Of the five assembly constituencies in Kerala where bypolls will be held on October 21, Manjeswaram in Kasaragod district is unique.
The northernmost assembly constituency in the state, bordering Karnataka, has a seizable chunk of Tulu and Kannada speakers. It is perhaps the only constituency in the state where a candidate got elected unopposed –- Umesh Rao in 1957. Three-way contests have been a norm here for more than three decades and the winner had a margin of less than 200 votes on three occasions.
It elected representatives of four major political parties - Congress, CPI, CPM and Indian Union Muslim League - and even independent candidates, but it never favoured BJP, which finished runners-up in seven consecutive elections.
Manjeswaram has been without an MLA for a year after the death of Indian Union Muslim League legislator P B Abdul Razak on October 20, 2018. Razak had defeated BJP leader K Surendran in 2016. Ideally, a bypoll should have held here by April this year – because rules stipulate that bypolls should happen within six months after the seat fell vacant.
But the process got delayed because Surendran's petition challenging Razak's victory was under the consideration of the Kerala High Court.
The BJP candidate argued that 265 bogus votes had been cast for Razak and it resulted in his defeat. He withdrew the petition in February when the court was gearing up to summon 69 witnesses in the case. Till then, the court could verify only one fraudulent vote.
The constituency is all set to witness another close contest this time because IUML has to prove that its 89-vote win in 2016 was an aberration, the BJP has to show it can win, while the CPM wants to prove its mass base is intact.
The IUML has fielded the party's district president M C Kamarudheen. The BJP candidate is RSS leader Ravisha Tantri Kuntar while CPM nominee is party's district committee member Shankar Rai.
"I want to take forward the development activities of former MLA P B Abdul Razak. Development is the main poll agenda here," said Kamarudheen.
Kuntar said BJP will leave no stone unturned to win the seat this time. "We seek voters support for Narendra Modi. It will definitely work," he said.
Rai felt people will vote for the CPM because his party always stood for communal harmony and peace. "People will reject IUML and BJP this time," he said.
Tough three-way fight
IUML is expected to reap a win going by the history and the voting pattern in the recent Lok Sabha election. However, it is difficult to discount the BJP and the CPM, given the prominence of their candidates.
IUML had won the seat six times (1987, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2011 and 2016), CPI won it thrice (1977, 1980, 1982), CPM once (2006) and Congress once (1965). Independent candidates won here two times (1960, 1967) while a candidate won unopposed in 1957.
IUML leader late Cherkalam Adbullah was the longest-serving MLA here, having represented Manjeswaram four times.
In 2016, Manjeswaram saw the fiercest electoral battle. IUML's Abdul Razak tallied 56,870 votes (35.79% of the polled votes) while Surendran got 56,781 votes (35.74%). CPM's CH Kunhambu finished third with 42,565 votes (26.79%).
Kamarudheen said his party has showed its actual strength in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He said UDF candidate in Kasaragod Lok Sabha constituency and eventual winner Rajmohan Unnithan led by 11,113 votes in Manjeswaram. Unnithan won by a margin of 40,438 votes, defeating LDF's K P Sathish Chandran. BJP candidate Kuntar, who is now contesting the bypoll, finished third.
"IUML and UDF have proven our strength in Manjeswaram in the Lok Sabha election. We will repeat the feat in the bypoll," Kamarudheen said.
Kuntar said BJP will show its real strength this time. "We have improved our vote share in Manjeswaram in the Lok Sabha polls (In 2016, the party tallied 56,781 votes. In the Lok Sabha polls, BJP's votes increased to 57,104). We are here to win after so many second-place finishes," he said.
Rai said the CPM is trying to hard to repeat its lone victory in 2006 when C H Kunhambu had upset BJP's M Narayana Bhat by 4,829 votes.
In the process, he pushed IUML's Cherkalam Abdulla to the third position. "Secular voters will prefer CPM. Lok Sabha result does not worry us," Rai said.
Of the eight gram panchayats in the constituency, UDF rules six - Enmakaje, Kumbla, Mangalpady, Manjeswaram, Meenja and Vorkady - while LDF rules the remaining two - Paivalike and Puthige.
The BJP had ruled Enmakaje for three years from 2015 to 2018. But UDF captured it in 2018 with the support of LDF. The UDF and BJP have seven members, while LDF has three members in the gram panchayat council.
LDF has been in power in Paivalike since 2015 with UDF support.
Issues of linguistic minorities
Issues of Tulu and Kannada speakers, such as lack adequate educational institutions and quality teaching staff, often figure prominently in the Manjeswaram assembly election. Tulu and Kannadiga voters form close to half of the electorate here.
In order to win their votes, political parties always preferred to field candidates from the linguistic minorities or those who are fluent in these languages.
BJP's Kuntar and CPM's Rai have mastery in both the languages. Language expertise appears to be the biggest handicap of Kamarudheen.
Rai said he is raising the issues of linguistic minorities in his campaign. "It is a major issue," he said. Kuntar echoed Rai. "Only those who speak the language can understand their problems," he said.
Kamarudheen countered it and said he is fully aware of the issues of linguistic minorities. "I am with them," he said and added. "If I go to assembly, I have to speak in Malayalam. So Manjeswaram needs a representative who can speak good Malayalam and show empathy to linguistic minorities," he said.