The BJP desperately wants to win a Parliament seat from Kerala.

In the run-up to the 2024 election, political chatter threw up names ranging from Nirmala Sitharaman to S Jaishankar and even Narendra Modi as prospective candidate from Thiruvananthapuram.

At the time of writing (past March third week), public meetings as part of the election campaign were yet to gather momentum in Thiruvananthapuram, for the Congress and the BJP.

IMAGE: Left Democratic Front candidate Pannyan Raveendran interacts with students of the Government Arts College in Thiruvananthapuram, March 5, 2024, during his election campaign. Photograph: ANI Photo

The Malayalam words for crore and flag sound similar, save an extended intonation of the same syllable in the former.

In an oblique reference to Chandrasekhar while speaking at a local election committee convention in Thiruvananthapuram in mid-March, Raveendran said, "I don't have crores with me. All I have is a flag." It was faith in party, over faith in money power.

Besides their plebian backdrop, he and his campaigners also highlighted the reluctance of the Centre to support Kerala's financial needs and how the state was forecast to lose out representation-wise (for no fault than containing population growth) when the number of seats in parliament are enhanced.

Raveendran is among the senior most leaders of the CPI and LDF.

In politics, he has a clean reputation and like Chandrasekhar, has the benefit of being backed by disciplined cadres.

The LDF was the first among the major political fronts to declare its candidate and work commenced soon thereafter.

The LDF's campaign had two weak spots. First, notwithstanding the upcoming round being elections to parliament, there was the risk of discontent (any discontent) with the LDF government currently ruling the state, spilling over.

Second, as CPI candidate, Raveendran required whole hearted support from the Communist Party of India Marxist and other partners within the LDF, to pull off a comprehensive win.

IMAGE: Posters of the three candidates in Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: Shyam Menon

With overlap in the support base of Tharoor and Chandrasekhar -- especially among society's upper crust -- the key to a win in Thiruvananthapuram may revolve around impressing the ordinary, level headed public.

In this context, votes from the city's coastal belt, long known to be the stuff of swing, assumes importance.

A game changer here, would be how the various candidates and their parties are viewed against the backdrop of the Vizhinjam port, a yet to be commissioned infrastructure project (being executed by Adani) that upset and enthused people in equal measure.

Chats with those familiar with the coastal region revealed that as regards the Vizhinjam issue, all three parties are looked upon with suspicion.

The withdrawal of cases filed against agitators was perceived to give the LDF some advantage.

In the overall constituency-scenario, if the previously third-placed LDF eats into the UDF voter base, the thinner would be the margins the BJP requires to gain an advantage.

Thiruvananthapuram's story won't be complete without mention of Attingal, the adjacent parliamentary constituency composed of assembly segments from Thiruvananthapuram district.

As much as the Nairs form a swing element in Thiruvananthapuram, here both the Nairs and the Ezhavas wield influence.

Attingal includes the assembly segment of Varkala, which hosts the headquarters of the Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), spiritual beacon for the Ezhava community.

In the days of the BJP trying to consolidate Hindu and non-Muslim votes, harnessing the political patronage of the Ezhava community has been as much of an attraction for the party, as courting the state's Christian vote bank.

A tight fight was in the offing in Attingal with the big fish in the fray being Union Minister V Muraleedharan of the BJP.

IMAGE: Pannyan Raveendran speaks at an election committee convention at Peroorkada in Thiruvananthapur in mid-March. Photograph: Shyam Menon

Of all the chats I had, one with an autorickshaw driver in Thiruvananthapuram was worth remembering.

"When you vote, you are basically voting for change," he said.

Although merely betraying a well-entrenched Kerala habit of alternating between the LDF and the UDF, in 2024, voting for change is a tricky slope to be on.

For, after two continuous terms nationally, the BJP with its political ploys, treatment of opponents, fund raising tactics and credentials in secularism exposed, is as demystified a choice in Parliament elections as the UDF and LDF have become in state elections.

This time, the voter can't say: I didn't know.

Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha

Circumstances have made this year's contest to Parliament from Pathanamthitta, worth watching.

Pathanamthitta is just over 100 kilometres north east of Thiruvananthapuram.

This relatively young constituency, frequently associated with the politics of religion around the Sabarimala shrine, has become a litmus test.

It is the second most important constituency for study in 2024, to estimate whether the BJP's overtures to the Christian community in Kerala, bears fruit or not.

It was an affair that unfolded in stages, the most memorable of which was a senior functionary of the church saying that it would be alright to vote for the BJP if it promised a better price for natural rubber, a crop strongly linked to the Christian community.

Additionally, there has been the emergence of a distinct Right-wing faction personified by the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action (CASA), which is empathetic to Hindutva.

The question is -- just how much will all this manifest as a shift in votes towards the BJP? On January 23, 2024, the newspaper Deepika, widely read by Kerala's Christian community, wrote an editorial cautioning against trading the reality of attacks on the Christian community in parts of India, for the BJP's overtures.

Some also saw the church's stance as self-protective, given the convergence of religion and moneyed business it has become.

IMAGE: People gather at the LDF election committee convention at Peroorkada in Thiruvananthapuram in mid-March. Photograph: Shyam Menon

Meanwhile, the BJP engineered some attention-worthy gains in party membership.

Anil Antony, son of Congress stalwart and former Union minister, A K Antony joined the BJP in April 2023.

On the one hand, it was a high-profile shift against the backdrop of the BJP's sustained wooing of the Christian community.

On the other hand, apart from appealing to BJP voters, including Christians therein who agree with the BJP's politics (not to mention the son's shift causing embarrassment to the Congress), Anil Antony is a political lightweight.

He is contesting from Pathanamthitta.

This election will show the real worth of the BJP's investment in Anil Antony and along with it, whether the cozying up to the Christian church yielded any discernible advantage at the polls.

The main fight in Pathanamthitta is seen as between the defendant three-time MP from the constituency, Anto Antony of the Congress and T M Thomas Isaac, former finance minister of the state's LDF government.

While Anto Antony hails from Pala, an assembly segment of the neighboring Kottayam Lok Sabha constituency, Isaac has previously represented Mararikulam and Alappuzha in the state assembly (Mararikulam was included in the Alappuzha parliamentary constituency following delimitation).

Two veterans and a rookie -- that sums up Pathanamthitta's electoral predicament in 2024.

But it's a rookie many tracking the BJP's journey in Kerala, will watch closely.

IMAGE: An artist paints a wall with election propaganda at Gowreeshapattom in Thiruvananthapuram. Photograph: Shyam Menon

Roughly 65 kilometres north west of Pathanamthitta, the coastal city of Alappuzha (and the parliamentary constituency bearing its name) would have had a regular election season but for All India Congress Committee General Secretary, K C Venugopal, entering the fray.

Venugopal has represented the constituency previously following the Lok Sabha elections of 2009.

However, in 2024, his participation in the Lok Sabha polls (Venugopal is currently a Rajya Sabha MP from Rajasthan) assumes significance against the backdrop of a hugely weakened Congress party fighting nationally with its back to the wall.

The Congress of 2024 is a far cry from the party that faced the general elections in 2009.

In the upcoming elections, Venugopal will be the top most Congress office bearer from Kerala contesting elections in his home state.

Arrayed against him in Alappuzha would be the CPM's sitting MP, A M Arif, and Sobha Surendran, a senior leader from the BJP's state unit.

In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, which was swept by the UDF, Arif had been the LDF's sole winner in Kerala.

IMAGE: Rajeev Chandrasekhar speaks at the National Democratic Alliance's Thiruvananthapuram parliament election convention. Photograph: Shyam Menon

Postscript

On March 28, the National Democratic Alliance's Thiruvananthapuram Parliament election convention was inaugurated by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Amidst her rebuttal of the LDF's complaints of financial mistreatment by the Centre and her highlighting of the decline in the once famous Kerala model of development, the overall campaign pitch was clear -- when the BJP returns to power in New Delhi, Kerala and Kerala's capital would be heard properly if it has a BJP representative.

On his part, Chandrasekhar promised to bring in the Modi brand of politics of performance.

The meeting was held in a very elite residential pocket in the city.

Don't miss Part 2 of this Election Special, coming soon!

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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CHINESE CHALLENGE - 2022

CHINESE CHALLENGE

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