Updated: September 21, 2019 8:27:49 pm
For over five decades starting in the mid-60s, when the local MLA’s car would drive through the constituency of Pala in Kerala, the people always knew who sat in it. For they have known and seen only one MLA in the last 54 years: the thick-browed man in a crisp, white kurta-mundu who loved to be addressed as ‘Mani sir’. No politician in India could perhaps rival KM Mani’s on-the-trot 13 consecutive victories in Pala, where his margins have see-sawed up and down. In some years, he looked invincible right from the first round of counting. In others, he had to grasp onto a win with just a few hundred votes. People loved and hated him in equal measure, but none could dispute that the town, on the banks of the serene Meenachil river, remained tightly under his grasp his entire lifetime.
All that’s about to change though on Monday, when the voters of Pala would queue up for a bye-election to choose their new MLA. The constituency fell vacant on April 9 this year when Mani succumbed to long-standing respiratory illnesses at the age of 86 at a private hospital in Kochi. Now, in the wake of his death, Pala has been rocked into a fresh electoral fight where his absence looms larger than ever.
His passing away reflects larger in the UDF camp, a coalition headed by the Congress of which Mani’s party, the Kerala Congress (M), has been an ally. After Mani’s death, the KC(M), a small, regional party which exerts influence primarily among the Christian and farming communities of central Kerala, has been embroiled in a tussle for leadership between Jose K Mani, Mani’s son, and PJ Joseph, a senior party leader.
Both factions engaged in an ugly spat of parallel press conferences and party meetings to establish supremacy, before being told by the Congress to cool off. Heavy drama ensued before the two groups settled on the name of Jose Tom Pulikkunnel, a little-known organisation man, as the UDF candidate for the Pala seat. But even then, the conflict between the two factions led to Pulikkunnel missing out on the official party symbol of two-leaves and having to contest on an alternate symbol, a pineapple.
The deep divisions within the KC(M) was evident on Friday at a big stage erected in the middle of Pala town for the ‘kalashakottu’, a ceremony displaying a party’s strength on the final day of campaigning. In official conversations, leaders said the party was united, but there were enough indications of the disquiet within. The main stage was filled with leaders of the Jose K Mani faction, with workers of the other group hardly to be seen.
“Yes it’s true that there were problems initially, but now those differences have been put to rest. PJ Joseph is also actively campaigning on the ground and the UDF is united. Besides, after the election, there’s every chance that the (leadership) issue will be solved,” said Jose Puthukala, the state president of the KC(M)’s trade-union wing.
But he hastens to add, “Please write that Jose K Mani is the chairman,” indicating which faction he’s loyal to. In June, a Munsiff court in Idukki had stayed the elevation of Jose as the party chairman.
For the KC(M), Pala is a seat it cannot afford to lose. After all, it was represented, since its formation, by the party’s founding-chairman Mani and a setback here would be seen as a blot on his legacy. Which is why the party hopes to paper over the cracks within by the image of Mani and the work he’s carried out for the people here.
‘Pulikkunnel is just a candidate’
On party posters, a black-and-white smiling face of Mani stood out in the background, with Pulikkunnel’s in front. The posters all read the same tagline, “Hridayathil Mani sir, namukkoppam Jose Tom (Mani Sir in our hearts, Jose Tom with us).”
In fact, Pulikkunnel and a battery of leaders had begun the first day of the campaign by lighting candles and offering flowers at Mani’s grave in the town. Every speech they made, began and ended with Mani and his achievements.
Advocate Kushalakumar, a senior party leader, said as much. “Pulikkunnel is just a candidate. He’s seen as a disciple of Mani. The votes are actually for Mani and the development works he has carried out in Pala. People will remember him when they cast their votes. In fact, I think he’s become even more popular after his death.”
Puthukala’s eyes are moist when asked if Mani’s absence was felt in the campaign. “He was like a father to me. He was such a benevolent and considerate leader. Anybody could go up to him and talk to him. Everything that KC(M) today is because of him and his hard work.”
“He’s created such a beautiful bypass that cuts in front of his home. And you know what, he broke off his own wall and gave away land for the bypass. That’s how generous he is. Add to that, the subsidies he gave for rubber planters and the Karunya healthcare pension.”
That Mani, even when he was elected as an MLA, routinely found his way into the state cabinet irrespective of which political coalition won, is not lost on anyone in Pala. As a minister, who handled finance, law, irrigation and revenue in as many as nine cabinets, there are also doubts among many in Pala whether he could have done so much more for his hometown. The town may seem exciting with its smooth roads, a pristine river flowing by, modern bakeries and ancient churches jostling for space, but if one were to step out of the municipality’s limits into the villages on the outskirts, the glimmer falls off.
Main rival is NCP’s Mani C Kappan
And that’s exactly what Pulikkunnel’s chief rival and NCP leader Mani C Kappan harps about. Kappan had fought against Mani unsuccessfully in 2006, 2011 and 2016, but he’s credited with bringing down Mani’s victory-margins dramatically. In 2016, Mani then facing charges of bribery and corruption, was widely believed to lose, but he eventually beat Kappan by just over 5,000 votes.
“Pala’s development is limited to half-a-kilometre radius of land. There is no infrastructure outside of the town. People living in the panchayats around are also a part of the constituency. An MLA must work keeping that in mind,” said Kappan over phone. Kappan, nominated as the official candidate of the CPM-led LDF, had a head-start over his rival.
A company to oversee hike in rubber prices, creating value-addition for the local products in the constituency and creation of a food-park to boost marketing of such products are some of the promises Kappan is making, with an eye on the farmers who form a big chunk of the constituency’s profile.
Unlike the UDF, which is intent on keeping Mani in the narrative, Kappan said his agenda is centered around development, not any particular leader. “The people of Pala are wise. They know better,” when asked about sympathy votes flowing in for the UDF candidate.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who addressed a dozen gatherings in Kappan’s favour, did not take the name of Mani even once in the concluding speech on Friday evening. He did not allude to the internal rivalry within the KC(M) too. Instead, he dwelt largely on the promises that his administration has delivered in the last three years.
The saffron shadow
“This is a government that is committed to the poor. Our welfare schemes, projects for SC/ST communities, pension for elderly people are examples. Projects that were said to be impossible are being delivered now and naturally some people are jealous,” the chief minister said.
He lashed out at the Congress for not serving as a real opposition in Parliament. “Congress is not the badal (alternative) it claims to be. The Left Front’s numbers in Parliament may be small, but we are the real alternative to the BJP. We are raising our voice for the people of this country and questioning the Centre on its policies,” he said.
The third axle of the political fight in Pala is the BJP which is seeking to wean away voters who may be disillusioned with the campaigns of the LDF and the UDF. The idea of a BJP candidate winning doesn’t strike a chord with the locals here, but the gains the saffron party has been able to make is no less impressive.
From the 2011 elections, in which the party polled just 6359 votes to the 2016 elections in which it made four-fold gains by polling nearly 25000 votes, the trajectory of the BJP is not lost on its rivals. Both LDF and UDF camps are aware that their own electoral prospects hinge on how well the BJP does. If it does better, whose votes does it steal? Or if it sheds its votes, where do they go?
“In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, when NDA leader P C Thomas won from Muvattupuzha, he had led by over 15,000 votes in Pala, one of the Assembly segments. So we’re hoping for a repeat of the 2004 results. The climate is favourable to us,” said P K Krishnadas, a senior BJP leader and former state president.
“When the Modi wave swept the country in 2019, Kerala was one of the few states that stood away from the BJP. Naturally, people have realised that there’s no benefit in staying away. They are repentant now and want the BJP to win.”
Pala goes to vote on September 23. The results will be declared on September 27.
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