Pala assembly constituency in Kerala's Kottayam district never hogged so much limelight before, except for a brief period during the bar bribery scam in 2014.
The Rs 1 crore scam eventually led to resignation of constituency's long-time representative and Kerala's longest-serving Finance Minister K M Mani.
Despite its prominence in Kerala's political arena, the small town of Pala, surrounded by rubber plantations and hillocks, appears to be least bothered about politics.
A general apathy is evident when it comes to public events and social activities, though the place is home to many poets, film-makers, politicians and social activists.
With farming being the major mode of livelihood for most of its population, Pala flourished into an affluent town in the early 21st century, thanks to the hiked up latex prices. The new-found riches helped younger generation to migrate to the West in large numbers, sending home more money. This brought in many socio-economic changes. The importance of agriculture has been reduced and people became socially and politically passive.
K M Mani knew it the best. Having represented the constituency for half-a-century, he became synonymous with Pala. The residents adored him to the hilt. Opponents could not breach his loyal voter base, despite bombarding him with a barrage of corruption allegations. However, his demise in April this year appears to have opened a space for change.
Both the right and left fronts in Pala harp on the sympathy factor. Veteran Kerala Congress (Mani group) leader and United Democratic Front candidate Jose Tom urges electorate to ‘vote for Mani’. The UDF has been trying to evoke voters' sympathy by bringing back memories of the Mani-era. The carefully crafted posters have black monochrome portraits of Mani printed above Jose Tom's smiling face. Jose Tom had announced that his symbol is 'Mani sir's face' when he lost the party symbol – Two Leaves – owing to factional feud. Little wonder, then, that UDF campaigners have been liberally using phrases, such as ‘spirit of Mani’ and ‘blessings of Mani sir’, during electioneering.
Six months have passed since Mani's demise. And voters will find it hard to forget the ugly spat between Mani’s son and Rajya Sabha MP Jose K Mani and veteran party leader P J Joseph after the former decided to field Jose Tom. Political analysts feel that Kerala Congress (M) would have pulled off an easy win had it fielded a candidate from Mani’s family. There were rumours that the party would nominate Jose K Mani’s wife Nisha. Unlike Mani, or even Nisha, Jose Tom is not a familiar face.
This makes Left Democratic Front’s Mani C Kappan a favourite candidate. Unlike Jose Tom, who spent many years as the president of the Meenachil gram panchayat and other establishments based there, Kappan is a familiar face in Pala. The famous municipal stadium in Pala still bears the name of Kappan’s father and former Parliamentarian late Cherian J Kappan. Years before he ventured into politics and film-making, Kappan had earned a name for himself as a national-level volleyball player- the favourite sport of Pala’s youth.
Kappan, the NCP candidate, had unsuccessfully contested Pala in the last three elections. Voters in Pala appear to be sympathetic towards Kappan because of his losing streak.This brings odds in favour of Kappan.
NCP knows it better than anyone else. So the party leaders refrain from making comments on sensitive topics, such as Sabarimala, during the campaign. CPM's aggressive renaissance ideas have had a few takers here. Moreover, LDF ministers and senior CPM leaders campaigned vigorously in the gram panchayats, where Kappan holds an edge.
Nevertheless, the bar bribery scam that reduced Mani's winning margin to 4,000 votes in last assembly election, fails to find any worthwhile mention in the Left’s campaign. So does the rubber prices and farmers’ issues.
UDF campaigners are focussing on the Sabarimala issue and the government’s move to scrap Mani’s priced project Karunya Benevolent Scheme to rake up the anti-government sentiment.
BJP leader and NDA candidate N Hari, on the other hand, continues to stir-up the anti-CPM mood by mentioning Sabarimala and religious freedom repeatedly.
Right time at the right place
Since the next assembly election in Kerala is just 19 months away, this bypoll outcome is not going to bring about any changes in the state's politics. But Kappan’s supporters find it as a golden opportunity to test the waters. "Give him a chance. If he doesn’t perform well, you can vote against him," they urge voters.
Jose Tom is contesting as an independent candidate. So he has lost both the party symbol and the the top position on the voting machine’s list. So Kerala Congress (M) cadres are facing tough time teaching the voters to identify which button to press.
Tailpiece: Following the slump in rubber price, farmers have chopped off the untapped trees and started cultivating short-term crops, with pineapple being a favourite. Will Pala chose its favourite fruit pineapple, Jose Tom's election symbol, this time?