Kottayam is one of the few remaining bastions of the opposition United Democratic Front. The Lok Sabha constituency comprises Congress leader Oommen Chandy's home turf of Puthuppally as well as Kerala Congress chief K M Mani's pocket borough, Pala. The Congress-led front had lost the parliamentary constituency only six times. This year, nothing can be taken for granted.
The candidates put up by the three dominant coalitions are equally strong when it comes to personal relations in the constituency. The Kerala Congress has deputed Thomas Chazhikkadan to retain the constituency which was prematurely vacated by party vice chairman Jose K Mani when he moved to the safety of the Rajya Sabha last year. The CPM expects that district secretary V N Vasavan could win back the seat which was represented by Suresh Kurup four times in the Lok Sabha. The BJP pins its hopes on ally P C Thomas, an estranged Kerala Congress leader who pulled off a remarkable feat in 2004 by defeating both the UDF and the LDF in the then Moovattupuzha parliamentary constituency.
Political undercurrents are muddied by community-based equations in Kottayam. The Christian heartland is also home to the headquarters of the Nair Service Society. The NSS is peeved at the LDF government's decision to implement a Supreme Court order that allowed women of all ages to go to the popular Sabarimala shrine in the neighbouring Pathanamthitta district. The Church has also turned against the government in protest against a proposed law to regulate its properties. The rubber farmers, who form a large chunk of the voters, are worried about a slide in prices, and that means bad news for the NDA which is in power at the centre.
Kottayam is known to be a stronghold of the UDF. The alliance that comprises the Congress and the Kerala Congress has won 10 of the 16 parliamentary elections in the constituency. Since the current borders of the constituency were set in the delimitation of 2008, the constituency has elected Jose K Mani, K M Mani's son and heir apparent. His lead ballooned from 71,570 in 2009 to 1,20,599 in 2014. The UDF holds five of the seven assembly segments in the constituency. The LDF could win only Vaikom and Ettumanoor in the 2016 assembly election.
Even so, Kottayam is beyond concrete predictions. The constituency elected a left candidate in 1984 amid a pro-Congress wave set off by the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi.
The current fight is definitely three-cornered: among a former MP and two former MLAs. Chazhikkadan served Ettumanoor in the Kerala Legislative Assembly four times, while Vasavan was elected to the assembly from Kottayam. Thomas had represented the erstwhile Moovattupuzha Lok Sabha constituency for 20 years. He even served as a Union minister.
Chazhikkadan's candidature sparked off a crisis in the Kerala Congress with senior leader P J Joseph staking a claim on the only seat allotted to the party. However, Joseph and his loyalists have relented and the party seems to be working together to get the candidate elected.
Chazhikkadan has always been a surprise choice. He made his debut into politics when his brother, Babu Chazhikkadan, was fatally struck by a bolt of lightning during an election campaign in 1991. Thomas Chazhikkadan, a bank employee, was picked as the successor to his brother.
He quickly grew up to the role with his characteristically warm personality and a vast network of personal relations across the district. “Chazhikkadan combines in himself the skills, experience and expertise wanted in a political leader,” said Jose K Mani. He could expect to highlight the development initiated by the junior Mani as a two-time MP.
The LDF, however, thinks that it has found a chink in the armour. The CPM took over the seat from the Janata Dal (S) with a clear target: victory. Vasavan's work as the party's district secretary and the Kottayam MLA makes him an ideal candidate. The party organisation is firmly behind Vasavan. The CPM campaign evokes memories of the 1984 election when party candidate Suresh Kurup wrested the seat from the UDF. “Vasavan's charitable and social work will earn him the support of the people,” CPM central committee member Vaikom Viswan said.
P C Thomas' entry has energised the NDA camp. The former minister is expected to add votes from all sections of society to the solid block the BJP claims as its own. NDA leaders expect that the son of former Congress leader P T Chacko could sway a large section of UDF votes in his favour. Though it is his debut from Kottayam, he has represented most of the areas in the constituency when they belonged to the Moovattupuzha constituency before the delimitation of 2008. “Thomas could benefit from his agitations for the rubber farmers. He has always stood by the common man,” BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai said.
Kottayam is a prestigious seat for all contestants. The constituency comprises assembly segments represented by former chief minister Oommen Chandy, former ministers K M Mani, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Mons Joseph and Anoop Jacob. Puthuppally, Pala, Kottayam, Kaduthuruthi and Piravom assembly seats are traditionally UDF bastions. The front cannot afford to lose any of those.
Senior leaders are actively campaigning for Chazhikkadan. Even P J Joseph has promised to work for him despite his initial protest. The Mani faction of the Kerala Congress has to get their candidate elected at any cost.
The UDF expects to cash in on the people's frustrations with the NDA government at the centre as well as the heartburn caused by the state government's stand in the Sabarimala issue and the proposed Church act.
The CPM is faced with headwinds in the constituency. The party took over the seat from the Janata Dal (S) by claiming that the junior partner failed to put up a fierce fight the previous time.
The LDF, however, has to face the ire of the NSS and the Church.
On a positive note, the LDF can spin the narrative in its favour by projecting its reformist credentials. After all, the constituency houses the Vaikom temple, the scene of a legendary protest that marked Kerala's progress to the modern era.
The BJP game plan is predictable. NDA leaders expect to cash in on the protest by Hindu organisations in the aftermath of the Sabarimala ruling. The protest was so fierce in Kottayam that a majority of the cases were registered in the district. The BJP-led alliance has to win both Pathanamthitta and Kottayam to justify its stand that it stood for the people's will.
The NDA's chances are dimmed by a slide in the prices of rubber, a sensitive issue in Kottayam and surrounding areas. The farmers' ire against the policies of the central government could backfire.