No politician can skirt land issues in Idukki. Every political formation offers solutions to the vexed problems arising out of the farms and plantations of the hilly district, but who can sell their fixes successfully to the voters of Idukki?
Idukki is the powerhouse of Kerala, literally. The water stored in the Idukki arch dam, Kulamavu dam and Cheruthoni dam is the main source of electricity for the state. The major alliances have their reservoirs of votes. Every election in the district is an attempt to plug leaks in these reservoirs. That explains the BJP-led NDA’s desperate attempts to drain out votes.
The CPM and Congress command the greatest reservoirs of votes in Idukki. They hardly see them depleting even in the most hostile environs. The leading parties lock horns in two assembly segments in the district. The tallest leaders clash in Udumbanchola, where minister M M Mani faces E M Augusthy.
The CPM veteran won the 2016 assembly election by 1109 votes but that has not diminished his stature as the most influential leader in the entire district. The Congress, however, pins it hopes on Augusthy who had trumped Mani in an earlier electoral battle.
The CPM has replaced its warhorse, S Rajendran, in Devikulam. A Raja faces another rookie. Congress candidate D Kumar, who has his roots among the plantation labourer, had been long considered a prospective candidate.
In Peermade, Congress is trying to breach the CPI stronghold. The CPI has replaced three-term MLA E S Bijimol with veteran trade union leader Vazhoor Soman. He commands enviable support in the plantation sector. Congress candidate Syriac Thomas, who lost to Bijimol by just 314 votes in 2016, expects to turn the tables this time.
The party seems to have contained a mini-revolt triggered by KPCC general secretary and former district president Roy K Poulose who wanted to be a candidate in Peermade.
The Kerala Congress vote reservoir is like the Cheruthoni dam with its shutters. No one knows which way the votes gush out when the shutters are opened. Though the Kerala Congress led by P J Joseph led in the recent elections to the local self-government bodies in the district, the other faction led by Jose K Mani channeled enough votes to help the Left Democratic Front stay afloat.
The two factions of the Kerala Congress take on each other directly in four assembly segments in Kerala. Two of them are in the Idukki district – Thodupuzha and Idukki. These are hot seats that could settle the debate over the relevance of each faction.
Veteran P J Joseph, who is facing his 11th election, has former loyalist K A Antony as an opponent in Thodupuzha.
Idukki is a picture of confusion. The candidates remain the same as in 2016, only their loyalties have shifted. Sitting MLA Roshy Augustine, who guarded the constituency for the United Democratic Front for about two decades, expects to gift it for the LDF this time. The UDF, however, expects former political rival Francis George to prevent such an about-turn.
The Mani faction of the Kerala Congress could win just one of the four seats it contested to the Idukki district panchayat. Joseph and his team, however, won all the five seats it contested. Assembly election is a different animal.
The Tamil connection
The Devikulam assembly constituency is a perfect of blend of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Caste and language divisions play a greater role than political loyalty in Devikulam, which is a mix of farms, plantations and tribal areas. Both dominant fronts pick their candidates from the same community. Tamil voters form a majority of electors. The constituency is represented by Tamil-speaking leaders for 55 years.
Both the candidates in 2016 – CPM’s S Rajendran and Congress’s A K Mani – belong to the Pallar community. Rajendran won. This time both the candidates are from the Parayar community, while the NDA has selected a candidate from the Pallar community.
The population is almost evenly matched between the two communities in Tamil-speaking areas – 46 per cent Parayars and 42 per cent Pallars. The BJP had offered the seat to ally AIADMK, which rules in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. However, Dhanalakshmi Marimuthu’s nomination papers were rejected, forcing the NDA to offer its support to independent candidate S Ganesan.
Psephologists looking to analyse Idukki’s political weather can rely on a “rule curve” as hydrologists do when they measure the water level in the reservoirs. The first indicator is the sentiments related to the land issues. The district is affected by the strict environmental regulations on constructions. No construction is possible on land distributed by the government unless a 1964 rule is amended. Farmers and tourism entrepreneurs have been clamouring for this amendment.
Another factor is the apprehensions related to land distribution. The LDF government has distributed about 1 lakh title deeds, but land distribution is a tough nut in the Moonnuchain and Pathuchain areas. Many an Idukki resident lose sleep over the CHR land survey and the eco buffer zone regulations.
The next indicator is closely related to the demands of farmers, who are affected by a slide in farm prices and raids by hungry wild animals.
Rehabilitation and reconstruction after two devastating floods remain key issues in the poll-bound highlands of Idukki.
The LDF highlights the Rs 12,000 crore Idukki package and infrastructure development throughout its campaign while their rivals insist that they have remained largely on paper. They claim that the government had always given the cold shoulder to the district.