As Congress leader Anto Antony secured a hat-trick victory in Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP was relegated to the third slot despite its hopes to cash in on an agitation against the state government’s decision to implement a Supreme Court order that struck down a ban on entry of young women into the popular Sabarimala Ayyappa shrine.
While Antony led over CPM rival Veena George by 44,423 votes, BJP’s K Surendran’s impressive campaign in the epicentre of the Sabarimala protests came to a naught. Antony polled 3,80,927 votes and George 3,36,684 votes while Surendran managed to increase the BJP tally to 2,97,396 votes from five years ago.
The contest for Pathanamthitta heated up with the entry of Surendran, who catapulted himself as a leader of the party-led agitation around the temple. The ruling Left Democratic Front chose Aranmula MLA Veena George to lead its campaign.
Veena George, a former journalist, came with a clout. She had wrested the Aranmula assembly seat from the UDF in 2016. The LDF had also won in 2016 Ranni, Adoor and Tiruvalla assembly segments, which are traditionally known as Left lenient.
Antony polled 3,58,842 votes last time when he beat CPM’s Philipose Thomas by 56,191 votes five years ago. He had won the Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency in 2014 by leading in all assembly segments, including those held by the LDF.
In his 10 years as a people’s representative in Pathanamthitta, Antony has developed a network of personal contacts. He was sure about a victory from day one. His only worry was how to increase his lead.
He turned his house to a centre of relief activities during the August flood that devastated most parts of Pathanamthitta. He also reaped the dividends for standing by the religious groups who opposed young women’s entry to Sabarimala.
Veena George was also active in relief and rehabilitation during the flood days. She was a strong link in the LDF move to counter the conservative backlash. She based her campaign primarily on development issues.
Yet Sabarimala came to dominate the campaign many a time. Even prime minister Narendra Modi raked up the issue in his speeches in Kerala. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan defended the government stand with his retorts to the prime minister.
The flood had created havoc in a constituency which was already reeling from the effects of demonetisation and the roll-out of the Goods and Services Tax.
The return of the expatriate workers from West Asia, eviction of settlers from forest areas, raids by wild animals, the misery of the tribes and an acute shortage of drinking water were the other issues during the campaign.