Konni assembly constituency, as is widely perceived, is not a UDF bastion. It is an Adoor Prakash bastion. And now that Prakash is out of the picture, the Konni by-election could be anybody's game.
Before he wrested the Konni seat from CPM's A Padmakumar in 1996 with a slender margin of 806 votes, this was seen as a Left-leaning constituency, especially in the post-Emergency period. Even now, though it keeps electing Adoor Prakash with increasing margins, it looks like Konni is Left at heart. Eight of its 12 panchayats are ruled by the LDF.
Adoor Prakash's absence could be CPM's young candidate K U Janeesh Kumar's gain. It is not just that Adoor Prakash, now the Attingal MP, cannot compete. He is also hurt.
Bargaining for the crown
Sources close to Prakash said their leader was aware of an inner-party conspiracy to rid the Congress unit in Konni of his influence. "Certain leaders think he has grown too big. But Adoor sir knows how to sustain his hold over voters in Konni," was the cryptic comment made by a confidant of Adoor Prakash.
Jineesh can turn this bitterness to his advantage. Anticipating fratricide, the Congress leadership has swiftly moved in to pacify Prakash. They have virtually offered him the moon. His man Robin Peter has been made the vice-president of the Pathanamthitta District Congress Committee. In less than two years, the promise is, Robin Peter will be DCC president.
Prakash has also been assured that once the election dust settles, he would be made KPCC working president, the penultimate step before he asks for the crown, the post of the KPCC president.
The party has bowed to his demands knowing fully well that his sway over voters in Konni cannot be unplugged overnight. Adoor Prakash had transcended party affiliations.
Taming the wild
His interpersonal skills and his go-getter drive to bring as much development as possible to a rural backwater lying in the shade of the Western Ghats and had nothing much to boast of except a humble elephant centre (Anakkoodu) have made him almost universally acceptable in Konni.
Now, Konni is a taluk. It has an international indoor stadium. It has rubberised roads, and nearly 40 per cent of them have been laid inside forest areas. It is now a popular eco-tourism destination also. Thanks to Adoor Prakash, it may soon have a medical college, too.
Just before he bowed out as revenue minister in 2016, Adoor Prakash had even distributed title deeds to 4000-odd poor families living along the forest fringes in the Seethathode and Chittar areas in the constituency.
Past deeds haunt Left
The LDF government that assumed office soon after cancelled these deeds saying these were done without proper verification. This was done more to undermine Adoor Prakash than to correct administrative lapses. Now that winning back Konni is in the realm of the possible, there are plans to re-issue the title deeds.
The LDF knows fully well that Konni voters can be wooed back only if it earns their trust. The CPM's V S Chandrasekhara Pillai had won consecutively in 1980 and 1982. Soon there were charges that Pillai, who hails from Kozhencherry, had diverted the taluk status that came Konni's way to Kozhencherry.
This anger reflected in the next Assembly elections in 1987. Pillai was fielded in the hope of a hat-trick but he lost to Chittoor Sasankan Nair, the candidate of National Democratic Party, the political wing of Nair Service Society.
This time, the CPM has made sure to field a native. "Jineesh is the only candidate here who hails from Konni," a CPM worker said.
What's in a name?
Nonetheless, the name Adoor had never been a handicap for Prakash. Except in 1996, the first time he entered the fray, Adoor Prakash had attracted more than 50 per cent of the votes to himself.
Nothing stood in his way – not an opponent of great stature (as in 2001 when poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan was the CPM-backed independent), not a fall in polling percentage (as in 2011), not even a dramatic surge in BJP votes (as in 2016 when it polled more than 10 per cent of the votes for the first time).
The man was seen as so useful that even severe charges of sleaze and corruption against him, most notably the land deal involving godman Santhosh Madhavan and the Solar scam, were brushed aside by the voters.
Shift in secular habits
There are political observers who attribute his amazing success to his skilful rewiring of the caste equations. "The Ezhava community is the most dominant in Konni, followed by Christians, especially Orthodox, and Nairs," said Mathew Punnackal, a former history professor.
It was K Karunakaran's political cunning that brought Adoor Prakash to Konni in 1996. "Karunakaran knew that Prakash's father N Kunjiraman, a top SNDP leader, had huge influence over Ezhavas in the area. This worked. The Ezhava community, which traditionally aligned with the Left, started voting for the Congress," Punnackal said.
Adoor Prakash then built on this. When he was revenue minister he annexed two Ezhava-dominated panchayats Seethathode and Chittar to Konni. These largely forest areas are now efficiently connected by roads. To cement his influence in these areas, it was in Chittar that Adoor Prakash had conducted his title-deed distributing ceremony.
Onmanorama got in touch with P J Thomas over phone to get an insight into Adoor Prakash's sustained sway over Konni. The veteran Congress leader was Konni's first MLA after the constituency was formed in 1965. He went on to win two more times, in 1970 and 1977. "In my time, Konni was a secular place. Now it is not," the 95-year-old Thomas said. Before we could ask Thomas to elaborate, his son took over the phone and said his father was too unwell to talk.
His political opponents say that Adoor Prakash was not above employing unethical means to secure a win. "In 2001, when Kadammanitta was his rival, Prakash printed pamphlets in the name of NSS and had them distributed in Ezhava homes. The pamphlets urged Nairs to stand united and vote for a Nair candidate in a language that provoked the Ezhava community," a top Pathanamthitta CPM leader said. The poet was defeated by nearly 15,000 votes.
Flailing third force
The BJP has never been able to get a toehold in Konni. Even in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, when the party used Sabarimala to emotionally manipulate the voters, K Surendran had to satisfy with a third position in the Konni segment. Fact is, the party has never mobilised more than 5 per cent votes in the constituency except in 2011 when BJP's Asoka Kumar secured 11.66 per cent of the votes.
This time Surendran looks even weaker with the Bharathiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), the political wing of SNDP, unhappy with the BJP's attitude towards it. The SNDP supremo Vellapally Natesan has already thrown his weight behind the LDF.
Here is the moot question: Will Konni find the UDF attractive without the familiar sight of Adoor Prakash smiling from the posters?