Assembly elections in the state may be three years away but a frenzied, high-stakes electoral battle is set to play out soon in Chengannur in the heart of central Kerala. A bye-election has been called after the incumbent CPM MLA KK Ramachandran Nair passed away on January 14 at a hospital in Chennai. Although the election date has not been announced by the Election Commission and is likely to coincide with the state elections in Karnataka, all three major coalitions – the CPM-led LDF, Congress-led UDF and BJP-led NDA have begun earnest preparations. A win or defeat for the CPM will not disturb its strong majority in the Assembly, but here’s why retaining Chengannur is as important for the Left as it is for its opponents.
What happened in 2016
Chengannur, that falls under Alappuzha district and Mavelikkara parliamentary constituency, is home to a large section of Hindu Nairs, Ezhavas and Christians, whose votes are instrumental for any party to win. For decades, the seat was nurtured by the Congress, which wielded immense clout among the Christians and taking a significant share among the Hindu votes as well. The last time the CPM won in Chengannur was in fact in 1970 when PG Purushothaman Pillai emerged the winner. Since then, the Congress has always held sway. But in 2016, its winning run was brought to a shocking halt when Ramachandran Nair, widely known as a good, grassroots leader of the CPM, overcame a challenge from PC Vishnunath of the Congress, an aide of former CM Oommen Chandy. In a traditional Congress bastion, Nair, who received 52,880 votes, defeated Vishnunath by 7983 votes. The shock defeat for the Congress that year was however not because of a surge of vote for the Left, but a strong showing by BJP candidate PS Sreedharan Pillai, who emerged a close third. The saffron party, which had never been a major player in Chengannur, was able to increase its vote-share from a measly 5% to a respectable 30%, a majority of which is believed to have come from the Congress.
Do-or-die battle, says Congress
“Njangalkku jeevan marana porattam aanu (It’s a do-or-die battle for us),” says John PV, Chengannur block president of the Congress. Although Vishnunath was widely expected to be renominated again, he wrote to party president Rahul Gandhi explaining that since he was in-charge of some constituencies in poll-bound Karnataka, his name should be excused from the poll fray in Chengannur. The AICC has confirmed the name of D Vijayakumar, a local leader from the constituency who is seen to have close connections with the Nair Service Society (NSS), which wields influence among the Nair community.
“We are very optimistic about our chances because we have a local leader. The votes BJP polled last time will come back to us as people have suffered through note ban and GST,” said John.
“CPM and BJP are parties that indulge in political killings. Congress is the only party that counter them through peaceful means and the minorities know that. The minorities here will, therefore, vote for us,” he added.
But whether the all-important Christian vote will indeed return to the Congress hinges on a very important factor: the stand of its one-time ally, Kerala Congress (M). After it broke ranks with the UDF in 2016, the KC(M) has been flirting with the LDF, even praising the government’s achievements. If in the final moments of the election, the KC(M) decides to support the LDF candidate, it could all go wrong for the Congress.
BJP, fresh from Tripura win, smells opportunity
Kerala remains the only Communist-ruled state in the country post the BJP’s unprecedented victory in the Left citadel in Tripura. It’s eyes now on the southern state, Chengannur automatically becomes a high-stakes battle to win for the BJP. The renomination of Sreedharan Pillai, the former state president who captured 42000 votes in 2016, is seen to be a move to that effect. A Nair leader, Pillai is seen as a vocal voice of the party on television debates and an articulate lawyer.
“2016-il, vismayam sambhavicha seat aanu Chengannur (In 2016, magic was created in Chengannur),” said Pillai, in a phone interview, in the middle of his campaign. Alluding to the BJP’s surge in vote-share, Pillai expressed optimism that he would get greater support from the minorities and the Hindu communities, propelling him to a victory this time.
“If BJP can win in northeastern states with sizable Christian populations, why can’t the same happen in Kerala? I have been meeting a lot of Christian community leaders and they are showing support. In 2016, we were able to take away 20% of votes from Congress and 6% votes from CPM,” he added.
But a big worry for the BJP in Chengannur is the support of its ally – the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) which has been aggrieved for some time. Its state president Tushar Vellapally was reportedly set up for a Rajya Sabha nomination, only to be denied at the last minute and given over to former BJP state chief V Muralidharan. Vellapally told reporters on Monday that BJP has been functioning unilaterally and that its vote-share in Chengannur will dip this time.
Pillai, however, seemed unperturbed. “I don’t think the BDJS will leave us. But I believe what has been promised to them by us should be given,” he said.
Nothing but victory on mind, says CPM
The importance that CPM places in the Chengannur bypoll is reflected in its candidate – Saji Cherian, the party’s popular district secretary. Cherian had gone head-to-head with Vishnunath in 2006 but had lost out to him by a margin of less than 6,000 votes. Having lost the bye-election in Vengara last year to the UDF, the CPM is keen to consolidate its strength in Chengannur and desperately wants to hold on to the seat. Its numerical majority in Assembly is intact, but a defeat in Chengannur will be disastrous for the party. With Congress leaders already proclaiming that the bypoll result will be a reflection of people’s feedback to the LDF government, it will be incumbent on CM Pinarayi Vijayan and state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan to win Chengannur.
But it’s not easy. The party knows that the seat has never been a safe one and the reason it won last time was thanks to the BJP which deflated the Congress vote-bank. The candidature of Cherian, a Christian, perhaps indicates how important it is for the CPM to make inroads into the Christian community. Bringing KC(M) into the LDF fold is therefore seen as electorally important for the Left.
“At this time, we can’t think anything beyond a victory in Chengannur. That’s how important this election is for us,” said MH Rasheed, CPM area secretary.
Rasheed said the result in Tripura will have no bearing on the bypoll. “It has no connection with Chengannur. We are not worried about the BJP. The development initiatives that KKR (KK Ramachandran Nair) began here will find result,” he said.