Representational image: Onmanorama

Vizhinjam protests: Coastal voters on a wave of distrust

The manner in which the 140-day Vizhinjam anti-port agitation was eventually brought to its knees, it wouldn't be a surprise if the majority of coastal Thiruvananthapuram marched to the polling booths on April 26 and chose NOTA over the main candidates.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government never took the agitation seriously, called it the work of outside forces. The BJP had engineered a local rebellion against the struggle. Its provocative tactics finally unsettling a peaceful livelihood movement, making way for Pinarayi's police to come down hard on the agitators.

The Congress stood by the fisherfolk but its Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor gave the impression that he was more concerned about the Adani port than the people whose lives it would impact. Also, there was hypocrisy in the Congress show of solidarity as it was the Oommen Chandy government that inked a deal that was widely perceived to be weighed heavily in favour of Adani.

In short, there is no one the coastal folk can trust. Even then, from what Onmanorama heard from people along the coast, NOTA would be the last of their preferences. And their choice will be decisive. In a closely contested election like in 2014, when BJP's O Rajagopal swept the urban centres, it was the coastal votes that saw Shashi Tharoor through.

Thinly veiled encyclical
The Vizhinjam anti-port agitation remains an emotional issue but there are larger issues at stake this time. In the coastal region, dominated by minorities, replacing the BJP government at the Centre is a major concern.

Here is what a staunch CPM supporter, whose party links got him a job as a supervisor of a Geotube installation project off the coast of Poonthura, told us. "I have never seen Shashi Tharoor in person. I also don't think he has done anything for the coast. But if you ask whom I will vote for, I would say Tharoor. I want the BJP government removed. And for that the Congress should win," he said.

There is the influence of the powerful Latin Church in his thinking. Early in March, bemoaning the growing religious intolerance in the country, Latin Archbishop Thomas J Netto had urged the faithful to observe fasting and prayers on March 22. Faith as resistance.

"Our country is passing through an unfortunate phase where religious polarisation is destroying social harmony and endangering democracy. Minority rights are being undermined and attacks on Christian institutions have become the order of the day. On top of it, violence against Christians have increased exponentially," the Archbishop said in his pastoral letter. This was as direct a 'Beware of the BJP' message as any.

Unlikely attraction
Still, small groups of coastal Christians, perhaps swayed by the thinking of Christian groups in central and north Kerala, are seriously considering the possibility of voting for the BJP candidate.

"Everyone keeps talking about attacks on Christians in Manipur. But have these Congress or CPM people, who have held innumerable solidarity meetings for Palestine Muslims, held one in support of Manipur Christians," said Roberts, a 62-year-old Kottapuram fisherman who owns four fishing boats and employs 40 workers. "It is these parties that are playing the communal card, not the BJP," he said.

Fisherfolk gather at Vizhinjam for the 100th day of protest. Photo: Manoj Chemancheri/Manorama

More importantly, he wants proximity to power. "It is not like before. Now, the BJP is in power and they will continue to be. We just cannot ignore them. See what the BJP candidate Rajeev Chandrasekhar has done for Pozhiyoor," Roberts said.

On March 8 when Chandrasekhar visited Pozhiyoor, an area severely troubled by sea erosion, the locals told him of their woes. In two days, two senior officials from the Central Fisheries Ministry visited Pozhiyoor and nearby areas like Pozhikkara and Kollengode. They visited the local church, too, and promised to submit a report to the Centre immediately.

This has rattled both the LDF and the UDF. The LDF has gone to the Election Commission of India against Chandrasekhar. The embarrassment was bigger for sitting MP Shashi Tharoor. Chandrasekhar's quick action amplified the perception that both the BJP and the LDF are spreading that Tharoor had done nothing for the coastal community. Upstaged, Tharoor said that he too had repeatedly brought the issue to the notice of the Centre but was always thwarted.

Migration from Congress
The BJP is also engineering local defections to lure more Christians to its fold. On March 24, for instance, 10 local Congress leaders joined the BJP in Cheriyathura, a coastal town near the airport.

"Money could have lured them over to the BJP side but it cannot be denied that these 10 men could influence the votes of at least 20 Christian families each in areas like Cheriyathura, Shanghumugham and Poonthura," said Michael, a local activist. But even Michael admits that it will be difficult to make a coastal Christian vote for the BJP.

Nonetheless, a large chunk of the 32-35% Hindu votes in the coastal area, like in previous general elections, would go to the BJP.

Vizhinjam in Thiruvananthapuram. File photo: Manorama

Bad, Worse, Worst
If Vizhinjam alone is taken as the issue that would decide the choice of a coastal voter, certain parties would suffer more than others. Here, even if the fisherfolk are disenchanted with all the main parties, the blame has been apportioned in varying degrees.

The Congress is allocated the least. "Tharoor only said that port work cannot be stopped. We too did not ask for that. We only wanted construction to stop for a brief period when a study is conducted," said Lazar, a Vizhinjam fisherman. "Otherwise, Tharoor had talked for us even in Parliament," he said.

During the conversations with Christian fishermen along the coast, it was found that they were impressed by Tharoor's "rational stand" on the Palestine issue. "For anyone with a functional brain, what Tharoor said at the Muslim League rally was the right thing to say. But the CPM, the Muslim League and even the Congress crucified him for that," said Robinson of Mulloor, the ground zero of the Vizhinjam agitation.

At the Palestine solidarity rally organised by the League in Kozhikode on October 26 last year, Tharoor qualified Hamas as a terrorist organisation even while chastising Israel for its disproportionate retaliatory measures against Palestine.

As for Hindus in the area, it was with a sense of despondency that Christian folks in Vizhinjam, Kottapuram, Poonthura and Cheriythura spoke of them. "Our Hindu brethren did not stand with us during the days of the struggle," is how one of them put it.

But revulsion and anger was reserved for the LDF government. Many still seemed pained by the way the agitation was suppressed. "They said we attacked the police. Fact is, stones were thrown at us from terraces of houses nearby. All CCTV visuals were strangely dysfunctional at that time. If we were the ones who attacked how come our women and children still carry the wounds," said Christhudas, a Vizhinjam fisherman who took part in the struggle.

This simmering anger had found release in the only local Matsyafed cooperative election held after the agitation. The 'Sanghom', which was traditionally ruled by the LDF, was convincingly wrested by the UDF. What was 7-6 in favour of the LDF became 2-11 in the favour of the UDF in the last month's election.

In sum, at this halfway stage of the campaign, it is advantage Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram coast.

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