Not even the finest of political observers has the key to the mind of the voter. Her smile, like Monalisa's, could mean anything. Yet, what she says, even if vague, can be revealing.
Onmanorama asked 25 random voters in Kollam constituency their assessment of the Assembly contest. Everyone, without an exception, said the same thing: “It's a tight fight, neck and neck”.
Since film star Mukesh had won comfortably last time (he won by a margin of 17,611 votes), such a feedback is automatically assumed to mean that the incumbent would eventually win. “The fight is very close but in the end Mukesh would scrape through.”
But “tight fight” can be a highly deceptive observation. We asked a top psephologist, a senior political science professor who had guided some of the latest pre-poll surveys, to make sense of the term. According to him, “tight fight” is a kind of subconscious code for anti-incumbency.
“Even if voters had lost faith or interest in a sitting MLA, they would still not be able to say with conviction that the incumbent would lose,” he said. “Sitting MLAs are somehow perceived by voters to have a better shot at winning. That is why voters resort to the fail-proof 'tight fight' comment. But deep inside they are saying his chances of losing are high,” the psephologist, who did not want his name published, said.
If so, what the 25 voters told Onmanorama indicates a high disapproval rating for Mukesh, CPM's Kollam MLA.
Mukesh is seen as an absentee MLA. The UDF camp, employing a filmy jargon, calls him Kollam's “guest artist”. Finding that this perception of Mukesh is almost universally held in the constituency, Congress candidate Bindu Krishna constantly reminds her voters she would always be in the constituency, at the beck and call of anyone wanting her help.
The absentee charge seems to have deeply disturbed Mukesh. It is with irritation, and not tact, that he attempts to fight the taunts. “Next time what I will do is I will stand at Chinnakkada junction and shake hands with everyone who passes by,” he said recently during one of his streetside meetings. This comment was discussed widely in the constituency and seems to have distanced more voters.
On April 1, Mukesh began his campaign trail from Vadakkumbhagom, a middle and lower middle class area along the Ashtamudi lake. He began by saying he would never speak badly about his opponents and went on to do the opposite.
“My experience has taught me to remain calm and tolerant even when my opponents level baseless and substandard allegations against me. My rival candidate has gone around speaking nasty things about me but even when the media insisted that I offer a reaction I said it was her culture and that I was incapable of stooping to such levels,” Mukesh said.
Badai Bungalow challenge
But after claiming such composure, he referred to a news item that appeared in the Malayala Manorama on April 1. It was a small single-column report about a speech Kollam MP N K Premachandran made during a convention held in support of Bindu Krishna. Premachandran reportedly said that Mukesh's claims that he had brought development worth Rs 1,330 crore were like the 'badaai' (colourful lies) he habitually utters during his programme 'Badai Bungalow'.
Mukesh began addressing Premachandran with respect but soon discarded the pretense. “Haven't you heard him utter certain dialogues on television channels,” Mukesh said, mimicking Premachandran's formal and precise manner of speaking, not in a light manner but with anger, like children would imitate the speech of their friends or seniors they are furious with.
“There is nothing in these words. They are all hollow. Has this man ever done anything for Kollam. And now he is shouting 'badai bungalow, badai bungalow' standing beside Bindu Krishna,” Mukesh said.
And then he threw a challenge at Premachandran. “Can you or anyone of your choice take my seat at 'Badai Bungalow' and conduct for at least two minutes this programme that had made millions happy.”
The invisible man
We contacted Premachandran. He could not stop laughing. “If the UDF now considers Kollam constituency as one of its sure seats in the district, the only reason is Mukesh. Last time, he got through using the aura of a film star. But after getting elected, he was nowhere to be found. He was always shooting. This is a constituency where ordinary people like fishermen, cashew and coir workers live. They deserve a full time MLA,” Premachandran said.
Right from the start, the opposition had branded Mukesh invisible. In 2016 itself, in what was seen as stinging political sarcasm, the Youth Congress had filed a police case saying the MLA was missing.
Nonetheless, the absentee MLA image did not fully look like an opposition creation. Johnson is a CPM worker who lives in a small concrete house very near to the place where Mukesh made his first speech on April 1. Being a CPM worker, Johnson was considerate. “Mukesh is unlike other politicians. He's a film star,” Johnson said, as if he should be exempted from the routine of an ordinary MLA.
We asked him whether in the last five years he had seen Mukesh at least once in the Vadakkumbhagom area, which is near the Kollam bus stand. “Yes, he came here during the floods when one of the nearby islands was inundated. The Collector also was with him,” Johnson said. However, he does not remember any other occasion when Mukesh made an appearance.
Here is what Radhakrishnan, a lottery seller at Uliyakovil junction, told us: “I saw him thrice but all the time he was inside the car. It looked as if he would melt under the sunlight if he got out of the AC car.” Ansar, who runs a juice shop at Mathilil, said: “We have no issues against the LDF government but we don't want Mukesh for a second time. He had never seemed interested.”
Many people we met along the Kollam coast said they had never met Mukesh after he became the MLA. “But Bindu was here always,” said Raphael, a fisherwoman in Vaady. “She was the one who fought for us when women were not allowed to sell fish after the COVID-19 restrictions were lifted,” she said. After she was appointed DCC president, Bindu Krishna had made it a point to be a regular visitor to coastal areas and cashew factories.
Bindu looked surprised when told that Mukesh was pained that she was speaking unpleasant things about him. “I have never talked bad about anyone. I would never do so either,” Bindu told Onmanorama at the UDF election committee office at High School Junction. “The only thing I tell my voters is that I would always be with them whether or not I am elected. This would have perhaps worried him,” Bindu said.
Body shaming that went unreported
On the other hand, Bindu said she had information that Mukesh was making insulting remarks against her.
On March 31, when actor Innocent arrived to campaign for Mukesh, he had reportedly made fun of Bindu Krishna. “I heard Innocent was saying I was beating my chest and crying to get a seat. I could have made it into a body shaming issue. But I don't have the energy for that. They are all big people,” Bindu said.
A letter that could blow Mukesh away
It is not just the “guest artist” image but the deep sea trawling deal with a multinational (EMCC) also could undermine Mukesh's chances. On March 21, the highly influential Kollam Diocese of the Latin Church (the dominant Christian group in Kollam) had read out a pastoral letter in over 150 churches in Kollam accusing the LDF government of opening up the deep seas for global trawlers, a move the encyclical said would shatter the lives of the local fisherfolk.
“The Church might have been led by certain political intentions but our community is deeply concerned about the deal. Not in our wildest dreams had we thought the LDF could do such a thing. The Congress would never have done this,” said Stephen, a fisherman and the coordinator of all the 15 fishermen unions in Kollam.
Eight of the 10 coastal wards within the Kollam constituency were won by the LDF. “But that was before we came to know of the deep sea fishing deal. And then, we were also voting for our friends and relatives. This time, we want the LDF to be taught a lesson,” said Stephen.
Where will BJP votes go
However, the Mukesh camp hopes a good showing by the BJP, which has still not emerged as a top contender in Kollam, could eat into the Congress votes. Last time the BJP-backed independent, K Sasikumar, secured over 13 percent of the vote and it were Congress votes he drained more.
This time, not even the BJP cadres are making it seem like there is a triangular contest. “We will definitely improve our votes,” said Babu, the BJP's booth secretary in Kadavoor ward. When asked who he thought had a better chance, Babu said: “I think it is Bindu. It looks like people have lost interest in Mukesh.”
When asked whether some BJP votes would go to Bindu, he said no way. “Last time we had nearly 19,000 votes (the right figure is 17,408) and this time we will raise it to 25,000,” Babu said.
The auto driver's logic
The auto drivers at Kadavoor junction, almost all of them members of Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), a workers' union affiliated to the BJP, had a different opinion.
“No one here is interested in Mukesh or Pinarayi. The LDF's welfare claims are bogus. They deprived the poor of additional pensions but continue to retain the double and triple pensions of MLAs, MPs and professors," said Shaji, an auto driver at Kadavoor junction and BMS union member. "If we think our voting for Sunilettan (BJP candidate M Sunil) will help Mukesh in any way, we have no qualms about shifting our votes to Bindu,” Shaji said. None of his friends who were with him, a couple of them in BJP caps, objected.
The auto drivers told Onmanorama this while waiting to welcome their 'Sunilettan' at the Kadavoor junction.