The way the three main candidates in Konni are perceived this time is defined by certain associations.
It is not clear whether these associations will decide voter preferences. Still, as an experiment to assess the general mood, Onmanorama asked random voters in nine of the 11 panchayats that make up the Konni constituency to tell us the first thing that came to their mind about the three main contenders: Robin Peter (Congress), K U Jenish Kumar (CPM, and also the sitting MLA), and K Surendran (BJP).
(Seven of these panchayats – Chittar, Enadimangalam, Kalanjoor, Pramadom, Seethathode, Mylapra, Malayalappuzha – are ruled by the LDF. The UDF is in the saddle in two: Konni and Thannithode. We could not meet voters in Aruvappulam and Vallicode, both ruled by the LDF.)
About Robin Peter, most of the voters who were willing to answer said: “Adoor Prakash's candidate.” About Jenish, 19 of the 32 people we asked said: “The Chittar incident”. The rest essentially said “bold and vibrant”.
About Surendran, all except one said: “BJP state president”. It was only a middle-aged woman we met in Malayalapuzha who said: “Sabarimala hero”. This was an indication that the Sabarimala women's entry has only a loose hold on Konni voters this time.
Hero past his prime
Therefore, in Surendran's case, the association the candidate had wished for seems to have faded long ago. No one seems to have realised this better than the BJP state president himself. In two street-side meetings we heard him talk on March 26, in Seethathode and Malayalapuzha, there was not a single mention of the Sabarimala agitation or his arrest.
This was not the case at the start of Surendran's Konni campaign. Right after the party asked him to contest from Konni in addition to Manjeshwaram, Surendran kept talking about his emotional attachment to Konni. “This is where I was arrested,” he said, apparently hoping to revive old passions.
The Sangh Parivar had used the arrest (on November 17, 2018) to project Surendran as some kind of a larger-than-life tragic hero. It was also the huge potential the BJP had assumed for the Sabarimala issue that saw the “icon of the Sabarimala agitation”, K Surendran, getting the BJP state president's crown.
Now it is like the BJP and Surendran have been made aware of the limits of Sabarimala as a vote-catcher. Truth is, even when it could arouse wild passions, the Sabarimala issue was not enough to take Surendran to even the second position.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls held in April, when the passions let loose by the Supreme Court's verdict on women's entry were sweeping through Kerala, Surendran cornered 29 per cent of the votes, up from 16 per cent in 2014, but still was only third in Pathanamthitta, the Parliament area where the Sabarimala agitation played out.
In the Konni by-elections held six months later, Surendran amassed 39,786 votes, which again was nearly 29 per cent of the total votes and a huge jump from the 12 per cent the BJP candidate bagged in 2016. But even this was not good enough to beat his two main contenders.
Indicating depleting returns for the BJP from the Sabarimala issue, Surendran saw a fairly large decline of 6720 votes in 2019 itself. During the Lok Sabha polls, Surendran had secured 46,506 votes in the Konni segment but in the Konni by-election, his votes dwindled to 39,786.
And now, in 2021, the Sabarimala issue seems to be only as vivid in the minds of voters as the faded bleached-white old Lok Sabha posters of K Surendran that could still be seen in some forest areas of Konni.
Meaning, in Konni this time, it looks like a fight between Robin Peter and K U Jenish Kumar for the top spot.
Adoor Prakash's 'benami'
We met Robin Peter at his house in Pramadom panchayat. It was a large two-storeyed house, like many of the Gulf-money houses in the area. Robin's wife is a pharmacist in Salalah, Oman. On the tiled courtyard of the house, an open all-terrain vehicle painted in Congress colours and fitted with Congress flags was getting ready. The place was already filled with party workers.
We found Robin in his study, in a side room at the front. He was carelessly dressed in his house clothes, not yet ready to begin the day's campaign. Slumped in his chair, Robin looked tired, as if he had just done some hard physical labour. But everyone seemed comfortable and easy around him, unlike in the camps of Jenish and Surendran where the party workers looked to give too much importance to the candidates.
Robin did not seem ashamed of, or try to play down, his association with Adoor Prakash. Posters had come up all over Konni calling Robin the 'benami' of Adoor Prakash. Robin laughed away the 'benami' taunt but had no qualms admitting that Prakash was his godfather.
“Any ordinary party worker needs someone to promote him. When the Konni by-election was announced (in 2019), Adoor Prakash sir was the only person who had recommended my name,” Robin said. The Pathanamthitta DCC had rejected his name hoping to fully purge Konni of Prakash's influence.
Fact is, Robin is much more than Adoor Prakash's right hand man. He has been fighting local body polls in Konni for the past 25 years. A habitual winner, he had been grama and block panchayat presidents. In the 2020 local body polls, Robin had the highest majority in Pathanamthitta district panchayat polls.
Robin is also a case study on how a candidate can change voter preferences. Take for instance, the Vallicode and Pramadom grama panchayats in Konni. Both were won by the LDF this time, and decisively. Now take the Pathanamthitta District Panchayat results. Robin was the Congress candidate from Pramadom ward in the district panchayat under which falls both Pramadom and Vallicode gram panchayats. In both these segments alone, Robin had a whopping majority of nearly 5500 votes.
Therefore, this time, even without Adoor Prakash's prodding, Robin Peter was picked unanimously as the Congress candidate. His association with Adoor Prakash might make him seem like a sidekick but still it looks like it would do him more good than harm. Here is the simple reason: Adoor Prakash, by far, is the most popular politician in Konni. When voters we talked to said Robin was Adoor's candidate, most said it in a tone that suggested approval.
There is also the Ezhava factor. The Ezhava community forms the largest chunk of the voters in Konni. They generally vote for Left during all elections, except the Assembly polls when Adoor Prakash is preferred. “If there was just one Ezhava candidate, there would have been something for Robin to worry,” said Mathew Punnackal, a retired history professor.
“But this time both Jenish and Surendran are from the community and so consolidation of Ezhava votes in favour of either of the two has been ruled out. Adoor Prakash will do the rest,” he said. It also helps that Robin belongs to the Orthodox Christian community, the second most dominant religious group in Konni.
Robin also seems unanimously liked. “Robin is one Congress leader I never had a fight with in Konni. I knew him right from his KSU days and I don't think anyone can speak anything ill of him,” said local CPM leader and contemporary Thomas Chacko, who now manages CPM independent Veena George's campaign in Aranmula. “I was relieved when Robin was not made candidate for the byelection (in 2019),” Chacko said.
Betrayal of a martyr
CPM's K U Jenish Kumar, on the other hand, has emerged as a polarising figure during his small tenure as Konni MLA. Party workers, especially, are disturbed by what he did in Chittar Panchayat.
This is what happened. In the last local body polls, the UDF had a marginal upper hand in Chittar panchayat, a traditional Left bastion. The front won six of the 13 wards in the panchayat. The LDF could win just five, and the BJP won two.
The CPM lured one of the Congress winners, Saji Kulathinkal, to their side and propped him up as the panchayat president with their support. This was masterminded by Jenish. On the face of it, local comrades should have been proud of their young MLA. He was actually pulling the rug from under the feet of the Congress party.
But the problem was Saji Kulathinkal, the man Jenish chose as panchayat president. He is the son of a local Congress and INTUC strongman who is said to have organised the killing of M S Prasad, a young SFI leader.
M S Prasad is a name that evokes deep and profound feelings among local comrades in Konni; he is Konni's biggest Marxist icon. Prasad was killed on September 7, 1984, on Thiruvonam Day. He is said to have been murdered by goons sent by Saji's father as he was a witness to the murder of senior CPM leader C V Jose.
There was something else that deepened the pain felt by local comrades. The CPM candidate Kulathinkal defeated in the local body polls, by a near invisible margin of three votes, was M S Rajendran, Prasad's younger brother.
We met M S Rajendran inside the CPM Local Committee office in Chittar on March 26. The M S Prasad memorial is right in front of the LC office. Rajendran is one of the most popular CPM leaders in Konni. He was the only CPM candidate who had made Adoor Prakash look vulnerable in Konni, in 2011. He had brought down Prakash's lead to nearly 6000 votes. In 2006, poet Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan lost to Prakash by a margin of over 15,000. And in 2016, CPM's R Sanal Kumar lost to Prakash by over 20,000 votes.
Rajendran refused to concede that Saji Kulathinkal issue would affect Jenish's chances. “Whatever happens, Chittar panchayat will always stand by the CPM. This village mostly has lower middle class and poor people who have benefited from the welfare measures of the LDF government,” Rajendran said.
When asked whether Kulathinkal's choice had hurt him, Rajendran turned his gaze upwards, not wanting to expose his feelings. “It has. I have not told our mother,” he said. Quickly regaining composure, he said: “My Marxist beliefs are so rooted that I go by what my party says. People like me dream of dying a Marxist,” Rajendran said.
Local comrades say Rajendran had presided over many meetings that had Saji Kulathinkal as the main speaker without a word of protest. “He is a kind of person who would vote for Narendra Modi if the party asks him to. But don't expect all comrades in our area to swallow this insult,” a Perunad branch committee member told us when we met him a kilometre away from the Chittar LC office.
“Jenish misled the party by saying that Kulathinkal could bring around 3000 Orthodox votes to the CPM fold,” the branch committee member said. “It is true that Saji's family connections spread wide but even his close family members have felt betrayed after he crossed over. Now it seems the Christians in Chittar and Seethathode are determined than ever to vote against the CPM candidate,” the local CPM leader said.
Nonetheless, there are also CPM voters who see in Jenish's Chittar move a certain awe-inspiring daredevilry. “He is a bold person who enjoys taking risks. He is the kind of leader CPM needs, and that is why Pinarayi is fond of him,” another local CPM leader in Seethathode, Jenish's village, said.
If the bitterness prevails, at least strong Left areas like Chittar, Seethathode, Enadimangalam and Aruvappulam could desert Jenish.
On the whole, it is advantage Robin Peter.