The Chengannur Assembly by-election is crucial for the three political formations in Kerala but strategy could make all the difference in a focused by-poll.
An analysis of by-elections in the last 40 years presents interesting patterns. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) had a definite upper hand in by-elections between 1978 and 2008 but the The United Democratic Front (UDF) has dominated all the by-elections in the past decade and the Congress-led front has to thank a change in strategy for the change in fortunes.
Kerala has witnessed 38 Assembly by-elections in the last four decades. The LDF won 25 of them, leaving only 13 for the UDF. In other words, the LDF has had a 66 per cent win rate. The left parties benefited primarily from an organised cadre and a well-oiled party machinery.
However, the UDF excelled in by-elections since 2009, with a 100 per cent win rate. The front has won all the seven assembly by-elections during the period.
When the Congress drew a blank
The Congress has lost all the by-elections in sitting seats between 1978 and 2008. Most of these defeats were even more humiliating since the party lost the seats vacated by very senior leaders.
In 1982, K Karunakaran contested the Assembly elections from Nemom in addition to his home turf Mala. The UDF won a majority and Karunakaran was chosen as the chief minister. He chose to retain Mala and resigned his membership from Nemom. A year later, his party lost the by-election from Nemom.
In 1984, the then speaker Vakkom Purushothaman resigned as the MLA from Attingal after he was elected as an MP from Alappuzha. The Congress lost Attingal in the following by-election. The same scene played out when Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala quit as Harippad MLA after being elected an MP in 1990.
In Ernakulam district, the Congress lost the assembly by-election to Njarakkal after the death of its representative K Kunjambu in 1992. In 1998, the party lost the Ernakulam Assembly constituency in the by-election necessitated by George Eden’s election to the Lok Sabha.
In 2004, former KPCC president K Muraleedharan lost Vadakkanchery.
Two lame victories
Though the Congress has lost all sitting seats in by-elections between 1979 and 2008, the party could claim two “technical” victories. One of them was in Paravur, where electronic voting machines were used for the first time in India in 1982. EVMs were used in 50 polling stations in the constituency. Though CPI’s N Sivan Pillai won by a thin margin, the Supreme Court ordered a re-poll in the booths where EVMs were used. The 50 booths went to poll again with conventional ballots. Congress’s A C Jose won this time.
Chosen as chief minister in 1995, A K Antony entered the Assembly through Thiroorangadi. However, the seat was vacated by Congress ally Muslim League.
The Congress’s poor track record was mostly the result of anti-incumbency sentiments. The LDF, however, could effectively stem the tide against its government whenever it was in power. The LDF was also benefited from the factional fights within the Congress.
Turning the tables
The UDF has never lost an assembly by-election since 2009 though. The alliance won all seven by-polls as it took a leaf out of the CPM’s game plan. Congress factions buried the hatchet and faced the elections together.
The backbone of the UDF’s by-poll strategy was the family meetings attended by top leaders including the ministers. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy had laid the framework of this popular strategy with his much-publicised interaction programmes. Even the chief minister was available to talk at family gatherings during the times of by-elections.
“We hardly get any feedback from voters in large election rallies,” Chandy said. “Family meetings are a different thing. Ordinary voters are able to express their opinions freely. This could be in your favour or against you. Yet we are able to redress those grievances. Women and the elderly make up a large part of such gatherings.”
All-out battle in Chengannur
The LDF, the UDF and the BJP are leaving no stones unturned in Chengannur. Candidates representing the three formations are trying to meet as many voters as possible. The UDF plan is no different from its tested strategies for Neyyattinkara and Aruvikkara. The front’s poll strategists are organising as many family gatherings as possible. Chandy is expected to attend meetings in at least 120 of the total 164 booths. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and other leaders are also expected to attend the meetings.
The LDF has its advantages too. The front has an edge because it is in power in the state. Plus its cadre system is unmatched.
The BJP is a formidable power in the constituency. The party had managed to increase its vote share from 6 per cent to 29 per cent last time. Who will walk away as the winner? The answer remain elusive until May 31.