Byelections could twist caste equations, throw up big surprises

It looks as if voters were too engrossed in the shocking Koodathayi serial murders to think deeply about by-elections in five constituencies. Fear is, when they reach the polling booths on October 21, they may use the easiest argument at their command to cast their preference one way or the other: religious and caste identities.

The Supreme Court's September 2018 verdict on the entry of women of all ages into Sabarimala seems to have conditioned Kerala to think in terms of caste. The social unrest triggered by the verdict had revived medieval loyalties and fears. When a threat to an old Hindu custom was perceived, the consolidation happened around caste.

It were the dominant, and largely secular, Nairs who had mostly felt the threat. Result was, Nairs looked like a formidable cohesive unit for the first time in post-Independence India. In retaliation, the LDF government sought to provoke old fears of upper caste oppression. The Ezhavas and the other former lower castes were lined up against the Nairs who seemed to have risen up as one.

Caste war redux

If a full-blown caste war within the Hindu community was not felt, it was because there was what looked like an omnipresent difference-melting need to protect Kerala's most prized belief: Secularism. So what the Lok Sabha results threw up was a gloriously double-faced verdict. It was a vote for both discriminatory beliefs and harmony.

Now, as five assembly constituencies go to the polls, there is no perceived threat to secularism. What remains is a potential caste squabble. Nairs openly and unapologetically canvassing for the UDF and the other dominant Hindu caste, Ezhavas, not so subtly throwing their weight behind the LDF.

Nair Service Society supremo G Sukumaran Nair, perhaps emboldened by the Sabarimala mobilisation, has for the first time ditched his organisation's traditional neutrality. Throwing 'samadooram' (equidistance) to the winds, Nair has declared 'sharidooram' (right distance) as the NSS policy. Meaning, pro-Congress.

Dumber's poll guide

G Sukumaran Nair with Oomen Chandy
NSS chief G Sukumaran Nair with Congress leader Oomen Chandy.

If we assume that Nairs would think uniformly, consider Vattiyoorkavu and Konni in the UDF grip. Vattiyoorkavu has the largest block of Nair votes in the state, nearly 45 per cent. If the Christian community votes, a large chunk of which traditionally go to the UDF, are also taken into account, UDF candidate Mohankumar would sail through.

In Konni, the Ezhava community is stronger than Nairs by 7000-10,000 votes. But then, going by traditional logic, there is the nearly 30,000 Christian votes that the UDF can bank on. The Nair-Christian numbers together can easily see P Mohanraj through.

Algebra of caste thinking

But this is too simplistic an assessment. The Kerala voter's mind is far too complicated to be captured in straightforward caste arithmetics. In both Konni and Vattiyoorkavu, there are reports of a counter consolidation against NSS aggression.

The Ezhava community is now far more determined to remain cohesive to beat back the NSS designs. The SNDP is more forcefully on the LDF side. This time, the Bharathiya Dharma Jana Sena, the SNDP's political arm, has only been a token presence in the NDA, suggesting that a chunk of Ezhava votes could transfer to the LDF.

Independent minded Nairs, perhaps taken aback by Sukumaran Nair's open call to vote for Congress, could also vote for the CPM or the BJP, or even an insignificant independent, merely to snub Sukumaran Nair.

Nairs, because they were historically powerful and well endowed, had never really felt the need to organise, and therefore had no reason to bow to diktats from above. In fact, Nairs were so deeply irritated by the National Democratic Party (NDP) formed by the NSS in 1974 that the party had wind up in 20 years.

Further, Vattiyoorkavu is seen as a bold experiment by the CPM. The party has put up an Ezhava candidate in a Nair dominated constituency; V K Prasanth, incidentally, is the first Ezhava candidate of the constituency in 40 years. The plan is to cash in on Prasanth's popularity as the Mayor. Hope is, development will trump caste considerations.

Even Nair members of the hugely influential Federation of Residents' Association Trivandrun (FRAT) Onmanorama had talked to spoke highly of Prasanth.

Ezhava riddle and Church's googly

By-elections could twist caste equations, throw up big surprises
Congress candidate for Konni P Mohanraj, Attingal MP Adoor Prakash and LDF candidate KU Janeesh Kumar.

In Konni, it were the Ezhava votes that had made Adoor Prakash's victory margins impressive. These votes, especially in the Chittar and Seethathode regions, fall in the UDF basket only when Adoor Prakash is the candidate. Otherwise, during the local body and Lok Sabha polls, they move Left. This time, without Adoor Prakash in the fray, these votes are uncertain.

But even without the Adoor Prakash trouble, it will not be smooth going for the Congress candidate. As it turns out, the UDF cannot take the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Christian votes in Konni, too, for granted. The congregation deeply resents both the LDF and the UDF for not standing by it firmly even after the Supreme Court had passed a verdict in its favour in the longstanding property dispute with the Jacobite faction.

A section of the Orthodox community has already let loose a whisper campaign among members to vote for the BJP candidate K Surendran. An Orthodox Chuch priest had even held a press conference in Konni seeking votes in favour of Surendran.

Lending further credence to the BJP-Orthodox Church understanding, the BJP state president P Sreedharan Pillai was last week feted by the Orthodox Church at a function at Kunamkulam in Thrissur. Officially, however, the Church has brushed aside all talks of an understanding with the BJP.

Near walk over in Ernakulam

Perhaps, the only constituencies where it is reasonably clear which way the winds are blowing are Ernakulam and Manjeswaram. The UDF looks set to retain the seats.

The votes of Latin Catholic members, the most decisive factor in the constituency, were always seen as a UDF monopoly. In fact, Ernakulam had dumped the Congress only twice. Once in 1987, when the LDF-backed independent literary critic M K Sanu defeated four-time MLA A L Jacob by 7182 votes. And then in 1998, during a bypoll, when another LDF independent, Sebastian Paul, wrested the seat that George Eden had won for over 10,000 votes by defeating Congress's Leno Jacob by 3940 votes.

In both cases, the UDF was done in by infighting. This time there are no such concerns, and it also helps that the UDF candidate and deputy Mayor T J Vinod is seen as a performer.

Interestingly, even major scams like the faulty Palarivattom flyover seems not persuasive enough to topple religious considerations. The LDF, which went for a bold gamble in Vattiyoorkavu, too had played safe by handing over the seat to Manu Roy, a Latin Catholic.

The Kamarudheen glue

By-elections could twist caste equations, throw up big surprises
BJP's Ravisha Tantri Kuntar greets IUML's M C Kamarudheen as CPM's M Shankar Rai looks on.

In Manjeshwaram, Muslim League's M C Kamarudheen is seen as a non-polarising figure unlike its former MLA Abdul Razak who was too closely identified with the E K Aboobacker Musalyar faction. The Kanthapuram A. P. Aboobacker Musliyar faction had deeply resented Razaq's candidature. It was the resultant split in Muslim votes that had led to a paper-thin majority of 89 for Razak in the 2016 Assembly polls, with BJP's K Surendran coming a close second.

Kamarudheen's presence is expected to consolidate Muslim votes, shutting out any chance for the BJP. Reason why Surendran was not keen to contest from Manjeshwaram.

The LDF candidate Shankar's Rai's pro-faith utterances are also expected to eat into the BJP votes. To compound BJP's woes, an influential section in the BJP is bitterly opposed to the candidature of Ravisha Thanthri Kuntar. It will be a close contest for the second spot in Manjeshwaram.

A demoness and a firing squad

By-elections could twist caste equations, throw up big surprises
CPM's Manu C Pulickal, Congress leader Shanimol Usman and BJP's Prakash Babu.

Aroor is perhaps the only constituency where a political fight free of caste calculations seems to be on. Given its inspiring history of trade unionism, the constituency has mostly stood with the LDF. Both the UDF and the LDF has put up minority candidates in a constituency that has a predominance of Ezhavas.

But this is not to say that the constituency is fully blind to caste. The SNDP's decision to back the LDF candidate, Manu Pulickal, can prove decisive. The UDF, in turn, has whipped up emotions to sway voters.

It is trying to milk minister G Sudhakaran's 'poothana' comment for all that is worth. The charge is Sudhakaran has called the UDF candidate Shanimol Usman a demoness. This, they scream, is a racist slur.

And then, in an attempt to provoke old Communist sympathisers, the Congress says it has dug up an old disturbing fact about the Pulickal family. It had served a congratulatory feast for the men who had shot down poor peasants during the Punnapra-Vayalar uprising.

Aroor is also the only seat vacated by an LDF member. The other four are UDF sitting seats. The UDF desperately needs a win in Aroor to compensate for the shocking Pala loss. However, a loss in Vattiyoorkavu or Konni will see the UDF losing the political edge it had gained during the Lok Sabha polls.

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