The upcoming Chengannur assembly by-election will be an acid test for all the three major political formations of Kerala. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) has set the ball rolling on the election campaign even as they mourn the death of sitting legislator K K Ramachandran Nair. So have main opposition United Democratic Front and the BJP.
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had a clear message to his comrades in Alappuzha before he left the district after the party election. “We have to win at any cost. I do not want to hear any excuse. You can expect 20 ministers and 90 MLAs to campaign with you.”
If the LDF went to the Malappuram parliamentary by-election and the Vengara assembly by-election without any hope of storming the Muslim League bastions, it is facing a life-and-death situation in Chengannur. Losing a sitting seat will reflect badly on the ruling front ahead of the general election of 2019.
The battle is no less crucial for the Congress-led opposition. They have to win back Chengannur to prove that they have rebounded from the humiliating defeat in the 2016 assembly election.
The BJP is also in a difficult spot. If the party is not able to repeat P S Sreedharan Pillai’s stellar performance in the constituency, its leaders may have a lot of explaining to do. Pillai won 42,682 votes in Chengannur in 2016.
Behind the scenes
A condolence meeting for Nair turned a venue of shocking revelations about his victory. CPM district secretary Saji Cherian, in his eagerness to brush aside rumors of his enmity to the late MLA, admitted to have indulged in a little foul play to ensure Nair’s victory in 2016.
Cherian claimed that he was instrumental in convincing Congress leader Shobhana George to challenge the party’s official candidate, P C Vishnunath. He said that he even visited George in her house when she seemed to waver in her decision.
The claim was embarrassing for Vishnunath and George but the maneuver was key for the LDF to wrest the constituency from the Congress. George, a three-time MLA, had eaten into the Congress votes, while the BJP made away with a large chunk of Nair votes traditionally promised to the Congress. The LDF only had to ensure that its 2011 vote base remained intact.
Scramble for candidates
The key question in the minds of the poll pundits is whether the BJP would be able to repeat its performance in 2016. The BJP’s gain was Congress’s lose two years ago.
The Congress is far from fixing a candidate. Vishnunath has been assigned the responsibility of party campaign in 49 assembly constituency in poll-bound Karnataka. Congress president Rahul Gandhi has to take a decision if Vishnunath were to be spared.
The candidate selection also hinges on the timing of the by-election. Karnataka goes to poll in the latter half of April. Former MLA M Murali and Aby Kuriakose are other potential candidates for the Congress.
The CPM list is headed by district secretary Cherian and C S Sujatha. Vishnunath beat Cherian in 2001 and Sujatha in 2011. The party state leadership, however, prefers Cherian to look after the organizational affairs in the district. Cherian has developed himself to be a counterweight to the maverick G Sudhakaran. Budhanur panchayat president P Vishwambhara Panicker and C Jayachandran are the other probable candidates.
Burden of performance
The BJP and the RSS consider Chengannur and surrounding areas to be one of their strongholds in Kerala. They insist that Pillai’s performance in 2016 was no exception.
Pillai, however, has said that he was not game for another election because he had moved on to work with the RSS organization. Yet he could be back in action with a little prodding.
Alternatively, the BJP could choose state president Kummanam Rajasekharan or M T Ramesh, who secured 12,598 votes in Chengannur in 2001.
The BJP is also watching its irritable ally, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, whose leadership is meeting up at Kanichukulangara on February 9.
Kerala Congress leader K M Mani has also gone to the poll mode. The former minister personally took part in a party workers’ meeting at Kallisseri in the Chengannur assembly constituency. He has given a clear signal to his party workers that the election is relevant for the party’s future prospects.
Mani is on the verge of returning with his party to the UDF. The opposition front has almost decided to take him back.
Flirting with the Congress and the CPM, Mani has to make up his mind quickly and work for it. The by-election is sure to have a final say in the course of the Kerala Congress politics.