Three weeks from now, Kerala’s 2.71 crore eligible voters will head to the polling booths to elect their representatives to 1,199 self-governing local bodies across the state. The elections, being conducted in three phases, are seen as barometers to know which way the political winds are blowing in the state ahead of the crucial Assembly elections next year.
With nearly 22,000 wards up for grabs, 50 per cent of which are reserved for women, the elections in December are the perfect opportunity for grassroots workers and leaders of major parties to dive into electoral waters and kickstart their political careers. For many, it is a debut election. For past candidates, it is a test if they will increase or reduce their previous margins.
What’s more, Kerala’s model of participatory decentralised governance accords major responsibilities to rural and urban local bodies and therefore guarantees its elected representatives the chance to usher in change at the local level.
As with every election cycle, many candidates this time have attracted media attention for a variety of reasons. Some have quirky names, others are creating history. The Indian Express speaks to some of them.
BJP’s Assamese candidate in CPM bastion
Munmi Sajeesh’s tryst with Kerala began with a missed call. Munmi, a native of Lakhimpur in Assam, got a missed call one day from Sajeesh, a daily-wage labourer in Kerala, when the latter misdialed while calling his friend. They picked up on that accidental phone-call, fell in love and got married a year later with the blessings of both families.
Settled in Kerala for the past six years, Munmi has quickly learnt the tropes of Malayalam, showing hints of even the distinct dialect of Kannur, where she lives with her husband and two kids. The 24-year-old has now been nominated by the BJP as a candidate in the women-reserved 11th ward of the Iritty municipality, a bastion of the CPI(M).
“I love Kerala. Maybe, because I’m an Assamese woman, the people here have also given me a lot of love,” she said over the phone.
Her candidacy in the election has surprised her. Her husband is an active BJP worker while her family, once traditional Congress supporters in Assam, have switched loyalties to the BJP of late.
“There are a lot of central schemes that are not being implemented at the ground. Funds are coming to the municipality but they are not reaching the people. For example, the money that was supposed to be disbursed to Jan Dhan accounts during the lockdown. Only 20% beneficiaries have gotten it. There are a lot of poor people in this ward. So I will try to resolve these issues if I get elected,” said Munmi who faces a tough fight from candidates of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and CPI(M).
The milkwoman-mayor of Thrissur
For over three decades, Ajitha Vijayan has had a daily morning ritual that she has seldom broken – distributing milk-packets to over 150 households in her neighbourhood of Kanimangalam in Thrissur district. And so in 2005, when she fought her first election as a councillor from the ward for Thrissur corporation as a CPI candidate, the voters didn’t really have a problem choosing her because she was ostensibly the first person they saw in the morning every day.
But once elected as councillor, they feared she would drop the job of milk-distribution. But to their surprise, she didn’t. And in 2018, into her second term as councillor, when she was elected as mayor of the corporation, this time people were sure that she would not be able to balance her morning job as well as major responsibilities in the civic body. But she surprised them again. The voters of the ward were silently thrilled that the city’s mayor was personally distributing their milk-packets.
This election, Ajitha has been renominated from Kanimangalam by her party and is seeking a third term, perhaps even the mayor’s post.
“This election is about continuing the developmental projects that we began in the last term. A lot of far-sighted projects have been planned. Only if there is continuity of the same council, can these schemes be implemented. Be it road, power, water and housing, we have done a lot in the last term,” she said.
On whether she will continue her milk distribution duties post election, she replied, “As long as I’m healthy, I will do it.”
A vote for ‘Corona’ in Kollam
Union Minister Ramdas Athawale may have famously chanted ‘go corona go’ in March this year when the pandemic had begun to double down on India. But in Kerala’s Kollam district, a bunch of BJP workers are pleading these days, ‘please vote for corona.’
That’s because 24-year-old Corona Thomas is the party’s official candidate from the Mathilil ward in Kollam corporation. A first-time candidate, Corona is hoping to wrest the ward for the party which it had lost to the UDF by a small margin last time.
Corona, who has a twin brother named Coral, said her parents were insistent on finding unique names for their children. Corona meant a circle of light seen around a luminous body.
“From childhood, I have never been fond of this name. I even wanted to change it,” she told iemalayalam.com.
“When news about the coronavirus began circulating, naturally my name started getting a lot of attention. Initially, people used to make fun of me and I used to feel sad. When the outbreak became serious in Kerala, some of them used to mock me saying, ‘see corona is coming. Go corona go.’ But now, all that mocking has stopped. Now, I don’t feel like changing my name,” she added.
In October, she made local headlines when she tested positive for the virus along with the baby she was carrying at the time. Both mother and daughter fought the virus bravely at the Kollam Medical College and recovered soon. After defeating the coronavirus, Corona Thomas is now up for her debut election.
Making history for his tribe
Until a couple of decades back, the Cholanaikkan tribe, listed as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTGs) in India, used to live in rocky caves deep inside forests in the Nilambur valley in northern Kerala, hunting small animals and gathering honey and wild tubers for a living. Off late, many families of the tribe have received government housing and are beneficiaries of welfare schemes, inching closer to mainstream society.
Now, a 21-year-old member of this tribe has shattered the glass ceiling by becoming the first one to contest elections to a block panchayat. If Sudheesh C wins, he will be the first from the community to hold elected office.
Sudheesh, who studied up to class XII, has been nominated by the CPM-led LDF from the Vazhikkadavu division of Nilambur block panchayat which has been reserved for Scheduled Tribes.
“When the Vazhikkadavu division became reserved, the party asked us if someone was willing to contest. So we proposed Sudheesh’s name. We have been associated with the party for some time now,” said his brother Sabareesh.
If elected, Sudheesh hopes to bring change through better roads leading to the tribal colonies, education for the children and more transportation options for his community. The threat of wild elephants also remains for the remote Alakkal colony, where he resides.
‘Hello, my name is King Kong’
There’s a spontaneous burst of smiles and surprise when the 57-year-old introduces himself to prospective voters in the fourth ward of Mararikulam North panchayat in coastal Alappuzha district. “Hello, my name is King Kong. I am the Congress candidate here. Please vote for me,” he requests voters with folded hands.
“Their reaction is one of joy and amusement so that makes me happy too,” K King Kong chuckles over the phone.
Predictably, the circumstances of his naming at birth is linked to the superhit Gorilla fantasy film which goes by the same name. “My father and brothers after watching the film decided on the same name for me. They thought it was a unique name. No one would possibly claim that name. It followed me to school, college and my workplace. People are surprised when they hear it, but it hasn’t affected me negatively,” he said.
The Congress has given King Kong a chance to test electoral waters for the first time after he served the party diligently for a long time in various positions. He’s currently the party mandal vice-president, INTUC mandal president and a member of the Dalit Congress unit.
“There are sections of the voters who are favourable to me and the party in this ward. So I’m hoping to win,” he signed off.
‘Age no bar for public work’
Imagine having to wait until your birthday to contest elections. That’s exactly what Reshma Mariyam Roy did this week.
November 18 was her birthday, the day she would turn 21 – the minimum legal age to contest elections in India. And so, Reshma and workers of the CPI(M) in the Aruvappulam panchayat in Pathanamthitta district waited patiently for Nov 18 to file her nomination as a candidate in the 11th ward of the panchayat. The next day, which was the final day of filing nomination papers, Reshma, accompanied by party workers, enlisted her name. If her nomination is accepted, she would be the youngest candidate in the fray.
“I entered politics through the SFI while in college. As an active worker, I was able to contribute a lot through the floods in 2018 and the Covid pandemic this year. That’s when I learnt that my name was being discussed for the local body polls by the party. If the elections were held as scheduled earlier in October, I wouldn’t have been able to contest because my birthday was Nov 18. But when the polls got delayed due to the pandemic and the last day of filing nominations was declared as Nov 19, the party picked me,” she told iemalayalam.com. SFI is the student wing of the CPI(M).
Her family, inclined to the Congress, was not initially enthusiastic about her candidacy. “But they listened to what I had to say. They understood my position. And now, they support me fully,” she said.
The CPM-led LDF narrowly lost power in the Aruvappulam panchayat in 2015 to the UDF. This time, with the help of young candidates like Reshma, the Left plans to wrest control of the local body.
“My rivals are campaigning against me citing my age. But during the floods and the pandemic, I worked relentlessly for the people here at my young age. To work for the people, age is not a barrier,” she said.
(With inputs from Nelvin Wilson)
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