The salient feature of the electioneering in Palakkad assembly constituency is the excessive thrust on infrastructure development.
The United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate and incumbent legislator Shafi Parambil harps on development without dividing the society, while the Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate CP Pramod vouches to continue the development and welfare initiatives of the Pinarayi government and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate E Sreedharan vows to fast-track development.
The campaign vehicles of all the three contestants that careen the nook and cranny of the constituency also stress on the candidates' capabilities to bring in development.
"Palakkad needs the captain of development once again," blares UDF campaign vehicles.
"Only C P Pramod can bring in development," claims LDF camp.
"Elect Metroman Sreedharan to change the face of Palakkad," urges NDA.
Congress leader Shafi is aiming for a hat-trick win from Palakkad after his impressive wins in 2011 and 2016. Communist Party of India (Marxist) has tasked Pramod to recapture LDF's lost glory in Palakkad where it finished third behind UDF and NDA in 2016. Meanwhile, Technocrat E Sreedharan, who began his political innings with BJP recently, hopes to turn tables on both his opponents on his poll debut.
Sreedharan's calls for change appear to have struck a chord with the middle class, upper-middle class, upper-caste and young voters, who traditionally prefer Congress.
"I hope Sreedharan's expertise as a technocrat will work wonders in Palakkad," said Chandranagar resident 21-year-old Shyam, who just completed graduation in engineering.
This correspondent spoke to 10 residents at Kalpathy Brahmin settlement and eight of them said they would vote for Sreedharan. All of them said Shafi did a lot of good things for them as an MLA, but they feel Sreedharan should get a chance this time.
"We got rid of overhead electric cables because of Shafi's effort. It ensures smooth conduct of our annual car festival. But I will vote for Sreedharan this time," said 50-year-old Sreeram.
This shift in voter preference may affect Shafi's chances. But he sounded optimistic and said he has full faith in the secular voters of Palakkad. "I am not representing the ideology of hatred. People who believe in secularism will elect me," he said.
Beef & Love Jihad remarks
What may work against Sreedharan is his ardent Hindutva stand on controversial issues, such as Love Jihad and beef eating, which seems to have drifted many neutral and minority voters away from BJP.
Sreedharan had said that he has an aversion for beef eaters and Love Jihad is a reality in Kerala. Love Jihad is a term coined by right-wing outfits to allege a conspiracy by Muslim men to marry women from other religions solely to convert them to Islam.
Sebastian, who is a government employee in Palakkad, said he was a Sreedharan fan until he made those controversial statements. "I lost faith in him. He would take a more strident Hindutva stand if he wins from Palakkad. It does not augur well for Kerala," he said.
LDF's main aim this time is to erase the wounds of the 2016 election. CPM suffered a jolt when senior leader A N Krishnadas finished third behind Shafi and BJP's Shobha Surendran then. "What happened in 2016 was an aberration. The fight for Palakkad in 2021 is between the LDF and the UDF. BJP will go back to the third position," said Pramod.
Pramod relied on the total votes collected by the three fronts in the local body election in December 2020 for his prediction.
UDF got 48,663 votes from Palakkad municipality and Kannadi, Pirayiri and Mathur gram panchayats that come under the assembly segment. LDF finished second with 44,878 votes while NDA came third with 38,444 votes. NDA is ruling Palakkad municipality. UDF is in power in Mathur and Pirayiri panchayats while LDF is at the helm in Kannadi.
But Sreedharan says he doesn't care much about statistics. "I can see the enthusiasm of voters in Palakkad. They will elect me to bring in development," he said while touring the constituency on Sunday.
He began his campaign at 7 am on Sunday with a visit to the Noorani Brahmin settlement to catch a glimpse of the village car festival. After the car left the Siva Temple premises, devotees made a beeline to click photos with him and wish him success. "You could see how much support I enjoy here. I will get all these votes," he told this correspondent.
Half-an-hour later, he headed to Kallekkad in Palakkad municipality (Ward No. 28) for a Jana Sabha, people's gathering. "I made the Konkan Railway. I built Kochi Metro. I would bring in the same kind of development here in Palakkad. I will bring industries. If you believe in my capability, please vote for me," he told the BJP workers assembled there.
He attended 18 such meetings on Sunday, but the content of his speech remained the same.
The slew of election meetings, however, contradict his earlier claim that he would adopt novel methods for electioneering.
He had told this correspondent in an interview on March 10.
that he would attend one or two meetings a day and he would not use loud music and drum beats in his campaign. He also said his campaign would not trouble the public and he would not allow his party workers to disturb public life.
On the contrary, his campaign vehicle, fitted with a high-decibel sound system, blared music during his visit to the meeting locations on Sunday. In some places, the vehicle disrupted traffic movements too.
When asked about the contradiction in his speech and action, he replied: "I haven't done anything wrong. I am keeping my promises," he said.
Shafi's voter connect
On Palm Sunday morning, Shafi sought votes from Church-goers in Palakkad town. He fist-bumped them and cracked jokes with them. Later, he ate breakfast with the priests.
"You were here a few days ago. We will definitely vote for you. Go and seek votes from elsewhere," a voter told Shafi.
Shafi said such feedback boosts his morale. "That makes me confident of a hat-trick win," he said.
He is facing a tough time with the LDF and NDA attacking him for failing to complete the reconstruction of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) terminal and digitisation of Moyans Model Girls Higher Secondary School.
"Shafi has failed to bring development to Palakkad. We don't have a KSRTC terminal. We don't have a good fish market. His plan to upgrade the prestigious city school too did not take off. He failed to work with the government agencies to speed up work on these projects," said LDF candidate Pramod.
Shafi, however, blamed the LDF government for the delay.
"The projects would have been completed had the LDF government sanctioned funds. I sanctioned Rs 8.05 crore from my local area asset development fund for the bus terminal project, but the government deliberately delayed the project only to defame me. When I raised the issue in the Assembly, the transport minister gave a clean chit to me," he said.
Shafi said he raised the delay in school digitisation in the Assembly and the education minister promised to complete the project soon. "The government issued an order a day before the model code of conduct for the election came into force. I hope the project will be finished soon," he said.
While touring Pirayiri gram panchayat on Monday, a 70-year-old woman hugged Pramod and said she was grateful to the LDF government for giving her the welfare pension on time.
"I have the blessings of people like her. The impact of the LDF government's welfare-oriented development approach could be felt across the constituency. The government served people well during the difficult times of COVID and floods and people know this better than anyone else."
Such encouraging feedback has boosted Pramod's confidence. "LDF is taking on UDF in Palakkad and we will win the constituency this time," he said.