'Ghar Wapsi' by rebels after drubbing Cong in Kasaragod gram panchayat

Rebel story
  • 1. DDF first independent block to control a gram panchayat in Kerala
  • 2. DDF routed Congress in 2015, when it reduced the party to one seat from 14 in 2010
  • 3. But DDF's supporters were not happy being aligned with the CPM
Congress state president K Sudhakaran and Kasaragod Lok Sabha member Rajmohnan Unnithan welcoming members of the Democratic Development Front (DDF) in the party's headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday.
Congress state president K Sudhakaran and Kasaragod Lok Sabha member Rajmohnan Unnithan welcoming members of the Democratic Development Front (DDF) in the party's headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday.

Kasaragod: Congress rebels who routed the party in its bastion of East Eleri gram panchayat here in two successive local body elections are returning to the party after nearly a decade.

The rebels, who formed an independent front, are being welcomed back at a time when the CPM used rift to gain a foothold in the hill panchayat of Kasaragod, which was once an impregnable fortress of the Congress.

In a press conference held in the Congress headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday, party state president K Sudhakaran welcomed the rebel leader and panchayat president James Panthammakkal and his supporters, who fought the elections under the banner Democratic Development Front (DDF).

The DDF will formally merge with the Congress at a function in Chittarikkal, the headquarters of East Eleri Panchayat, on November 20, said Congress leader and Kasaragod Lok Sabha member Rajmohan Unnithan, who led the secret talks to bring the rebels back.

As a goodwill gesture, Congress agreed to give DDF four of the 11 seats on the board of directors of the party-controlled East Eleri Service Co-Operative Bank. The election is on November 12.

In what could be seen as a wind of change, the Kerala Congress (M), though a constituent of the LDF, has withdrawn from the election. It has two directors on the outgoing board. The CPM is contesting for four seats but it barely has only around 500 votes in the bank with 15,000 members.

Congress state president K Sudhakaran with leaders of the Democratic Development Front in the party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday.
Congress state president K Sudhakaran with leaders of the Democratic Development Front in the party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on Thursday.

Development hero and ego clash

James (Panthammakkal) and his supporters should have been brought back much earlier, said the former general secretary of the District Congress Committee Simon Pallathukuzhi. The Congress wasted several opportunities, he said. "Now we saw an opportunity in the bank election and re-initiated the process," said Simon Pallathukuzhi, who has been working for the past several years to get the DDF back to Congress.

Ironically, he was among the 22 signatories of a 15-point complaint based on which the then Congress president V M Sudheeran expelled Panthammakkal from Congress for six years in October 2015.

But the party had suspended him sometime in 2013 after he refused to step down as the president of the gram panchayat.

The party erred in both instances because Panthammakkal had by then amassed a huge support base in neighbouring Kannur's Cherupuzha gram panchayat and in Kasaragod's East Eleri and West Eleri gram panchayats.

As panchayat president, he had set up the biggest drinking water project in the district, took on the Church and built a bus stand, and also constructed the panchayat office.

So when he was suspended and later expelled just before the 2015 local body election, most of the Congress workers went with him. "We did not take the easy route of aligning with the CPM. We created our identity as true Congress workers fighting for development," said Panthammakkal.

The rebels formed the Democratic Development Front (DDF) and fought the election under the 'football' symbol in 2015.

The Congress not only lost control of East Eleri for the first time since the formation of the gram panchayat but was also humiliated.

In the 16-member panchayat, it won only one seat, down from 14. The Kerala Congress (M) retained its single seat. The DDF romped home with 10 seats, becoming the first block of independent members to control a gram panchayat in Kerala. The other winner was the CPM, which gained four seats, up from one.

To be sure, Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam won the gram panchayat in Ernakulam the same year but it was a corporate-backed NGO.

In 2020, the DDF had an electoral understanding with the LDF and contested the election. Not many Congress supporters liked the idea.

When the DDF fielded a candidate in Kamballur ward, a sitting seat of the CPM, the Marxist party took offence. "We defeated the Congress and the CPM in Kamballur. But because of that one seat, the CPM workers voted for the Congress in several seats to defeat the DDF," said Panthamakkal.

The result: the Congress and the DDF were even-steven with seven seats, the Kerala Congress (M) was edged out, and the CPM's tally halved to two. But with the CPM support, Panthamakkal became panchayat president again.

East Eleri panchayat.
East Eleri panchayat.

A fraud in the memory of leader Karunakaran

Two months after Congress leader K Karunakaran died on December 23, 2010, the Congress chieftains of Kannur and Kasaragod decided to set up a hospital in memory of the 'Leader'.

They registered 'Leader K Karunakaran Memorial Hospital Trust' and bought 2 acres, worth around Rs 20 crore, in Kannur's Cherupuzha gram panchayat.

Senior Congress leader and member of Congress state committee K Kunhikrishnan Nair was the chairperson of the trust and Panthamakkal was one of the directors.

"I found that money raised from the public for the hospital was being routed to a fake trust and opposed it. I had briefed Oommen Chandy about the fraud," said Panthamakkal.

When the leadership did not respond to his allegations, Panthamakkal went public and held a press conference against Kunhikrishnan Nair in Cherupuzha.

Later in 2015, Nair became the first signatory in the complaint filed against Panthamakkal. Another signatory was the former president Cherupuzha gram panchayat Roshy Jose.

But Panthamakkal had also filed a police complaint against Nair, Roshy, and others, accusing them of setting up a fake trust.

In September 2019, contractor Joy Muthupara, who was constructing the hospital since 2012, ended his life on the top floor of the building after the trust, controlled by the Congress leaders, did not clear his bills worth Rs 1.34 crore. Jose was a much-loved and cost-effective contractor credited with making the majority of the commercial buildings in the Cherupuzha market.

"Payyannur Police arrested Kunhikrishnan Nair, then Cherupuzha panchayat president Roshy Jose and three other Congress leaders after Jose ended his life. But the arrests were made on my complaint of them siphoning money to a fake account," said Panthamakkal. The leaders spent 29 days in prison.

One Saleem of Thalangara, who was part of the trust, sold off the land and the building, he said. "The Congress lost everything, its name, land, and building," he said.

"Now Kunhikrishnan is 92 years old and he agrees that I was right," Panthamakkal said.

But the East Eleri leader said that the hospital issue was not the only reason why Congress turned against him. "It was a conflict between A group and I group in East Eleri," he said.

East Eleri was always controlled by the A group until 2010, when Panthamakkal, an I group leader, became the panchayat president. "The A group started to work against me since then and they roped in leaders from Kannur for the hit job," he said. In this group fight, Congress took the hit, he said.

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