Mattannur mandate: A bellwether of Kerala’s political mood?

(From left) Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Pinarayi Vijayan, V D Satheesan and K Sudhakaran. Photos: File/Manorama

No one expected Mattannur in Kannur district to change colour after the local body election. And as predicted, the ruling CPM retained power, which it never lost.

While the CPM had the victory, the celebration was in the Congress camp. Congress-led UDF doubled its tally to 14 thereby administering a dent in the red citadel. The party sees a dignified defeat in a Left fortress equivalent to a victory elsewhere in the state.

From local Congress workers to the party’s state leaders, everyone in the opposition party has found in the defeat a reason to rejoice, and remain optimistic.

Of the 35 wards in the municipality, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) won 21, and UDF doubled its tally to 14 seats. The BJP failed to open its account.

In the UDF, the Congress won nine seats, while its ally Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) bagged five. Last time, the Congress-led front had to settle for just seven seats. Had UDF captured four more seats, LDF would have been out of power.

"The increase in the number of seats for the UDF shows that any fort can be breached," Opposition leader V D Satheesan said.

The UDF wrested back Porora, Elannur, Aanikkari, Kalaroad, Illambhagam, Maruthayi and Mettadi wards from the LDF.

This triggered jubilation in the Congress camp. “The silver lining of democracy finds its way into the darkness of ‘party villages’,” wrote Congress state chief K Sudhakaran on Facebook. “Mattannur reflects the change in the way Kerala thinks,” said KPCC vice-president VT Balram. “Seven became 14 in Mattannur, not in Irikkur. Remember that,” said Shafi Parambil MLA. Unlike Mattannur, Irikkur is a traditional Congress stronghold in Kannur.

LDF workers take out a victory march after winning the Mattannur municipality elections on Monday. Photo: Manorama

But why this euphoria? What’s there to celebrate about the verdict? After all, it’s yet another defeat. But many in Congress see it as a bellwether of the state's political mood.

The elections to the civic body took place a-year-and-a-half after the state-wide local body elections as the legal tussles following the upgrade of Mattannur as a municipality disturbed the poll schedule.

Ever since its formation, the LDF has never lost in Mattannur municipality. In the previous polls in 2017, the LDF was voted to power with the CPM winning 24 seats, while its alliance partners CPI, Indian National League, Janata Dal, and an LDF-backed independent candidate won one seat each. Then, Congress only managed to win four seats and the IUML three.

As in the latest election, the UDF had won 14 seats in 2012.

The LDF camp cites this number to claim that the UDF has just repeated its 2012 performance and there was nothing to go gaga about it this time too.

But Congress rejected that critique. “There’s no point in that argument. This time it’s different,” Kannur District Congress Committee president Martin George told Onmanorama. “After we won 14 seats in 2012, the CPM started sensing some fear. Then by the next election in 2017, the municipality wards were delimited in a manner that favours only the Left front. That’s how our tally fell to seven. From there, we have doubled our tally this time. So this clearly shows a political trend even within CPM bastions,” George reasoned.

He said the dip in the LDF’s seats was evidence of a clear anti-incumbency feeling among the voters. Mattannur belongs to Kannur district from where CPM strongmen, including Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, hail. LDF convener E P Jayarajan was elected from Mattannur assembly constituency in 2016. The constituency elected K K Shailaja to the assembly in 2021 with a stunning margin of over 60,000 votes.

The wards UDF wrested also include Perinchery from where Shailaja’s husband K Bhaskaran Master won the poll in 2012 and became municipal chairman.

(Incidentally, Shailaja goofed up on Monday when she claimed in a Facebook post that her husband had won from Edavelikkal, her current ward which her party has retained. She, however, had to edit the post.)

K K Shailaja
K K Shailaja

CPM Kannur district secretary MV Jayarajan rubbished UDF's claims even though he admitted that the party would study the poll outcome in detail.

Both the UDF and the LDF accused each other of receiving the support of the BJP and the SDPI.

Political commentator K C Umesh Babu, a staunch critic of what he terms authoritarian tendencies in the CPM, believes the Mattannur verdict is a clear indication of the political trend in Kerala. “Mattannur is a place I know very well. CPM dominates the region while the Congress’ organisation has been weak there for years. In normal circumstances, the LDF should have had a sweeping win because they have the cadre strength and machinery for that. Also, the state machinery is with them. However, these were not reflected in the results.

"The UDF gained significantly in the polls. There is a clear trend of anti-incumbency against the Pinarayi government in the results just as we witnessed in the Thrikkakara assembly bypoll. This result shows that the LDF has not learned any lesson from the Thrikkakara defeat,” Babu said.

The Congress’ Uma Thomas had won the Thrikkakara bypoll with a record margin of over 25,000 votes. The UDF retained the seat despite a high-octane campaign led by Chief Minister Vijayan.

The stunning bypoll win came as a lifeline for the Congress after the rout in the local body polls in 2020 and the assembly elections in 2021.

The Mattannur show is likely to keep the morale of the party high in the immediate future. While the Thrikkakara result helped Satheesan cement his position as a key strategist in the party amid an endless factional struggle, Mattannur comes as a booster for Sudhakaran as Kannur is his home turf.

With the next round of elections (Lok Sabha) over a year away, there’s no immediate measure to find whether Mattannur result points to a trend or not.

We, perhaps, may get a good idea from what the Pinarayi government does next.

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