Uninspiring candidates and insipid campaigns throw up a tight fight in Kannur

  • LDF has weaponised K Sudhakaran's tongue slips and alleged lack of performance
  • Election exposes the waning supremacy of Sudhakaran in Kannur politics
  • UDF is reportedly riding on anti-incumbency waves against state and Union governments to overcome Sudhakaran's shortcomings
K Sudhakaran and M V Jayarajan. Photo: Manorama/ File

Kannur: At 9.30 pm on Saturday, Jose Sebastian, fitted with a headlight, is out tapping his rubber trees. He is a Left independent member of the Congress-controlled hilly Naduvil grama panchayat in Kannur's Irikkur Assembly constituency.

With just five days to go for the Lok Sabha election in Kerala, all politicians would be busy campaigning for their candidates during the daytime. "It's not just that. It is the daytime heat, too," says Jose Sebastian's wife. When asked if the election in Kannur is still a close race, she says yes. "That's because the general public here is not interested in any of the two candidates. So I cannot guess who will win," she says.

Manorama News-VMR surveyed Kannur Lok Sabha constituency in March and concluded that the fight between Congress's State chief and incumbent MP K Sudhakaran (75) and CPM's district chief M V Jayarajan (63) is close, with the two candidates polling 43 per cent votes. The same survey also concluded that the contest in the neighbouring Vadakara constituency between the two MLAs -- CPM's K K Shailaja and Congress's Shafi Parambil -- is also neck and neck.

However, there are similarities between the elections in the two Lok Sabha constituencies. In Vadakara, the two candidates galvanised their supporters; and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) set off their campaigns in full-throttle since the beginning of March. Importantly, the youths in Vadakara became vocal about their candidates. In contrast, Kannur's two key candidates are uninspiring and their campaigns insipid, says K P Mohanan, a political observer and voter in Thalassery.

Unlike in Vadakara, where the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) -- the key constituent of the UDF -- has been on the forefront since Shafi Parambil's candidature was announced, in Kannur, the party joined Sudhakaran's campaign in full force only after the Ramzan ended on April 10.

In Kannur, it is not just the state government and the Union government which are facing anti-incumbency, the local MP Sudhakaran is also facing people's ire. Last month, UDF supporters waylaid Sudhakaran in the Irikkur constituency -- a stronghold of the UDF -- for not keeping his promise of building the 3 km Koyamb-Valakkai road.

A Congress leader in Kannur said that the UDF roped in Rahul Gandhi to rally for Sudhakaran to lift his flailing campaign. The LDF camp brought Sitaram Yechuri to Kannur last week.

But the big-name rallies are not making the election a talking point in tea shops, said a music teacher in Kannur. "Neither my teenage sons nor my students talk of these candidates," he said.

The lacklustre campaign sits in stark contrast with the political profile of Kannur Lok Sabha constituency, which has the highest density of heavyweights -- Sudhakaran himself used to be lionised by the UDF, then there is Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan from Dharmadam, CPM's state chief M V Govindan from Taliparamba, Shailaja from Mattannur, veteran minister Kadannappalli Ramachandran from Kannur, and Sunny Joseph, three-time Congress MLA from Peravoor. CPM's K V Sumesh from Azhikode and Congress's Sajeev Joseph from Irikkur are the other two MLAs from Kannur.

CPM insiders do not express confidence in their candidate, albeit privately. "Jayarajan is a good administrator. When he was the Chief Minister's private secretary he put the CMO in order. He proved his mettle when he was the administrator of Pariyaram Medical College. But I don't think he connects with the crowd. His influence outside the party is limited," says a mid-level leader of the CPM in Kannur town.

But he quickly adds that the Congress candidate is in the same boat. "This election exposed the declining supremacy of Sudhakaran in Kannur politics," he says.

Two mid-level Congress leaders in Kannur town concur. "We will vote for Sudhakaran but we will not campaign for him," said one of them. The second leader was more audacious. "At the risk of sounding preposterous, I'll say Sudharakaran must be expecting Vadakara's aura to rub off on Kannur too," he said.

Talking politics & strategies
CPM's Taliparamba Area Secretary Santhosh Kanod was skimming newspapers on the party office's verandah. "This election, Taliparamba is the key battleground in Kannur constituency," he says, sitting against the backdrop of a giant replica of Vladimir Serov's painting of Lenin proclaiming Soviet power in Smolny Palace. It was made by Payyannur artist Rajeevan Kitho.

In the 2019 election, CPM trailed behind the Congress for the first time in the Taliparamba assembly segment, says Santhosh Kanod. Sudhakaran got 725 votes more than P K Sreemathi in Taliparamba. "That was an anomaly because of various reasons. We are reversing it this election," he said.

To be sure, except for Dharmadam (4,099 votes) and Mattannur segments (7,488 votes), Sudhakaran pipped Sreemathi in the other five segments and won the election with a margin of 94,559 votes in 2019.

The UDF will be ahead in Irikkur and Peravoor this time, too. "But we will make that up with our massive leads in Dharmadam, Mattannur and Taliparamba," he said. CPM will also get a good lead in Azhikode -- where Sudhakaran got 21,857 more votes in 2019 -- because of the work of MLA Sumesh, said Santhosh Kanod.

Unlike last time, CPM leaders feel they are taking on a Congress strongman prone to gaffes and waning support from his party workers. "We are making his poor performance as an MP the main issue," said Shibin Kanai, DYFI leader and president of the CPM-controlled Kurumathur Service Cooperative Bank. He is being benchmarked against CPM's Rajya Sabha member V Sivadasan.

DYFI-run Instagram page Taliparamba Squad offered a full kuzhimandi to anyone posting photographs of at least one project completed by Sudhakaran in Taliparamba in the past five years. The page usually gets fewer than 100 likes per post. But this one got more than 3,000 likes.

In a bid to reach out to more anti-BJP voters, CPM is also widely using old clipped videos of Sudhakaran in which he appears to be endorsing the RSS. "BJP's anti-constitutional rule is a big issue in a state like Kerala," said Shibin Kanai. On the bomb blast in Panoor, where a CPM worker was killed, and party workers book, he said that's not a talking point in Kannur.

When asked if their election squads face anti-incumbency during campaigning, Santhosh Kanod says people do raise the issue of PSC rank lists getting wasted because the government was not filling vacancies.

On the delay in disbursing welfare pensions, Shibin Kanai said people were happy because they got the money now.

"Who are they fooling?" says an angry M C Kunhammed, a retired school teacher, sitting in his house next to Kannur airport in Mattannur.

Since January 2021, the government has increased the dearness allowance (dearness relief for pensioners) seven times to 21 per cent of basic pay but has not released the money. "On April 2, the government credited Rs 15,740 to my account as dearness relief, which is just the first raise of 2 per cent. Employees and pensioners will lose anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 6 lakh," he says.

Kunhammed, who was also a long-time Congress mandalam president in Mattannur, admits that the campaign of the UDF started at a slow pace. "But the LDF could not convert voters' minds with its campaign," he says.

Abdul Majeed K P, president of Kolachery grama panchayat -- one of the three local bodies controlled by the IUML in Taliparamba -- said the IUML is making up for the lost time in Kannur constituency. "We are exposing the LDF's hypocrisy by going to town with the acquittal of three RSS workers in the murder of madrasa teacher Riyas Moulavi in Kasaragod," he said. "But there is a pattern of bias. I am not talking about religion here. In January, 15 persons were sentenced to death for the murder of RSS leader Ranjith Sreenivasan in December 2021.

A day before he was murdered, (SDPI leader) K S Shan was killed. The trial in that case has not yet begun. Youth Congress worker S P Shuhaib's murder in Mattannur is still being discussed. The trial is not over. We know how much money the government spent to stop the CBI from taking over the investigation of the double murder of Youth Congress workers Kripesh and Sarath Lal," said the Kolachery panchayat president.

He said the government holding back the funds of the panchayats and pensions of the elderly was affecting the local economy. "We are riding on the anti-government sentiments," said Abdul Majeed.

The 62-year-old IUML leader said that most of the voters have already made up their minds on whom to vote for. "But my years of experience in running elections tells me that the 15 per cent to 20 per cent fence sitters decide in the last 36 hours. We will get to them," he said.

BJP candidate C Raghunath's claim to fame is his contest on a Congress ticket against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in Dharmadam Assembly Constituency in 2021. Congress's vote share fell by 4.5 per cent and Vijayan got the second highest winning margin. Party leaders say Sudhakaran gave the ticket to Raghunath only because the then Congress state president Mullappally Ramachandran opposed the candidature. "He was one of the 84 DCC secretaries in Kannur. But when he joined the BJP, he took with him a few Congress workers. If he draws more votes this election, it will hurt Sudhakaran," said a Congress leader.

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