Updated: June 9, 2022 8:17:57 am
The massive victory of Uma Thomas in the Thrikkakara by-election in Kerala last week came after the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) lost two consecutive Assembly elections in 2016 and 2021.
V D Satheesan, a five-time Congress MLA and leader of Opposition in the state, spoke to The Indian Express about the fiercely fought bypoll, how the opposition to the K-Rail Silverline project became the rallying point for the UDF, the Congress’ focus on capturing the “secular vote”, and why he thinks the bypoll is a political setback to the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. Excerpts:
How significant is the Thrikkakara by-election verdict for the Congress and the UDF?
We lost two Assembly elections back-to-back in 2016 and 2021. The party has been facing a crisis at the national level, with several state election losses and desertion of leaders. Before the by-election, the morale of our workers had plunged to the lowest level. But the win has energised our party workers. Now, there is hope and a feeling that the Congress can stage a comeback.
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What lessons has the Congress learned from this bypoll?
We realised not just the strength and weakness of our party but also that of the ruling CPI(M). The Congress in Kerala did not have a systematic approach towards elections – we have a history of poor election preparedness. We never had good election-engineering. But this time around, we addressed all of these issues before the election campaign and converted ourselves into an election-oriented party. We had leaders from various rungs in our party working in a coordinated manner. Our experience at the bypoll showed that with hard work and home work, the party can deliver results in any election. We are now going to replicate this systematic work in future elections.
How do you interpret the bypoll’s verdict?
The Opposition winning a by-election against the ruling government is a huge task. The Kerala government deployed its entire strength in Thrikkakara during the campaign. The Chief Minister, his Cabinet, and all the LDF leaders from across the state camped in the constituency for nearly a month. Taking on such a system was a big challenge and a lot of factors helped the UDF win. Firstly, an anti-incumbency factor had built up in Kerala a year into the second LDF regime. Secondly, we raised the Kerala Rail Silverline Project issue as part of our agenda. Our UDF machinery also worked very well in the constituency. The late legislator P T Thomas had a general acceptance in the constituency and his wife and our candidate Uma Thomas also has good will among the voters. We focused on all aspects of electioneering – from enrolling new voters to preventing bogus votes from CPI(M).
How has the victory helped you as an Opposition leader?
Ours is a collective leadership and the credit of the victory goes to the collective leadership. My role was only to coordinate the election work. When the Chief Minister started leading the LDF’s campaign, it became my responsibility as the Opposition leader to lead the UDF. The by-election was a referendum on the ruling front. I also openly stated I would be responsible if the UDF candidate failed to win or managed to win with a narrow margin.
You attributed the victory to the rallying of secular votes and have frequently blamed the CPI(M) for appeasing communal elements.
I declared at the outset that we would not solicit votes from any communal elements. The campaigning period was marked by PC George’s hate speech and the hateful slogans raised at a Popular Front of India conference in Alappuzha. I have aggressively attacked those spreading hatred in both the instances.
We openly stated that we want only secular votes and that our candidate needed to win only with secular votes. We did not dilute our stand on secularism and that worked in our favour. At the same time, we also maintained good relationships with all the communities in Kerala. Under the pretext of social engineering, CPI(M) has been appeasing communal elements – both majority communalism and minority communalism.
Majority of the people in Kerala are secular-minded and we have clearly understood that there is a vote base for a strong, secular position in Kerala. When the Congress adopted a stand against the two instances of hate speech, we did not fear that it would impact our prospects.
The BJP, however, was using the speech to split minority votes. But we were confident that the minority votes would stay with the Congress. We could convince the Muslim community that extreme elements would only contribute to the isolation of community members.
Why did the UDF convert the K-Rail Silverline project into an issue in an urban constituency comprising the middle class?
Many of my party colleagues were apprehensive about making the K-rail project part of the poll agenda. We then held a survey in the constituency and it revealed that the majority of the people are against the project. We proceeded to highlight it during the bypoll.
The CPI(M) believed that a large number of people would support the K-rail project because Thrikkakara is an urban constituency. We, however, made it a debate by distributing a booklet on the project to all the houses in the constituency. As the Sri Lankan economic crisis was already in the limelight during the campaign, people could easily understand what awaited Kerala, which is already in a debt trap, if the project is taken forward.
How can the Congress say that this by-election’s loss is a setback for the ruling front, considering the LDF has 99 MLAs in an assembly of 140?
It is true that their (LDF) government would not suffer from this defeat. Their government is safe for the next four years. However, politically, this is a big setback. We have never seen an entire Cabinet and an entire system camping in a constituency to win a by-election. Ministers went for door-to-door campaigns, making personal offers or addressing personal requirements of the voters. But that did not work. Voters did not fall into that trap. We could expose the Government on this front.
What would be your future approach towards the K-rail Silverline project?
The poll outcome shows that people are against the project. We will continue to oppose the project. The Government suspended the survey – to determine the area required for the project – fearing backlash at Thrikkakara. If they start the survey again, the UDF will oppose it.
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