Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Last day of campaign in Wayanad | Photo: Russell Shahul

Elections are normally impulsive affairs. The results merely reflect the mood of the electorate at a given point of time, but never its true nature. A polling booth is no psychotherapy clinic.

But on Tuesday, for the first time ever, it could be. This time, the choice of the Kerala voter will be the result of a deep self-examination. The Sabarimala verdict had exposed progressive Kerala's emotionally volatile side.

The voter, either provoked by what the faithful/police did in Sabarimala or swayed by Left/Right propaganda, seems to have looked within and made a serious comparative assessment of the gains of tradition and reform. Two poles were formed. Never before has Kerala witnessed such a conservative-reformist divide. Each side impervious to the concern of the other.

This post-Sabarimala introspection, among both 'namajapa' votaries and 'women's wall' supporters, will have a huge bearing on the elections this time.

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Women's wall supporters | File Photo

Who will prove decisive, the reformist or the conservative? Which pro-faith party will take the chunk of the conservative vote, a restrained Congress or a militant BJP? Will a two-way split in conservative voters help the Left? Or are the concerns of faith so sharp to sever even traditional party loyalties, leaving the support base mostly of the Left badly depleted?

These are questions that will be answered when votes are counted on May 23. If not clear answers, the results will at least throw up some telling clues.

LDF makes early gains

If battle-readiness alone was the measure of success, the LDF would have won hands down. The LDF had its candidates nearly ready by the time the elections were officially declared on March 10. The LDF seemed so focused on victory that it asked six of its sitting MLAs to enter the fray.

The UDF and the NDA, on the other hand, had lost most of March to internal strife. In the case of the Congress, it was not just group calculations that delayed the candidate list. The grand old party found it hard to pick the right candidate for even their sitting seats like Alappuzha, Wayanad and Vadakara.

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Pathanamthitta LDF candidate Veena George during election campaign

It did not help that top Congress leaders – Oommen Chandy, Mullappally Ramachandran, K C Venugopal and V M Sudheeran – were doing all they could to avoid being put up as a candidate. They were like school bullies pushing the smaller kids to the front to avoid being included in a difficult project. This amusing reluctance was read two ways. One, these leaders were preserving themselves to be picked as the UDF's chief minister candidate in 2021. And two, it was a sign that the Congress had conceded defeat even before the fight.

Within the BJP, the top state leaders gave the impression that they were engaged in a bitter in-house battle to secure for themselves the most winnable seat, especially Thiruvananthapuram or Pathanamthitta where the Sabarimala agitation had according to their assessment heightened the party's chances.

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
NDA candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan during his election campaign in Thiruvananthapuram

Last-minute saves

Finally, very close to the last day of filing nomination, both these fronts sprang surprises that more than made up for their near suicidal delay in picking candidates. The BJP asked its most humble face Kummanam Rajasekharan to quit his Mizoram governor post and fly down to Thiruvananthapuram, and then, after days of internal debate, the party's most strident face during the Sabarimala agitation, K Surendran, was chosen for Pathanamthitta.

However, it were the Congress choices that dramatically altered the poll scene. The first shocker was the choice of sitting MLA K Muraleedharan to take on CPM's P Jayarajan in Vadakara, the pick stunning enough to cure the LDF of any complacency that might have crept into its campaign. In hindsight, the choice of Murali feels like a test dose.

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
K Muraleedharan during his campaign in Vadakara

Stunningly provocative entry

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad

The real thing, the choice that shook up the entire country, was Rahul Gandhi's decision to opt Wayanad as his refuge in South India. The Gandhi scion's arrival was so momentous that a smart move made by the BJP soon after, to put up filmstar Suresh Gopi as candidate in Thrissur, did not create much of a flutter. But Suresh Gopi did make his presence felt later, when he invoked the name of Lord Ayyappa and effectively redirected the course of the campaign in the latter half.

Rahul's arrival was, not surprisingly, ridiculed by the national BJP leadership. It gave the party an excuse to play the communal card. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a blatantly communal pitch by saying that Rahul was running away to an area where “the minority was majority” fearing the backlash of Hindus in North India. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adithyanath called the Muslim League a “virus”.

Rage of the red czars

But less expected was the anger of the CPM. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, like a man confused and angry, asked: “Who is he fighting? The CPM or the BJP?”. The CPM, which till then seemed so sure of itself, suddenly lost its political poise. The party's mouthpiece 'Deshabhimani' mocked Rahul, calling him 'Pappu'.

Rahul's Wayanad foray so rattled the CPM that its state general secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan went so far as to question the political integrity of Rahul for banking on the support of the Muslim League, as if the Congress had patched up an alliance with the IUML solely to get Rahul elected. Nearly echoing Adithyanath's view, Kodiyeri called the Muslim League communal, conveniently forgetting that his party, too, was at times in league with the Muslim League.

The Muslim appeasement charge was brought up against the Congress not just by the BJP but by the CPM, too. How this would cause a rethinking in the Muslim community, which even the Muslim League fears is increasingly finding Pinarayi as the right man to take on the BJP in the state, is not yet clear.

Muslims bear the brunt

After Rahul's entry, Muslim bashing seemed the new political fad. BJP national president Amit Shah called Wayanad Pakistan, a clear reference to the district's dominant Muslim presence, and later refused to apologise. The state leaders of the BJP, too, seem to have no qualms making fun of Muslims openly. BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai, in what looked like a mocking tone, made a public comment on how a Muslim could be physically identified.

A BJP spokesperson, going one up on Adithyanath, described the Muslim League as perhaps the worst scourge: “Aids”. It is therefore no wonder that a minority consolidation in favour of the Congress is now being talked about.

Hindu nationalist

But when charges of appeasement are being hurled at him, and in a state where Sabarimala women's entry is seen to have created a Hindu consolidation of sorts, it was evident that Rahul could not afford to be seen as the Muslim community's poster boy. Perhaps not to provoke any misgivings among faithful Hindus, Rahul demonstrated his Hindu credentials.

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Rahul Gandhi at Thirunelly temple

He played the perfect 'bhakt' and also the ideal nationalist at the Thirunelly Sree Mahavishnu Temple in Wayanad on April 18, performing rituals not just for his grandmother Indira Gandhi and father Rajiv Gandhi but also for 'jawans' who were martyred in the Pulwama attack.

Confusing vow of silence

Rahul but also gave out the most confusing political signal during this campaign. He said he would not utter a word against the CPM, no matter how much they provoke him. Barely a month ago, Rahul had visited the homes of slain Youth Congress workers, Kripesh and Sarath Lal, and had vowed to fight the CPM's politics of violence. This was why the Congress had put up its best candidate, Muraleedharan, against Jayarajan, who according to the Congress embodied the CPM's politics of murder.

Rahul's decision to spare the CPM is said to have caused some serious existential crisis for Congress workers at least in North Kerala. Both Muraleedharan and Rajmohan Unnithan (Congress candidate in Kasaragod) have complained that the party workers had lost the vigour they had at the start of the campaign.

Suresh Gopi's theatrical plea

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Thrissur NDA candidate Suresh Gopi and wife with Narendra Modi

Even before the buzz around Rahul's candidature settled, the BJP had (whether by design or accident is debatable) injected the Sabarimala issue back into the campaign. It was Suresh Gopi who first made an open fervent appeal in the name of the Lord. “It is in the background of Sabarimala that I am seeking votes. My Ayyan, My Ayyan, our Ayyan, if this Ayyan is a great feeling of ours then this wicked government would get a fitting reply this election,” he said and got into trouble with the Election Commission.

If the star was the music conductor whose hands suddenly moved in an exaggerated fashion, the BJP unleashed the next wave of campaign in the name of Sabarimala. Modi and Shah, while careful about the Commission's strictures within the state, went outside and lamented that authorities in Kerala had gagged people from uttering the Lord's name. Within the state, to remain insulated from legal action, the responsibility of cranking up emotions was left to the technically non-political entity Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a Sangh Parivar feeder organisation.

Short break for renaissance

The NDA has therefore left no one in doubt about what it is trying to whip up: Hindu frenzy against the LDF government's actions in Sabarimala. The LDF response was a bit of a surprise. Given Pinarayi's brand of abrasive politics, it was thought that the LDF would go overboard with its 'renaissance' argument. It did not.

'Renaissance' and 'women's wall' were never mentioned in LDF public meetings. This was widely read as a sign that the Left did not want to be seen as provoking the sentiments of the faithful during election time. Its trump card: Pinarayi government's achievements. Its pitch was still aggressive, painting both the BJP and Congress as communal.

As measured but less aggressive was the Congress. Its strategy was to keep both the Hindu community and the minorities in good humour. So the party was not vocal about Sabarimala, lest it be seen as the BJP's B-team, but took the general stand that it would protect faith. The party essentially tried to direct attention to what it termed as Modi's divisive and corrupt rule and also its welfare manifesto that, among others, had promised Rs 6,000 a month for the underprivileged and a separate farmers' budget.

Sting op and misogyny

Nonetheless, elections are not just about the big themes. Local happenings or stray comments can take on a symbolic value and sway voters across the state. LDF convenor A Vijayaraghavan's comment that seemed to question the dignity of Remya Haridas, the Congress candidate in Alathur, was one such. The Congress used this to mock at the CPM's pro-woman claim.

Then came the sting operation that apparently found Congress's Kozhikode candidate and sitting MP M K Raghavan seeking bribe for a land deal. The Left used this to further highlight the perception that the Congress is a corrupt lot. It is also not clear what the voters will make of the Police Department's move to take action against Raghavan and let Vijayaraghavan off the hook.

Death of a giant

Focus shifts to the voters after a bitterly-fought campaign
Jose K Mani, MP, is also seen beside his father KM Mani's body at the hospital

The only time this bitterly fought elections came to a sudden halt was when K M Mani, one of the giants of Kerala politics, died, on April 9. The Kerala Congress supremo was taken to the hospital after he had managed to calm an internal rebellion that had threatened to undo the UDF chances in Central Travancore. His passing away is expected to produce some swing in favour of the UDF in at least Kottayam and Idukki.

There was blood

Though the campaign was fierce like never before, no major incidents of violence was reported this time. Still, blood was spilled. The iron of a weighing balance near fatally fell on the head of Shashi Tharoor, Congress's Thiruvananthapuram candidate, while he was performing 'thulabharam' in a temple. Tharoor survived by a whisker. But whether he would be as lucky when votes are counted is one of the most keenly awaited answer this election.

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