Find the leader in you,” goes the catchline of a government-run textile mill in Puthuppally near Kottayam town. Any business worth its salt knows that white shirts sell like hot cakes in an election season. Politicians always appear in white and white, but a few may change the colours of the party flags. Kerala politics becomes especially dramatic in Kottayam district!
Last year the CPM snatched the Kerala Congress (Mani) from the United Democratic (UDF) Front camp in a bid to storm the hostile central Kerala region. The Congress is still left with the rump faction of the Kerala Congress led by P J Joseph.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) has successfully tried the new recipe in the recent elections to local self-government bodies. The Kerala Congress (Mani) is confident of carrying on the legacy of the parent party. It has even inherited the “Two-Leaves” poll symbol legally.
After P C Thomas joined hands with Joseph a few days ago the duo considers their new formation as the true heir of the original Kerala Congress and that too without any appendage to suggest factionalism.
But P C George's outfit is still in limbo. George is contesting against all political formations in Kerala for a second time.
Jose K Mani has a formidable task – to retake his home turf in association with his former opponents. The LDF can command an enviable position if it wrests the Kottayam district from the UDF. If the UDF retains its stranglehold over the district, the Kerala Congress politics would have entered a new phase.
No more dilemma for Chandy
The election season opened with a dramatic episode. There were speculations that former chief minister and Congress veteran Oommen Chandy would leave Puthuppally, which he has represented for 51 years, to take on the BJP’s challenge in Nemom, the only seat the party had ever won in Kerala.
It was not an easy decision to take, but Chandy remained in Puthuppally to oblige his loyal voters.
Tussle within LDF
The entry of the Kerala Congress (M) had triggered a series of protests in the LDF. The key question centered around the candidate in the Pala constituency, which had elected the late K M Mani since its formation until his death. The LDF had to choose between new ally Jose K Mani and its sitting MLA, Mani C Kappan. Eventually junior Mani became the LDF candidate and Kappan formed a new party in protest. He contests in Pala as a candidate of his fledgling outfit the Nationalist Congress Kerala.
The Kerala Congress (M) entry ruffled feathers elsewhere too. The CPI was peeved when it had to give up Kanjirappally in favour of the new partner it grudgingly approved of. The CPI wanted either Changanassery, Poonjar or Kottayam instead of the seat it lost. The CPM played hard ball and the CPI was relegated to just one seat in the district – Vaikom.
The other factions of the Kerala Congress who allied with the LDF in 2016 also lost out in the race. The Janadhipathya Kerala Congress which contested on two seats in the district as an LDF partner in 2016 also got the cold shoulder. So did the Kerala Congress group led by just-deceased Scaria Thomas, which contested one seat last time.
Bargains in the UDF
Even the UDF was not free of bickering. The Congress eventually set aside four seats for the Kerala Congress of PJ Joseph and decided to contest in the rest of the five seats.
Turmoil in the NDA
The National Democratic Alliance was in turmoil too. The BJP had no problem in allowing ally the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena to contest from Ettumanoor, but it was not happy with the candidates its alliance partner picked. The BJP could not agree with either of the two options the BDJS put up and ended up taking over the assembly constituency and fielding its own candidate.
Close calls on most seats likely
Almost all nine assembly constituencies in Kottayam district are headed for a stiff fight. Seven MLAs are seeking another term in the legislative assembly, including Chandy in Puthuppally and Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan in Kottayam.
Puthuppally is witnessing a repeat of the contest of 2016 when Chandy was challenged by young CPM leader Jaick C Thomas, a member of the DYFI state secretariat. BJP state council member N Hari represents the NDA in the high-profile constituency. The Congress is smug, pinning its hopes on 12-term MLA Chandy, while the LDF is hopeful that it can build over the lead it received in six of the eight panchayats in the constituency in 2020.
In Pala, Jose K Mani and Mani C Kappan continue to challenge each other, but from different camps. Kappan wants to retain the seat he won after K M Mani’s demise. Jose K Mani wants to take back the family’s pocket borough. J Prameela Devi is the BJP candidate here.
Poonjar has a four-cornered contest this time tooo as sitting MLA P C George takes on the UDF, the LDF and the NDA. KPCC general secretary Tomy Kallani is the UDF candidate and former district panchayat president Sebastian Kulathunkal is the LDF candidate. BDJS district president M P Sen is the NDA candidate.
While sitting MLA N Jayaraj is now seeking a verdict in favour of the LDF in Kanjirappally, the UDF goes to polls with KPCC president Joseph Vazhakkan as its candidate. Former Union minister Alphons Kannanthanam is the BJP’s pick. The former bureaucrat had launched his political career years ago as an LDF-backed candidate in Kanjirappally.
In Kaduthuruthy, Mons Joseph and Stephen George are fighting their fifth electoral battle. The fight between the Kerala Congress factions in their stronghold continues. BJP has fielded its district general secretary G Lijin Lal as candidate.
Another constituency where the Kerala Congress factions are testing their strength is Changanassery. Both of them have opted for rookie candidates. Kerala Congress (M) senior leader Job Michael is the LDF candidate while V J Lali of Kerala Congress represents the UDF. BJP has fielded former Congress leader G Raman Nair. Changanassery has elected C F Thomas for 42 years. Who will it side with this time?
In Kottayam, Congress leader Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan faces a new challenger in CPM’s K Anil Kumar. Kumar is the party’s district committee member. The NDA has picked Minerva Mohan, who recently switched from the CPM to the BJP.
CPM district secretary V N Vasavan has replaced Suresh Kurup as the party’s candidate in Ettumanoor. The UDF candidate is Prince Lukose, son of Kerala Congress founder leader O V Lukose. The BJP fielded T N Harikumar after it took back the seat from ally BDJS. The BJP has accused its ally of warming up to the CPM in Ettumanur.
Ettumanoor has another high-profile candidate in Lathika Subhash, a former Mahila Congress leader who is challenging her former party after she was denied an opportunity to contest the election.
It is an all-woman cast in Vaikom. CPI’s sitting MLA C K Asha is up against Dr P R Sona, a general secretary of the KPCC. Former district panchayat president Ajitha Sabu of the BDJS represents the NDA in the seat.
Expect the unexpected
Generally considered a UDF stronghold, Kottayam is likely rife for surprises this time. Political equations have changed. The UDF had won six seats in the district in 2016, while the LDF won two. P C George’s bold move as an unaffiliated independent paid off when he guarded his turf in Poonjar.
The LDF later added to its tally when Mani C Kappan won a byelection from Pala.
The UDF won all three Lok Sabha seats that correspond to the district, but the equation changed in 2020 when the LDF led in the local body elections. The ruling front won 50 of the 71 panchayats, 10 of the 11 block panchayats and the district panchayat.
The UDF, meanwhile, won five of the six municipalities. The Congress and allies also take comfort in the fact that their alliance controls five of the 12 panchayats in Pala despite the desertion of Jose K Mani. Even the BJP has improved its position in the local body elections. They now control two panchayats.
Kottayam is the home base of four Kerala Congress groups. Many crafty political moves were devised in the government guest house at Nattakom. Yet the district went without a minister for five years as most of the MLAs were in opposition. Times have changed. No matter who comes to power, Kottayam is guaranteed a share of high offices.