The Congress's choice of K Muraleedharan as its Vadakara candidate seemed to have produced the effect of a deft Brian Lara late cut. The decision was made just when the delay began to look politically suicidal, but the late strike seems to have produced wondrous results. The Congress workers are up on their feet and CPM's P Jayarajan, some Congressmen believe, has his hands on his head in shock and disbelief like a bowler humbled.
Muraleedharan's candidature has, therefore, set the right mood. But top Congress sources have dropped enough hints to suggest that the airdropping of Murali was an attempt to kick up a thick smoke of dust around a behind-the-curtain deal the Congress has struck with the BJP in Vadakara. There was no other way a Congress candidate could hope to win in Vadakara this time. Top BJP leaders, however, denied the existence of such a deal. “Whether such a deal will be struck in future cannot be said,” one of them said.
Glum tidings for Congress
Last time Mullappally Ramachandran had just about managed to scrape through; his margin of victory (3,306) was lesser than the votes secured by his opponent A N Shamseer's namesake or dummy A P Shamseer (3,485). It was the weakest victory in 2014. In the Assembly elections that followed, the LDF swept six of the eight constituencies that fall within the Vadakara Lok Sabha segment.
Still, the UDF looked in a better position than now. Then, during the Assembly polls, the UDF had the Veerendra Kumar's Janata Dal faction on its side. Now Kumar's Lokatantrik Janata Party, which has huge influence in the Koothuparamba, Peravoor and Kuttiady segments, has crossed back to the LDF.
Things look hopeless but a win in Vadakara is a must for the Congress. “We can afford to lose any of the other seats we are contesting, not Vadakara,” a top Congress leader said. After the Periya murders, the Congress has done all it can to edge out all other issues, including Sabarimala, and bring political violence to the forefront of the campaign.
Congress's only must-win seat
Periya is in Kasaragod but it is from Vadakara that P Jayarajan, the man the Congress says embodies CPM's brand of murder politics, seeks mandate. “A defeat in Vadakara will be seen as a triumph of the blood and gore politics that the CPM indulges in,” the leader said.
It was this desperation to win, beating seemingly impossible odds, that made Vadakara candidate selection the most problematic, and therefore the most time-consuming. A secret deal with the BJP, something which both the fronts have resorted to in the past, looked the most promising of solutions. Or perhaps the only solution.
What has interested Congress's poll managers is the performance of BJP in the 2016 Assembly polls. Except in Thalassery, the BJP candidates have secured considerably more votes than the difference between the two leading fronts. On an average, the BJP candidates have mobilised 14 per cent of votes each in the eight Assembly segments under the Vadakara parliamentary sprawl.
BJP's Shylockian turn
The Congress might not have found it hard to convince the BJP. P Jayarajan is one candidate the RSS, too, wants trounced. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that the BJP had never shown an inclination to announce a high-profile candidate for Vadakara. Even constituencies where the BJP has lesser clout like Kollam or Chalakkudy or even Kottayam will have highly recognisable names as the party candidate. The thinking in the Congress is that the presence of a "strong leader" like Muraleedharan could easily explain away the dramatic shift of votes from the BJP to the Congress. In 2014, the BJP's V K Sajeevan had cornered over 8 per cent votes.
Nonetheless, the BJP will demand its pound of flesh. If Kummanam Rajasekharan fails to trump Shashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram, and Muraleedharan wins with BJP support in Vadakara, the BJP may seek tacit Congress support for Kummanam in the by-election to the Vattiyoorkavu seat that Murali had vacated.
Top Congress leaders Onmanorama talked to said the party would readily consent to such a quid pro quo arrangement to save the moment. Here, the party will be playing a wily double game. “Even if the Congress agrees to help, we are sure the CPM will not allow Kummanam to win an Assembly seat,” a leader said. In 2016, when it looked like Kummanam would win from Vattiyoorkavu, it is a known fact that the CPM cadres had ditched their candidate T N Seema and desperately punched for Muraleedharan.