The verdict of the Thrikkakara legislative assembly bypoll, in which Congress candidate Uma Thomas romped home with a record margin, offers a series of lessons for both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF).
For the UDF and its main constituent Congress, the bypoll result gives a much-needed shot in the arm. The authentic victory has proven that the Congress machinery is still intact in the state even after the rout in the assembly polls last year which left the organisation a divided house.
For the CPM-led LDF, the biggest takeaway from the bypoll result is that it needs to keep its ears close to the ground to hear the people's voice.
Well-organised effort pays off for UDF
It was the unprecedented and organised manner in which the UDF carried out the campaign that ensured the Congress candidate's resounding win in the bypoll. Under the able leadership of Leader of the Opposition V D Satheesan, the UDF could form strategies and implement them in an effective manner to counter the all-out electioneering unleashed by the LDF.
The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory
A bypoll in Thrikkakara would not have been a big political affair in normal circumstances because the constituency has a track record of electing only Congress legislators. However, this time the picture looked different as the CPM-led front entered the fray determined to breach the Congress fort. The ruling front succeeded in making an impression that it would not be a cake walk for the UDF in Thrikkakara this time.
However, their desperation to score a century in the 140-member assembly ended in an embarrassing scenario. The CPM can find solace in the fact that they could poll 2000-odd votes more than what it got in the last poll. However, the magnitude of their defeat is striking when compared to the campaigning they did in Thrikkakara.
Acid test for Satheesan
Satheesan took the mantle of the campaign in Thrikkakara right from the beginning, knowing well that it would be a do-or-die battle for him more than the party. Any adverse results would have come as a reason for his rivals to go for his throat.
Satheesan got it right when he, along with other senior leaders, could persuade Uma Thomas, the widow of former legislator P T Thomas, to contest the bypoll. The Congress could settle the minor squabbles within the party over the candidature in the initial stage itself. In Uma, the Congress got a candidate who was dignity personified. Uma's personal appeal combined with her husband's legacy definitely worked in favour of the UDF. Throughout her campaigning, Uma deftly managed to stay away from controversies. Even when a sleaze video circulated in the name of her rival candidate Dr Jo Joseph triggered a controversy, she outsmarted the LDF's attempts to target her party by saying she shared the pangs of Dr Joseph's family.
Clear plan and effective delegation of duties
The UDF worked like a well-oiled machinery in constituency by chalking out a clear plan of campaigning, which included assigning even senior leaders like Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala for door-to-door campaigning. This countered or brought down the effect of, if any, a similar vote canvassing done by LDF ministers and MLAs.
The Twenty20 factor
It is evident that the Twenty20 party's decision to stay away from the poll fray came to help the UDF this time. However, if a top source in the Congress is to be believed, the Kitex-backed party decided not to contest the bypoll following talks with the opposition party.
“We knew they had more problems with the LDF than with us at the moment. We told them if they contested, the votes against the LDF would be split which would only help the Left front. They agreed with us,” the source said.
The bogey of SilverLine
The Congress also found the bypoll as an opportunity to amplify its campaign against K-Rail's SilverLine by highlighting the police excesses against those who protested against the semi high-speed rail project. The Congress had, in fact, conducted a survey in the constituency to get a sense of people's mood about the project.
“Some of our leaders in the district were apprehensive about how people in an urban constituency perceived the SilverLine project. They thought the voters in an urban constituency would only support such a project. However, the result of the survey was overwhelmingly against the project,” a Congress leader said.
What went wrong for CPM
It all started with the fiasco over the manner in which the CPM candidate was picked. Dr Joseph, a cardiologist at the Lisie Hospital, Ernakulam, was picked as the CPM candidate eyeing two birds with one stone. The party wanted a candidate who can woo a large section of Christian votes as well as the support of the so-called apolitical voters who it thought could be lured by the presence of a professional in the fray.
The CPM's desperation to garner the support of the Christian votes was evident from the beginning. The way in which Dr Joseph was presented as the CPM candidate at a press conference at the Lisie Hospital owned by the Syro-Malabar Church exposed the party's plans. Even during the campaigning, the party tried to send out a message that the Church was in favour of Dr Joseph.
The rift in the Church
The undercurrents within the Syro-Malabar Church which is divided into two factions in the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese also played spoilsport for the CPM's plans. As soon as an impression was created that the pro-Cardinal faction was in favour of the CPM candidate, the rival faction made a concerted effort to rally behind the Congress.
In hindsight, it also looks like the aggressive campaign unleashed by the LDF in fact turned against it. “We overdid it. People might have got disturbed by the frequent house visits by our leaders, including ministers,” a local CPM leader said.
On the larger scenario, even CPM insiders admit that the mandate reflected the people's sentiments against the LDF government, especially its aggressive push for the SilverLine project. The party should rethink how it should go ahead with the project, some insiders feel.