Ground Report: Balachandran, Padmaja vie for Thrissur, Suresh Gopi’s waywardness raises eyebrows

A voter greets Agriculture Minister V S Sunil Kumar even as LDF candidate P Balachandran (left) looks on Russell Shahul
A voter greets Agriculture Minister V S Sunil Kumar even as LDF candidate P Balachandran (left) looks on. Photo: Russell Shahul

Kerala’s Agriculture Minister V S Sunil Kumar is not contesting the assembly election this time, but voters in Thrissur have not missed him even for a single day since the election campaign began in March.

He has been accompanying his Communist Party of India (CPI) colleague and Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate P Balachandran to every nook and cranny of the constituency since then.

“Balachandran and I have been friends since our students’ politics days. We know each other well. So it is my duty to ensure his victory,” said Sunil Kumar, who won from Thrissur in 2016.

Balachandran is taking on Congress leader Padmaja Venugopal of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and BJP candidate and film actor Suresh Gopi of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

LDF candidate P Balachandran (right), accompanied by Agriculture Minister Sunil Kumar, meets a voter in Thrissur.
LDF candidate P Balachandran (right), accompanied by Agriculture Minister Sunil Kumar, meets a voter in Thrissur. Photo: Russel Shahul

Failed candidates

What makes the contest interesting is that all the three had failed in their previous electoral tests from Thrissur. Balachandran had lost to Congress leader Therambil Ramakrishnan in the 2011 assembly election while Padmaja had lost to Sunil Kumar in 2016. Suresh Gopi was defeated by Congress’s T N Prathapan from Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency in 2019.

Balachandran and Padmaja harbour high hopes this time. Suresh Gopi’s recent statements that he came to Thrissur at the behest of party leadership and his aim was to compete more than winning have cast aspersions on the confidence level.

UDF candidate Padmaja Venugopal meets voters in a Church in Thrissur on Maundy Thursday
UDF candidate Padmaja Venugopal meets voters in a Church in Thrissur on Maundy Thursday. Photo: Russell Shahul

BJP & The Church

Different parties had represented Thrissur in the first four decades after the constituency was formed in 1957. Congress leader Therambil Ramakrishnan re-wrote history and transformed it into a Congress citadel, when he won five consecutive elections between 1991 and 2011. Sunil Kumar broke his 25-year-long winning streak in 2016.

Many factors affect the voters’ preferences in Thrissur.

Sample these random reactions from different parts of the constituency.

“I will vote for a candidate who will be available in Thrissur all the time,” said Xavier, an autorikshaw driver in Paravatty, on Wednesday.

Pressed who that candidate is, he said: “It is none other than Balachandran.”

Silvia, a school teacher hailing from Patturaikkal, said a woman should represent Thrissur this time, implying that she will vote for Padmaja.

NDA candidate Suresh Gopi wraps the shawl gifted to him around his waist at a fucntion at Pushpagiri Brahmin Samooham in Thrissur
NDA candidate Suresh Gopi wraps the shawl gifted to him around his waist at a function at Pushpagiri Brahmin Samooham in Thrissur. Photo: Russel Shahul

Restaurant owner Anil Kumar, who claims to be a regular temple-hopper, said his vote is for those who stand with the devotees in Sabarimala issue. “Both Suresh Gopi and Padmaja support Hindu devotees, and I will take a decision on the voting day,” he said.

The Church wields considerable influence in the election because Christians form half of the voters. In its attempt to reach out to the Church, the BJP has alleged that Love Jihad - an imaginary term to denote the perception Musim men lure Hindu and Christian women with marriage offers only to convert them to Islam - is prevalent in Kerala and Muslims draw a major share of the government’s minority aid.

The allegations appear to have earned silent support from the Church.

The UDF and LDF candidates said such polarising tactics would not work in Thrissur.

“Our vote base is intact and no one could make a dent on it,” said Padmaja.

She said Congress workers are fully aware of the importance of this election and they are working together to ensure her victory.

“They know this is the last bus for Congress. A defeat this time will be disastrous for the party,” she said.

Balachandran said Thrissur residents are impressed with the work done by Sunil Kumar. “They will elect me to continue those work. Moreover, the political climate in the state is in favour of the LDF. They will not fall prey to BJP’s tactics,” he said.

Local & national issues

The LDF is banking on the Rs 1,200 crore spent for the constituency and its anti-BJP stand to woo the voters.

The money, said Balachandran, was utilised to build infrastructure and improve public amenities. “Thrissur got a facelift in the last five years. We will take it forward,” he said.

Padmaja countered the claim. “Thrissur is facing an acute water crisis. More than 5,000 families live in fear of floods here. When it rains heavily, these families pack their belongings and get ready to move into relief camps. The MLA has not done anything for them. Can he show us the proof for spending Rs 1,200 crore in the constituency?” she asked.

Balachandran said LDF is the only front that is earnestly fighting the anti-people policies of the Narendra Modi government. “People have broken their back because of the exorbitant rise in oil and gas prices and they will vent their anger against the government in this poll,” he said.

Padmaja, meanwhile, hopes to capitalise on the impressive speech of Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi in Thrissur on Wednesday.

UDF candidate Padmaja Venugopal during poll campaign in Thrissur
UDF candidate Padmaja Venugopal during poll campaign in Thrissur. Photo: Russell Shahul

Priyanka raked up the attack on nuns belonging to Missionaries of Charity allegedly by Sangh Parivar activists in an apparent bid to tell Christian voters that BJP’s new-found affinity towards the community was hollow.

She slammed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for not mentioning the attack on nuns in his poll speech in Palakkad on Tuesday.

“She raised a lot of critical questions and it made a huge impact on the women voters,” Padmaja said.

Suresh Gopi’s vitriol

BJP candidate Suresh Gopi mainly harps on contentious issues in his poll speeches, and his wayward approach has raised many eyebrows.

On Thursday, he spoke about the need to bring in Uniform Civil Code (UCC) - one civil law for all religious communities in the country - and population control measures. “Christian community will be affected heavily if we do not implement population control measures.”

NDA candidate Suresh Gopi interacts with young voters in Thrissur on Thursday
NDA candidate Suresh Gopi interacts with young voters in Thrissur on Thursday. Photo: Russell Shahul

He countered the criticism that how could he bat for population control measures as he is the father of four children. “Yes, I am a father of four, but I have only one wife. I was in a panic after I lost my first child,” he said while addressing a gathering of Pushpagiri Brahmin collective at Desi Nagar.

He slammed the Kerala government for hurting the sentiments of Hindu devotees in Sabarimala. “We should teach this government a lesson,” he said.

It is not clear why he is touching upon controversial issues. Attempts to get his responses failed. His campaign manager said he is not giving media interviews anymore after a recent tiff with a television channel.

Agriculture Minister Sunil Kumar alleged that Suresh Gopi is raising divisive issues as part of a Sangh Parivar agenda to create communal tension.

“Suresh Gopi is making a mockery of himself by raising unnecessary issues. He is a father of four, and how could he demand a bill to control the population. Why is he raking up Uniform Civil Code this time? These are part of an agenda. Voters in Thrissur will realise it,” he said.


Final lap

As the public campaign is set to end in two days, Balachandran and Padmaja claim they are confident of comfortable victories.

Data from recent elections suggests a slight edge to the UDF.

Thirty six wards of the Thrissur corporation are part of the constituency. In the local body election in December 2020, UDF won 14 wards, LDF got 13, BJP claimed five while independents bagged four.

In the 2019 Parliament election, UDF candidate and eventual winner from Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency T N Prathapan got 55,668 votes from the assembly seat ahead of NDA’s Suresh Gopi while LDF’s Rajaji Mathew Thomas was a distant third with 31,110 votes.

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