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In Kochi suburbs, a triangular election fight in offing with a corporate twist

Fast-forward six years, Twenty20 has emerged a potent political force not just in Kizhakkambalam, but also in neighbouring panchayats of Aikkaranadu, Mazhuvannur and Kunnathunad where it came to power in last year’s polls.

The food security supermarket started by Twenty20 in Kizhakkambalam.

On the eastern fringes of Kochi, in the village of Kizhakkambalam, the parking field of a sprawling supermarket was jam-packed with cars, two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws. A line of people, mostly women, flitted out of the supermarket every few minutes, carrying large bags laden with groceries, fruits and vegetables.

This is no ordinary supermarket. Here, a 10-kilogram pack of brown matta rice costs just Rs 84, down from over Rs 450 in the open market. Half-a-litre of milk costs Rs 5, 250 grams of tea Rs 14 and a pack of six eggs comes to Rs 9. When prices of essential food items are so heavily subsidised with discounts ranging from 30% to 70%, who wouldn’t line up to buy?

An auto-rickshaw driver, who buys provisions from the supermarket every month, said, “I have a five-member family. If I buy Rs 2000 worth of products, we can live lavishly for a month. It’s a big relief for those with tight family budgets.”

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The bhakshya-suraksha supermarket in Kizhakkambalam, started in 2017, has been one of the flagship initiatives of Twenty20, the charitable arm of garment exporter KITEX Group which has its headquarters in the village. In 2015, after running into a tussle with local politicians, Twenty20 decided to test the electoral waters. It contested in the local body elections that year, winning 17 of the 19 wards. Kizhakkambalam made headlines; it was the first time in India’s history that a corporate firm-backed party captured power of a local body.

The panchayat building.

Fast-forward six years, Twenty20 has emerged a potent political force not just in Kizhakkambalam, but also in neighbouring panchayats of Aikkaranadu, Mazhuvannur and Kunnathunad where it came to power in last year’s polls. And now, it has gone a step ahead, announcing its intention to contest the Assembly elections due in April.

The outfit hasn’t spelled out how many seats it plans to contest, but it’s seen as primarily wielding influence in Kunnathunad constituency, represented by the Congress-led UDF since 2011. In what was a straight CPM-Congress fight till 2016, the entry of Twenty20 makes it an intriguing three-way contest.

Sitting inside his palatial corporate office, Sabu M Jacob, the chief coordinator of Twenty20 and the managing director of Kitex Group, said, “For the Assembly elections, we need to find qualified, knowledgeable people, preferably youngsters. We can make compromises if we find a retired IAS officer or retired judge as their experience will compensate for age. If we get the right person, we will contest.”

Sabu M Jacob interview |‘People are supporting Twenty20 because we are different from other parties’

Local leaders of the CPM and the Congress admit that the political equations in Kunnathunad have changed post 2020, and that their primary fight is not with each other, but with the Twenty20 candidate. At the same time, they believe they stand a chance because people vote differently in panchayat and Assembly elections.

Zakeer, a local committee member of the CPM in Kizhakkambalam, said, “In the local body polls, a lot of people did not want to upset the Twenty20 and vote for us as they were getting access to food subsidies. The Assembly election is a pakka political fight. It will be fought on issues like CAA-NRC and there’s a large Muslim community here. They (Twenty20) don’t have a stand on major political issues.

He alleged the benefits of measures like subsidised food are only offered to those attending meetings and public programmes of Twenty20. Nearly 30% of the residents of Kizhakkambalam don’t have access to the supermarket for the same reason, he said.

In contrast, the ruling CPM-led government’s disbursal of welfare pensions for different categories of people like elderly, disabled, agricultural labourers and widows transcend political affiliations, said Zakeer. “One in three houses here has a member who’s getting one of these pensions. They will surely vote for us,” he said.

Elias Karipra, the Congress local mandal president, was dismissive of the corporate party’s term in power, “Their rule is dictated by slavery. There is an ‘ooruvilakku’ or social boycott practiced among their members. They cannot interact or engage with people of other political ideologies. They cannot even invite them to marriages/funerals at their homes.”

“If votes of CPM do not go toward Twenty20 like in the panchayat election, we will win comfortably,” said Karipra.

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