What do Abdul Sathar, Janardana and Nelson Rodriguez, who believe in three different religions and support three different political parties, have in common? They are voters in Manjeswaram and believe that backwardness of their assembly constituency is a major issue in the byelection, scheduled to be held on October 21.
"Potholes have been the hallmark of the National Highway-66 that passes through the constituency," said Sathar, a supporter of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
Janardana, a BJP activist, echoed him. “Many two-wheeler riders died after falling into the craters."
CPM sympathiser Nelson said the constituency needs better healthcare facilities. "We have to travel to Mangalore in neighbouring Karnataka for our medical needs."
They urged this correspondent to travel on the NH-66 from Kumbala to Talappady, the Kerala border on the north, to understand the gravity of the issue. The pot-hole dotted road is a nightmare for motorists, who have to keep a sharp eye to negotiate the craters. Bad road has damaged plenty of vehicles an, which are parked on the edges.
The northernmost assembly constituency is witnessing an intense three-way fight in the bypoll among United Democratic Front's (UDF) M C Kamarudheen, National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) Ravisha Tantri Kuntar and Left Democratic Front's (LDF) Shankar Rai.
Kamarudheen is from the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), Tantri is from the BJP and Shankar Rai belongs to the CPM.
The byelection has been necessitated by the death of IUML legislator P B Abdul Razak on October 20, 2018.
Abdul Razak had registered a narrow 89-vote victory over BJP's K Surendran in the 2016 election. Razak got 56,870 votes (35.79% of the polled ballots) as against K Surendran's 56,781 (35.74%). CPM's C H Kunhambu finished with 42,565 votes (26.79%).
Candidates echo people's concerns
The growing clamour for development has forced the candidates to make tall promises while taking pot-shots at each other.
"Manjeswaram is the most backward constituency in Kerala," said Kuntar, adding that the ruling LDF has already acknowledged this. "Development is an alien word here. People are deprived of good roads. They don't have facilities for good education and health care. Farmers are a neglected lot," he said.
Kuntar said those who had won from the constituency hadn't done anything to improve the situation. "I assure the voters that I will work for Manjeswaram's development," he said.
IUML's Kamarudheen blamed both the centre and state governments for the constituency's backwardness.
"The governments have not taken steps to repair the National Highway that is in bad shape," he said.
In contrast, he said, the interior roads built by former MLA Razak utilising the local area development fund are in good shape. "This proves that only UDF is concerned about people's needs," he said.
CPM's Shankar Rai said he would try to bring maximum development after his victory. "With the support of Pinarayi Vijayan government, I will change the face of Manjeswaram,” he said.
Issues of linguistic minorities
Issues of linguistic minorities – people speaking Tulu and Kannada – were highlighted in every election in Manjeswaram and the scenario is not different this time either.
More than 50% of the electorate belongs to linguistic minorities.
Voters said they are facing discrimination while visiting government offices because of the predominance of Malayalam. Others said the Kerala government's decision to make Malayalam compulsory in the curriculum has badly affected Kannada medium students.
"The government should not impose Malayalam in Kannada-dominant areas. It should consider Kannada on par with Malayalam. I will make arrangements to distribute Kannada and Malayalam bilingual forms after my win," said Rai.
Kamarudheen said UDF has always stood for the rights of linguistic minorities. "We will continue our fight," he said.
Kuntar said a majority of Tulu speakers prefer BJP. “So we cannot ignore their concerns,” he said.
The over significance on the issue of linguistic minorities has cast a shadow over the prospects of Kamarudheen, the only non-Tulu speaking candidate in the fray.
But he appears to be least bothered. "Candidates who did not know Tulu had won from Manjeswaram in the past. They had interacted with Tulu speakers easily. I am also interacting with them. I am confident of learning Tulu. I will raise their issues in the Assembly. Voters will elect a person who stands with them," he said.
...But Sabarimala a major issue for parties
Despite the thrust on development and linguistic minorities, political parties have been trying to make Sabarimala an election issue to woo Hindu voters.
BJP made its intentions clear when Ravisha Tantri said his party will try to capitalise on the Hindu sentiments. He said LDF government's decision to facilitate women's entry at Sabarimala (in the wake of last year's Supreme Court verdict) had pained Hindu community, and BJP is the only party that has been fighting for them. "Hindu voters will help us win the election," he said.
UDF leaders have been raking up Sabarimala to corner LDF, while LDF candidate has begun his campaign from a temple to convey a clear message that neither he nor his party is against the Hindu community
Senior Congress leader AK Antony on Monday said BJP and CPM have been deceiving believers. "BJP government did not bring an ordinance to protect traditions. CPM is now saying that they are with the faithful after the debacle in the Lok Sabha elections," he said.
Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala had said on October 8 that LDF candidate (Rai) was a disciple of NDA nominee (Ravisha Tantri) and both were fake Hindus.
The statement evoked the sharpest reaction from Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who asked 'who had given freehold right of Hindus on Chennithala?'
Shankar Rai said the government is bound to implement Supreme Court verdict in Sabarimala. "Protesters want to make it an issue to win elections. Their tactics will not work in Manjeswaram," he said.
However, Kamarudheen felt that Rai's controversial statement on women's entry made Sabarimala an election issue. "He fell into a trap and his party has reprimanded him for that," he said.