The hill district of Idukki in Kerala is high on election fever and major political parties are strategising to bag the maximum number of votes. One key aspect is that the district and its populace are facing the polls with a set of issues that are entirely different from the ones on the bill the previous time.
In the 2016 Assembly elections, the major issues were the Kasturirangan and Gadgil reports on the Western Ghats. The reports, also known as the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel reports, had drawn the state into a socio-political maelstrom with parties, social organisations, and even the church wading in.
All these issues seem to be on the backburner now as parties are highlighting more general issues and putting forth a development plank. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019 too, the Western Ghats ecology reports had little influence on the electorate in spite of parties trying to rake it up. Political observers say the reports would not be discussed in electoral circuits this time. A major aspect in the previous election was that the district’s topographical division, between the low and high ranges, had come out in the open, especially in the wake of the panel reports.
In 2014, the Kasturirangan committee recommended that 37% of the Western Ghats in the country be declared ecologically sensitive. Of the 123 villages under the ecologically sensitive area (ESA) limit, 48 were in Idukki district. The residents in the region feared that it would deprive them of their basic land rights. The Idukki-based people’s movement, High Range Samrakshana Samithi (HRSS), organised large-scale protests against the report. The HRSS was an umbrella organisation of various religious groups under the church. Initially formed as a non-political organisation, it soon attained a political colour with the support of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
In the context of the report, the common sloganeering refrain was that ‘houses will turn green’ and ‘leopards will roam free in human habitations.’ Before the Kasturirangan report, submitted in 2013, the government had considered the Madhav Gadgil report of 2011.
The 2014 Lok Sabha election was won by LDF-backed independent candidate Joice George with a margin of over 50,000 votes. The Catholic church, an influential pressure group in the district, had openly supported Joice George. In the 2019 general election, he was defeated by a huge margin by Dean Kuriakose of the Congress.
Importantly, the HRSS looks to be entirely out of the poll scene this time. It had stayed away from the recent local body elections too. It had fielded candidates in the 2015 local body elections under the banner of the LDF. HRSS general convener Fr Sebastian Kochupurakal said, “HRSS members will not support any front in the coming assembly election. The members can decide on whom they should support. However, the HRSS is active as a non-political entity for protecting the interest of the farmers.”
In the last assembly election, the Congress did not get an MLA from the district even though the Kerala Congress (Joseph) and Kerala Congress (Mani) had each secured wins in Thodupuzha (P J Joseph) and Idukki (Roshy Augustine). Out of the five assembly seats in the district, Devikulam, Udumbanchola, and Peerumade were won by the LDF. CPI(M) leaders M M Mani and S Rajendran won from Udumbanchola and Devikulam respectively and CPI leader E S Bijimol from Peerumade.
Political observers and the electorate are keenly observing the district after the Joseph faction came out of the Kerala Congress (Mani) party. Now, the KC (Mani) is contesting in the LDF fold and it is a matter of prestige for them to win and prove their might. This is especially so as the Joseph faction is back in the UDF.
Mani faction’s influence
In the last local body elections, KC(M) was a definite factor. The Joseph faction won 106 seats in various local bodies and in the two municipalities of Thodupuzha and Kattappana in Idukki. The Jose K Mani faction had won 70 seats. Now, the LDF leaders hope that the presence of the Kerala Congress(M) will fetch them some extra votes.
The District Congress Committee is also hopeful of a victory as it is ‘sceptical’ of the influence of the Jose K Mani faction. Idukki DCC president Ibrahimkutty Kallar said, “the Congress will raise state- and district-level issues in the coming elections. Farmers in the district are faced with an array of issues such as construction regulations, wild animal attacks, and buffer zone issues in the border areas of the forest.”
“The state government has failed to solve farmers' issues in the past five years. Congress will raise issues such as the backdoor appointment to government jobs by overruling the PSC rank list,” Kallar said.
Some Tamil too
The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, had also widely fielded candidates in the last local body elections in the plantation areas of Devikulam, Udumbanchola, and Peerumade taluks. All these places had a substantial Tamil population. The party which had a president in the Peerumade grama panchayat in 2015 could not get a single seat this time.
Former Idukki MP Joice George said, “It is a reality that the Kasthurirangan and Gadgil reports are out of the poll scenario. With the intervention of the state government, the draft notification excluded human habitations and farms from the ESA list. This solved most of the problems. It happened because of my constant effort and the active support of the LDF government and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan,” he said. The ex-MP said he cannot comment on his candidature at this juncture.
Idukki is also the district of ‘settled farmers’ and plantation workers. The votes of these sections too can cause a swing in the fortunes of political parties.
(Sandeep Vellaram is an independent journalist based in Idukki)