Kottayam, the turf of many splinter factions of the Kerala Congress party, will vote Thursday along with four other districts in the second phase of the local body elections.
The elections to 71 panchayats, 11 block panchayats, six municipalities and 22 seats in the district panchayat in Kottayam are a litmus test for the two prominent Kerala Congress factions — KC(M) led by Jose K Mani and KC(J) led by PJ Joseph — and will underscore how important they are to the respective coalitions they belong to.
This is the first time in over a decade that the two factions, which used to be a single entity by the name of KC(M) till a few months ago, are fighting each other from two opposite ends of the political spectrum. Fissures between the two factions had developed shortly after the death of KM Mani, the founder-chairman of KC(M), in April last year and intensified all through this year leading to the vertical split of the party.
In October this year, Jose’s faction broke away from the Congress-led UDF and became a constituent of the CPM-led LDF. The faction he led came to be recognised by the Election Commission and later the Kerala High Court as the official KC(M) with the ‘two leaves’ symbol. At the same time, the Joseph faction remained with the UDF and got the ‘chenda’ (traditional drum) symbol from the state election commission for the local polls.
While the Congress, CPM and other parties are also in the fray in Kottayam, all eyes will be on the wards witnessing pitched battles between candidates of the Jose and Joseph factions. The target voters of both parties are similar — Catholic voters and farmers — and it will be interesting to see who draws the most support.
In its previous united avatar, the KC(M) under KM Mani remained a steadfast ally of the Congress for over three decades, largely because the vote-banks and the ideological compass of workers of both parties were seamless and hence successful in winning elections.
Even when there were waves in favour of the Left parties in Kerala in the 90s and early 2000s, most local bodies and Assembly constituencies in Kottayam had favoured the UDF.
But of late, as was evident in the 2015 local body polls, 2016 Assembly elections and the bypoll in Pala, the CPM and its allies have been successful in making deep incursions into the Christian communities, especially Catholics. It is this popularity that the Jose faction hopes to ride on to prove its strength in these polls, before cutting deals with the LDF for the 2021 Assembly elections. If his party is unable to win enough seats, it will vastly limit his bargaining power for seat distribution.
Organisationally, Jose’s party is seen to have a slight upper hand over Joseph’s, both in terms of leadership as well as worker base. Jose has the support of two MLAs and an MP, while Joseph has two MLAs including himself.
Jose (55), a former Rajya Sabha MP, has the benefit of age on his side, although critics would say he doesn’t have the political maturity or level-headedness that his rival has. Jose remained for a long time under the shadow of his father and could out to prove his influence only after the latter’s death.
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