Anthoor appears to be going through a slow but welcome political transformation.
The municipality with 28 wards in Kerala’s Kannur district is a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) fortress.
In 2015, the party-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) had won the majority to rule the municipality - which lies 15km north of district headquarters in Kannur - even before the first votes were polled.
The reason: LDF nominees were elected unopposed in 14 wards, or 50 per cent of the total wards. The remaining 14 candidates registered thumping victories through ballot, making Anthoor an ‘opposition-free’ civic body in the very first election held after the formation of the municipality.
This had become a talking point across Kerala. Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had alleged that CPM scuttled the election by not allowing their workers to file nominations. CPM had denied the charges.
Anthoor was again in the news in 2019 after the suicide of an non-resident Indian businessman Sajan Parayil after he reportedly failed to get clearance for his convention centre from the municipality officials.
Anthoor will elect a new municipal council on December 14.
What makes the poll interesting this time around is that LDF candidates were elected unopposed in just six wards.
Anthoor, an overview
Anthoor is a prominent educational, tourist and spiritual destination in Kerala.
It is home to many reputed educational institutions, such as the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), Government Engineering College Kannur and MVR Memorial Ayurveda Medical College. Sree Muthappan Temple in Parassinikkadav is a popular spiritual hub while Vismaya Infotainment Park and Snake Park are top tourist destinations. Anthoor is the headquarters of the fourth Battalion of Kerala Armed Police. Many small scale industrial units, weavers' co-operatives and successful cooperative banks are in operation in the municipality.
3-way & 2-way contests
There is contest in 22 of the 28 wards in Anthoor this time.
The UDF is contesting 18 wards. Of this, Congress, which is heading the coalition, has fielded 11 candidates. Its allies Indian Union Muslim League is fighting in four, Forward Block in two and Communist Marxist Pary (CMP) in one ward.
BJP has fielded 12 candidates.
In the LDF, CPM is contesting in all wards, except the one alloted to its alliance partner, the Communist Party of India (CPI).
LDF, UDF and BJP are engaged in three-way contests in eight wards.
UDF takes on LDF directly in 10 wards.
Four wards witness a straight fight between BJP and LDF.
Inside a CPM stronghold
Despite the increase in the number of contested wards, the opposition parties lag far behind LDF on the campaign front.
Almost all walls here are painted with the graffiti of hammer and sickle (CPM’s election symbol) or ears of corn and sickle (CPI’s election symbol), and posters and hoardings of LDF candidates occupy vantage points.
In contrast, the campaign posters of UDF and BJP are visible only in their limited pocket boroughs.
LDF candidates follow meticulously charted campaign plans that thrust on home visits.
Candidates and five accompanying workers begin house visits in the morning everyday, strictly adhering to COVID-19 protocols.
On Wednesday, this correspondent accompanied CPM candidate K P Unnikrishnan Master who is contesting from Vellikkeel (Ward No. 1). He is up against T N Unnikrishnan of Congress and Vinod Kumar of BJP.
CPM candidate was elected unopposed from this ward in 2015.
“I have personally met all voters here. My victory is a foregone conclusion,” Unnikrishnan Master said.
Voters, whom this correspondent spoke to, said they have not heard about his opponents.
Dharmashala (Ward No. 20) witnesses a three-way contest among T K V Narayanan of CPM, K P Adam Kutty of Congress and Deepu K C of BJP.
In 2015, CPM’s N V Sarojini had defeated BJP’s K V Jayashree by 312 votes. (Sarojini got 612 of the 914 polled votes).
Adam Kutty is focussing mainly on house visits.
On Thursday, Kutty visited his neighbourhood accompanied by Congress leaders. He got cold responses in some places.
“People are afraid of CPM. That is why they behave indifferently. They will be branded as anti-CPM if they welcome us,” he said.
K C Deepu, the BJP candidate in this ward, also focuses on house visits.
“No campaign can match house visits during an election,” he said.
BJP has erected hoardings and painted lotus (its election symbol) on a wall in a neighbourhood.
“Our workers mustered courage to erect the hoardings. It was unimaginable here a few years ago,” said BJP leader Raveendran.
Raveendran contests from Anchampeedika (Ward No. 25) while his wife Vasantha fights from Ayyankovil (Ward No. 8).
We want election in all wards: CPM
CPM leader and outgoing chairperson P K Shyamala Teacher says her party wants elections in all wards in Anthoor
“The local body poll is a precursor to the 2021 Assembly election. So this election will help us reach out to people and inform them about the achievements of the State government led by Pinarayi Vijayan. LDF does not want its candidates to be elected unopposed,” said Shyamala, who is leading LDF’s poll campaign.
But UDF and BJP say elections in all wards will happen only if CPM stops political violence.
“Political freedom is a distant dream in Anthoor,” said Congress leader A N Anthooran.
He said UDF took huge efforts to field 19 candidates this time. “People came forward to file nominations only after we offered them protection. CPM always silences political opponents through violence,” he said.
Anthooran said UDF had prepared a list of 19 candidates in 2015, but many of them succumbed to CPM’s threats at the last minute. “They clinched 14 seats through violence. This time we are seeking votes against CPM’s politics of violence,” he said.
Echoing him is BJP leader Raveendran. He said many of his party workers remain silent for fear of attacks. “Twelve people have come forward to file nominations braving CPM threats. This is the maximum we can dream of at the moment,” he said.
CPM’s Shyamala said Congress and BJP are raising baseless allegations to discredit the people of Anthoor. “Both the parties have miniscule presence in Anthoor because people do not subscribe to their ideologies. They blame CPM to cover up their own weaknesses,” she said.
She said the number of opposition candidates in the fray proved the allegations wrong. “If CPM attacked them, how could they field candidates?” she asked.
Development, a major poll issue
The LDF seeks votes for the developmental activities it initiated during Shyamala Teacher’s tenure.
The coalition highlights the successful implementation of solid waste management, water conservation, paddy cultivation in 12 acres of fallow land and construction of 383 homes for the homeless to woo voters.
“We launched many development projects. We selected beneficiaries purely on merit. We were non-partisan in our approach and the next council will continue these activities,” Shyamala said.
Opposition raises Sajan’s death
Opposition parties alleged that CPM’s development claims were hollow. They said suicide of non-resident Indian businessman Sajan Parayil was a proof of CPM’s anti-development agenda.
Sajan Parayil died by suicide on June 18, 2019 after the municipal council reportedly delayed licence to his newly-built Partha’s Convention Centre. The CPM and Shyamala Teacher drew a lot of flak for his suicide.
But a Special Investigation Team that probed the death found that municipal council or chairperson had no role in Sajan’s suicide.
Anthooran says Sajan’s suicide is a major election issue. “Sajan took his life because of desperation. He tried hard to get the licence for his convention centre. CPM leaders did not listen to his pleas. CPM is discouraging investors in Anthoor. The culprits for Sajan’s suicide should be punished,” he said.
BJP’s Raveendran said Sajan was a CPM sympathiser and even he could not start a business in Anthoor. “CPM is against development,” he said
Shyamala Teacher said the municipal council had no role in Sajan’s suicide.
“The municipality officials had issued notice to Sajan’s convention centre for violating the norms. Sajan came to meet me at that time. I told him that since he got the notice, he should try to regularise it. I had not met him after that. But the media reported many false stories. The police investigated the suicide. They could not find any evidence against me. All the allegations were baseless. Anthoor residents know everything,” she said.
LDF aims another sweep
Despite the campaign shortcomings, UDF and BJP eye wins in two wards each.
“We will win Ayyankovil and Dharmashala wards,” said Anthooran.
BJP’s Raveendran said his party will win Kadameri and Dharmashala wards. “We are fully confident,” he said.
However, LDF has not taken the opposition claims seriously. “Neither UDF nor BJP enjoys mass support in Anthoor. They cannot even win a single seat through ballot,”Shyamala said.
“It is going to be an LDF sweep once again.”