Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally at Edathua, a village in the region, while Chief Minister Oommen Chandy spoke at a series of meetings here.
Kuttanad in Kerala is a patch of green floating on water. A string of villages — karas (land) in local parlance — criss-crossed by natural and man-made waterways that channelise the waters of five rivers and the Vembanad backwaters, this assembly constituency in Alappuzha district saw unusual political activity last week.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally at Edathua, a village in the region, while Chief Minister Oommen Chandy spoke at a series of meetings here. At Pulinkunnu, an old Christian settlement on one of the Pamba’s distributaries, a day before Modi’s arrival, Chandy said the fight in a lot of constituencies in Kerala, which votes on May 16, was between the Congress-led UDF and the BJP-led NDA. It created a stir. Senior Congress leaders including A K Antony and state party chief V M Sudheeran suggested that Chandy may have erred in giving prominence to the BJP, over the Left Democratic Front (LDF), as the UDF’s main political rival.
Did Chandy goof up at Pulinkunnu? Not really. He had only tailored his speech to address the specific nature of the local contest, where the UDF and the LDF face a stiff challenge from the NDA candidate. The chief minister needed to shore up the support of the anti-BJP vote, especially among the minorities, in favour of the Congress by positing the UDF as the real rival to the NDA.
The local bodies election had revealed that a significant section of Christians and Muslims, who make up about 45 per cent of the state’s electorate and traditionally back the UDF, may have supported the LDF.
The Congress, the CPM and the BJP have left the Kuttanad seat to allies, which has turned the outcome unpredictable. The UDF nominee, Jacob Abraham, is considered the best among the candidates for his work as a panchayat member in the region. However, his party, the Kerala Congress group led by K M Mani, is yet to recover from the bar-bribe taint. Informed sources also hinted that the Congress, which had eyed the seat, was not too keen on Abraham.
The NDA candidate is Subhash Vasu, national secretary of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political outfit formed by SNDP leader Vellapally Natesan, with the hope of drawing in the support of the numerically powerful Ezhava community. Vasu has drawn on the extensive SNDP network, and, with the help of the RSS cadre, is running a well-oiled campaign in the constituency. He also claims to be the front-runner.
The incumbent MLA is a colourful character representing Sharad Pawar’s NCP, a constituent of the LDF. Thomas Chandy or ‘Kuwait’ Chandy, the second richest candidate in the state with a net worth of nearly Rs 100 crore, is known to be large-hearted in helping the ‘needy’ through his Daveed Putra Charitable Foundation. With no history of political activism, he had been parachuted into Kuttanad as a nominee of the late Congress leader K Karunakaran’s short-lived political outfit, DIC(K), in 2006. When Karunakaran returned to the Congress, Thomas Chandy found a home in the NCP, a party which comes alive in Kerala mainly during elections. Riding on the CPM cadre strength, Thomas Chandy won the seat for the LDF in 2011. Critics though allege that he spends half the month in Kuwait and is more focussed on his businesses in the Middle-East than the constituency’s needs. Even they, however, grudgingly admit that Thomas has charmed his constituents with his purse and is tough to defeat.
The NCP can’t boast of cadre in Kuttanad, but Thomas Chandy is omnipresent — on flexboards, banners and even on the back of autorickshaws. Last heard, he was assuring a small gathering in Nedumudi that NCP leaders have declared him as their nominee in the LDF ministry.
There is, however, unease about Chandy and his ‘charity’ politics, even among the CPM cadre. A CPM worker said his willingness to fund all party programmes have turned the organisation slothful and dependent. A senior party leader blamed the compulsions of coalition politics for the presence of candidates like Thomas Chandy. The cynicism among the electorate for the MLA is being tapped by the BDJS candidate. On the sidelines of a village gathering at Ramankari, a hamlet on the Pamba, the BDJS’ Vasu says he is confident of victory. “In an electorate of 1.63 lakh voters, only 51,000 are Christians. Even if they don’t vote for me, I’ll win,” he says. He is banking on a tight three-corned contest in which a candidate with about 40,000 plus votes might win. The BJP-BDJS candidates had won over 25,000 votes from two panchayats in Kuttanad in the local bodies election last year. A subtle hint in Vasu’s comment is that he will be able to consolidate the one lakh plus Hindu vote in the constituency, which has been represented only by upper caste Christians for decades. Not surprisingly, Vasu’s main target is the CPM, which he claims, is known in the constituency to be on Thomas Chandy’s payroll.
Hindus in Kuttanad, like elsewhere in Kerala, are hardly a monolith. In this region, however, the Nair-Ezhava divide was more pronounced until recently, with the latter forming the bedrock of the CPM and a small section of the Nairs supporting the RSS. The bloody RSS-CPM conflicts in the region until the ‘80s also had a caste undercurrent. The BJP-BDJS alliance hopes to overcome the Nair-Ezhava divide and refashion political preferences along communal lines.
Natesan, the brain behind the BDJS, which was formed earlier this year, claims the BJP’s alliance with his party has turned the NDA politically relevant. The BDJS is contesting in 37 of the total 140 constituencies. Sitting in his sprawling residence at Kanichukulangara, a village on the Alappuzha-Kochi highway, Natesan says the LDF and the UDF have ignored the concerns of Hindus to appease the minority communities.
But few buy Natesan’s claim that he can facilitate a shift of Ezhava votes to the NDA. Senior CPM leader Thomas Isaac says it is only the creamy layer of the Ezhava community that supports Natesan and may vote for the BDJS. Suresh, a political observer in Kollam, says the BDJS could hurt both fronts. The micro finance schemes run by the SNDP, according to him, could tap three to four thousand votes in every constituency for the BDJS. Venu, who has tracked many elections in Alappuzha, was more sceptical about the impact of the new front and said many SNDP functionaries are also office-bearers of the CPM and are unlikely to facilitate the vote transfer Natesan seeks.
In a way, the BDJS is a throwback to the ‘70s when the SNDP floated a political outfit called SRP (Socialist Republican Party) and the Nair Service Society had the NDP. Both managed to be part of the UDF, but failed to gain traction and folded soon. The BDJS-BJP alliance is also reminiscent of the Hindu Mahamandalam that NSS leader Mannathu Padmanabhan and SNDP chief R Sankar attempted in the early ‘50s.
The communal identity paradigm of these experiments proved unsuitable to the political climate of Kerala. The big question now is if the ground has shifted in favour of identity politics that seek to tap Hindu anxieties about the economic and political empowerment of Muslims and Christians in the state. The future of the BDJS — in fact, the entire political spectrum — depends on that.