Analysis | Why Kerala bypolls will be a plain vanilla affair, with no major surprises

Analysis | Why Kerala by-polls will be a plain vanilla affair, with no major surprises
Pinarayi Vijayan, Ramesh Chennithala, Kummanam Rajasekharan

The byelections to the five Assembly constituencies on October 21 are not expected to turn up any crucial insights into how Kerala would vote in 2021.

Four of the five seats up for grabs are UDF bastions. Three of them (Vattiyoorkavu, Konni and Ernakulam) were safely held by the UDF candidates before they won big at the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

Manjeshwaram in Kasaragod fell vacant after the demise of Muslim League's P B Abdul Razak in October 2018. It is only Aroor, in Alappuzha, that belonged to the CPM.

It looks like conventions will be honoured. Even the last two byelections, in Vengara and Chengannur, did not throw up any surprises. The Muslim League and the CPM retained their seats.

In terms of numbers, the byelections are insignificant. Whatever the results, it will not alter the equation in the Assembly. Even if the LDF loses all the five seats, including Aroor, the Pinarayi Vijayan government will not be shaken. Even without Aroor, the LDF will still have a brute majority of 90 seats in the Assembly.

Winds of change

O Rajagopal
O Rajagopal

Nonetheless, the byelections could also ring in changes of huge political significance. 

The BJP can increase its tally in the Assembly to three if it could win Vattiyoorkavu and Manjeshwaram, two constituencies where political analysts feel it is the dominant party in terms of the grassroots machinery it has in place.

It already has Nemom, once a CPM fiefdom, in its kitty, thanks to the persistence of old warhorse O Rajagopal who has just turned 90.

The LDF, too, hopes to turn things around. If the front manages to wrest one or two seats from the UDF it would be a huge morale booster for the front that desperately wants to switch off Kerala's 'ornamental lighting' political spectacle in which the two major fronts keep changing places like two colours that blink alternately in a display light arrangement.

Further, if the CPM could win at least one more seat in addition to Aroor, preferably Konni or Vattiyoorkavu, it will be safe to assume that the party has been forgiven for its stand in Sabarimala.

Surrender in Vattiyoorkavu

Kummanam, M Vijayakumar
Kummanam, M Vijayakumar

However, it looks like the CPM has conceded defeat in Vattiyoorkavu even before a candidate has been chosen. Former speaker M Vijayakumar, who had won from Thiruvananthapuram North (the former name of Vattiyoorkavu constituency) four times and whom the CPM wanted to put up as candidate to revive the party's chances, had opted out of the race.

A CPM source said Vijayakumar was too shrewd a politician to test his chances in thoroughly altered conditions. Since 2014, coinciding with the rise of Narendra Modi, the CPM vote base in 'upper caste'-dominated  Vattiyoorkavu has so eroded that its candidates came a distant third in the 2016 assembly polls and also in the recently concluded Lok Sabha polls.

Anti-incumbency bug

The late KM Mani
The late KM Mani

It is not as if it is friendlier outside Vattiyoorkavu for the CPM. “A strong anti-incumbency feeling persists,” said political scientist Josukutty C A. “We had felt it in Pala. Our prediction is that the UDF candidate will win by at least 10,000 votes in Pala. Of course, the K M Mani factor was there but a distaste for the government was very prominent,” he said.

Josukutty had led a poll survey in Pala that was jointly conducted by Kerala University's Survey Research Centre and the Political Science wing of Pala St Thomas College.

If Jose Tom could secure such a huge margin despite the bitter infighting in Kerala Congress (Mani), the LDF will be forced to go into deep introspection. Any increase in victory margins of UDF candidates in their four sitting seats in the coming byelections would be both embarrassing and seen as a sign of the LDF's growing alienation from the public.

Importance of Aroor

AM Ariff
AM Ariff

A top source in the CPM said the strategy would be to retain Aroor at any cost. “While attempting to win other seats we should be extra careful not to lose Aroor. If that happens, we will lose face completely,” the leader said.

AM Ariff had held on to the seat with ever-increasing margins ever since he slew the grande dame of Kerala politics, K R Gouri, in 2006. Gouri had held the seat nine times.

But, if the Lok Sabha results are any pointer, Aroor at the moment is not as formidable a CPM citadel as is made out to be. Though Ariff was the lone CPM and LDF candidate to survive the UDF wave in the state in the May 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he was surprisingly pushed to the second spot in Aroor by the Congress candidate Shanimol Usman.

Residual anger

K M Sajad Ibrahim, Kerala University's head of the Department of Political Science, too, felt that the byelections would definitely involve an evaluation of the government. “The intensity of the Sabarimala issue might have died down but I have a feeling that it would be with a lingering sense of distrust that the public would judge the LDF in a number of issues like flood relief and environmental protection,” Ibrahim said.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has attempted to use the Palarivattom flyover scam to black-tar the UDF. In retaliation, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala is constantly snapping at the heels of the government alleging massive irregularities in the KIIFB deals.

On the face of it, Ibrahim said the conditions favoured the UDF. “An anti-incumbency factor is at work and at least three of the five constituencies are staunchly UDF,” Ibrahim said. “Even corruption charges don't seem to stick. The grave charges related to Palarivattom scam is met with a flurry of KIIFB-related accusations. Both are cancelling each other out,” he added.

Will Rajagopal have company

K Muraleedharan
K Muraleedharan

The BJP can still spring a surprise, Ibrahim said. “Provided it puts up the right candidates," he added. According to him, the BJP has a chance if Kummanam Rajasekharan or K Surendran is in the fray. Kummanam had in fact given K Muraleedharan a real scare in Vattiyoorkavu in 2016. “Muraleedharan won only because he managed to transfer CPM votes,” a top BJP leader said.

It is true that upper caste Hindu votes in Vattiyoorkavu had shifted to the BJP. In 2014, O Rajagopal had the highest votes in Vattiyoorkavu segment of the Thiruvananthapuram LS constituency. However, during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, there was a reversal. Tharoor had a lead of over 8,000 votes in the segment. "Nair votes will be crucial. If they stick to the Congress as they did in the Lok Sabha polls, it will be difficult for the BJP," a top BJP leader said.

As for Surendran, BJP insiders feel he should be put up in Manjeshwaram. In 2016, it was with a heart-breaking margin of 89 votes that Abdul Razak trumped Surendran in Manjeshwaram. There is also a feeling that Surendran could work wonders in Konni, the place where Sabarimala emotions had run high.

BJP leader Surendran

It was the only Assembly segment in Pathanamthitta constituency where Surendran had registered a slender lead in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

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