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“League ine marakkan pattuvo (Can you overturn the League?),” is perhaps the most common and uncomfortable question Opposition leaders have to field in Vengara, a bottle-shaped Assembly constituency in the heart of Malabar region in Kerala. The ‘League’ here refers to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the strongest ally of the Congress in Kerala and unquestionably the most powerful party controlling Malappuram district. And that’s why, the question making the rounds on the eve of a bye-election in Vengara is not as to who will win this election but more importantly, what the winning margin of the League candidate will be.
The bye-election, scheduled for Wednesday, was necessitated after sitting MLA PK Kunjalikutty vacated the seat to contest the Malappuram Lok Sabha seat. E Ahamed, the MP from Malappuram and former union minister, died earlier this year following a cardiac arrest. While the IUML nominated KNA Khader, a former MLA from nearby constituency of Vallikkunnu, the CPM-led LDF’s candidate is PP Basheer, who lost out to Kunjalikutty in 2016 by a margin of over 30,000 votes. The BJP candidate is K Janachandran Master, who has contested several parliamentary and Assembly elections though he has not tasted victory even once.
On Monday, there was feverish excitement outside the UDF camp (UDF is the alliance headed by Congress in Kerala which includes IUML) in Vengara. Party supporters and workers trooped in and out of a white canopy under which senior leaders deliberated on how to make the most of the final day of the election campaign.
“There is no chance our last year’s victory margin will come down,” said Abid Hussain Thangal, IUML legislator from nearby Kottakkal, sipping a cup of Suleimani tea, a local favourite.
“We have done very good work. This election will be fought on the inefficiency of the state government. Last year, they said ‘LDF varum, ellam sheriyavum’ (LDF will come, everything will become alright). There has been no development in the past one year. They expanded alcohol coverage and panchayat-related works are in disarray. They have destroyed cooperative banks,” added Thangal.
But Basheer, the CPM candidate, is unfettered by the criticism. At the beginning of his last roadshow through the constituency, Basheer was confident about his chances in an interview to IndianExpress.com.
“Vijayam. Vijayathil koranju onnum illa. (Victory. We are expecting nothing short of a victory),” said Basheer beaming as he hoisted himself into an open jeep surrounded by enthusiastic supporters with party flags and banners of Che Guevara, the Marxist revolutionary from Argentina.
“Last time, I had studied this constituency. There is heavy anger here. With the visit of Pinarayi Vijayan and the rally of VS Achuthanandan, it has become a wave and a sort of tsunami. It will be nothing short of a victory,” he added referring to the anti-incumbency sentiments against the Muslim League.
At the same time, leaders of the CPM, which has never tasted victory in Vengara since the constituency was formed post delimitation in 2008, privately confided that apart from improving their vote-share, they expected nothing more from the bye-election. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the Kerala secretary of the party, has already said the result will not be a reflection on the performance of the state government.
Riyas, the owner of a hotel in Vengara, does not differ except on the victory margin of the League candidate. He, as everyone does in the constituency, insists the League will win but with a much reduced margin compared to 2016.
“Some people within the League are not happy with Kunjalikutty vacating Vengara to go to Lok Sabha from Malappuram. Also Khader is an outsider. He is not from Vengara. The margin may come down to 20,000 votes,” he said which would indicate trouble within the party.
Locals say Khader does not have the ‘magic’ that Kunjalikutty has. Kunjalikutty, lovingly called Kunjappa by his followers in Vengara, is a ‘son of the soil’ and has worked to improve the conditions in the constituency when he served as the state’s industries minister multiple times.
Contest for third spot
More intriguing than seeing the victor, locals say, is in determining who will emerge third in the contest. While the UDF and LDF candidates have made the contest a direct fight, the BJP and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) are left to make a dash for the third prize. In 2016, it was BJP which came third bagging over 7000 votes followed by SDPI with over 3000 votes.
“Our vote-share will surge in this election. Vengara is one of our weakest constituencies in the state and yet we have been able to conduct a spirited campaign,” said K Narayanan Master, general convenor of the BJP election committee.
The SDPI, which runs vitriolic campaigns and speaks of ‘working without limits’, has nominated KC Naseer, who is closely associated with the controversial case of Hadiya, alias Akhila, who converted to Islam and whose case is pending in the Supreme Court.