The Sabarimala verdict, and its aftermath, had so bothered and polarised voters that it seemed to have given every one fierce opinions during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Charged up, they came out to vote in huge numbers, and in some places like Pathanamthitta, like never before.
Five months later, as five Assembly constituencies are about to pick their representatives, the scene looks dull. Sabarimala women's entry has definitely lost the intense pull it had on voters just recently. It is as if people have almost fully used up their emotional energies during the build up to the Lok Sabha elections. A sort of Sabarimala weariness has crept in.
This is not to say that Kerala is suddenly free of cataclysmic events. There are many, like the eviction from Maradu flats or the cyanide killings in Kozhikode or the agitation against the traffic ban through Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
But these happenings, though they had badly shaken up the Kerala public, do not have the necessary political charge to make any difference to the byelections.
But there still has to be something that will prompt voters, especially those not blindly in favour of any one party or ideology, to decide one way or the other. In political jargon, they are called the 'vote triggers'.
Much of electioneering involves the creation of 'favourable triggers'. The BJP had, for instance, meticulously developed the Sabarimala verdict as their 'golden' trigger during the 2019 polls. It did work for the party but not as forcefully as it thought it would.
Politicians can also thoughtlessly create 'self-goal triggers'. A telling example is the infighting in Kerala Congress (Mani) that had contributed immensely to the defeat of its candidate in Pala.
Onmanorama compiles a set of 'vote triggers', both craftily created ones and those born out of sheer folly, that could decide the fate of candidates in the byelections to the five assembly constituencies that will go to the polls on October 21.
Infighting had sunk the KC(M) in Pala, and now it threatens to destroy the chances of the Congress in at least two constituencies considered its bastions (Vattiyoorkavu and Konni) and the BJP in perhaps the only two constituencies where it stands even a whiff of a chance (Vattiyoorkavu and Manjeshwaram).
Both the Congress MLAs who had vacated their seats in Vattiyoorkavu and Konni are unhappy with their replacements. K Muraleedharan had made swift early moves to keep candidates unpalatable to him out of the race in Vattiyoorkavu.
His sister Padmaja was felled even before she could move a step. He recommended Peethambara Kurup but the KPCC leadership chose K Mohan Kumar, someone Muraleedahran is not particularly fond of. Not surprisingly, Muraleedharan has excused himself from active campaigning citing heavy duties as MP.
Adoor Prakash's sulk was a public spectacle. The man who had lorded over Konni like his personal fiefdom wanted his confidant Robin Peter to replace him but the KPCC picked P Mohanraj, a leader as senior as Prakash but was fated all this while to remain in his shadow.
Prakash cried foul and the Congress leadership had to work out a costly compromise deal. Sources said Prakash was still smarting under the KPCC blow, and had the clout to easily mess up Mohanraj's chances.
As for the BJP, the RSS has washed its hand of the contest in Vattiyoorkavu. It was the RSS that had single-handedly run the campaigns of Kummanam Rajasekharan when he was Vattiyoorkavu candidate in 2016 and also the Lok Sabha candidate in 2019.
Once again, the RSS wanted Kummanam in Vattiyoorkavu. S Suresh was brought in instead, and the RSS just pressed eject. Party leaders know that without RSS control, infighting can easily undo the district BJP unit's cohesiveness.
In Manjeshwaram, the battle line is flipped. Here, it is a powerful section in the BJP that had questioned the RSS insistence on Ravisha Tantri Kuntur.
Bartering of votes
This is a 'vote trigger' the UDF was quick to engineer. It was Congress party's K Muraleedharan who had first gone to town with the charge that the CPM had entered into a sly 'give and take' deal with the BJP. The BJP would shift its votes to V K Prasanth in Vattiyoorkavu and, in turn, the BJP would transfer its Konni votes to its candidate K U Janeesh Kumar.
KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran went a step ahead and said that he had proof of such a 'MA-B' (Marxist-BJP) deal.
The CPM, which was always the first to hurl charges of vote sale, was caught off guard. The party leadership did not respond aggressively either. Rather than refuting the charge, it just said that a regional BJP leader had already disclosed that his party had a vote-trading deal with the UDF in Pala. It was left to the local leaders to rubbish K Muraleedharan's claim.
The UDF, by this pre-emptive strike, has managed to sow some confusion in the mind of the voter. The UDF leaders cite the last-minute replacement of “BJP's most popular leader” Kummanam Rajasekharan with S Suresh in Vattiyoorkavu as a reflection of this 'under the table' deal.
The accusation of 'vote barter' had yet another effect. It had spoiled the rhythm of both the CPM's and the BJP's campaigns in Vattiyoorkavu. CPM's V K Prasanth and BJP's S Suresh now spend unnecessarily more time justifying their innocence.
“Our cadres have informed that the voters have genuine suspicions whether we had a secret alliance with the BJP. We have no choice but to address it quickly and effectively,” a top CPM leader in Thiruvananthapuram said.
The Pinarayi Vijayan government timed the arrests in the Palarivattom flyover scam to coincide with the start of the byelection campaign. By keeping alive the threat of arrest of Muslim League leader and former PWD Minister V K Ebrahimkunju, the LDF was hoping to paint the UDF as a bunch of corrupt elements.
Furthermore, by deciding to pull down the entire flyover much against the advice of an IIT team that recommended only a partial dismantling, the Pinarayi government was perhaps demonstrating that corruption had sunk to startlingly hopeless levels under the former UDF regime.
Clearly to neutralise the Palarivattom backlash, Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala has constantly snapped at the heels of the LDF government citing various irregularities in the implementation of Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) projects.
Chennithala, to his credit, never lets up, forcing Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Finance Minister T M Thomas Isaac to frequently respond to his charges. If one time the charge was about Isaac's reluctance to have a CAG audit into KIIFB's operations, next moment he would be questioning the manner in which certain KIIFB projects were awarded. The opposition, as a result, is constantly on its toes.
If the allegations could neutralise themselves, it would be a huge political victory for Ramesh Chennithala.
The bachelor God
Sabarimala might have lost its intensity but the eternal optimists that politicians are they will once again attempt to stoke the fire.
The Congress had employed Sabarimala as a campaign tool right from the get-go. “If the UDF comes back to power in 2021, in the first Assembly session itself, the government will bring out a legislation to counter the Supreme Court verdict allowing women entry into the hill shrine,” Chennithala had said right at the start of the electioneering.
The BJP, however, seems wary of aggressively taking up the Sabarimala issue like it had during the Lok Sabha campaign. Their leaders have still not openly made any belligerent Sabarimala pitch. Nonetheless, the decision to have K Surendran compete in Konni is a clear sign that the party wants to milk the Sabarimala agitation for what it was worth.
The CPM but has softened its stance, attempting to cover the weak spot on which its opponents quite gleefully poked at during the 2019 campaign. Its Manjeshwaram candidate M Shankar Rai, for instance, had openly stated that any devotee, irrespective of gender, can enter the shrine. Rai has not been censured. Not just that, top CPM leaders had even secretly lauded him for his adroit political skills.
At the most, this feud between two Christian denominations can stand as a symbolic reminder of the Pinarayi Vijayan government's hypocrisy.
The charge is that while the LDF government was hesitant to implement the Supreme Court order in the Piravom Church issue, it demonstrated a crusader's zeal to implement the women entry verdict in Sabarimala. If there are voters who are still worried about the government's stand in Sabarimala, they could be perhaps swayed by what they perceive to be the government's seemingly limitless patience in the church feud.
However, except for the BJP, the Congress, with its need to keep the Jacobites in good humour, will not be in a position to employ this against the government. The Congress desperately needs the substantial Orthodox votes in Konni, too. So, as a source said, the Congress was planning to do a whisper campaign against the government in the Church issue in Konni alone.
Foot in the mouth disease
It is enough for a politician to get carried away to lose an election. During the Lok Sabha campaign, warmed up by the claps of his audience, LDF convenor A Vijayaraghavan casually made some sexist remarks against Alathur's young Congress candidate Ramya Haridas and paid a heavy price.
Now, PWD minister G Sudhakaran, who has this habit of shooting his mouth off, made a statement that has now been dubbed “racist and anti-woman”.
“This is not a place for 'pootanas' to win,” Sudhakaran had said while addressing a CPM family meet in Cherthala in Aroor constituency. This was evidently aimed at Aroor's Congress candidate Shanimol Usman. Sudhakaran was apparently provoked by Shanimol's campaign against the poor condition of roads in Aroor.
The UDF now behaves like it has been granted a free weapon to hit the CPM with. They say that Sudhakaran, and through him the CPM leadership, has once again revealed his true feudal mindset. In 2017, Sudhakaran had allegedly hurled a racist slur at World Bank's senior infrastructure specialist Bernard Aritua who had visited Kerala to inspect the WB-aided road works.
“The World Bank team leader is an African-American. That means he belongs to the race of Obama. He is a Negro. Centuries back, they were ferried from Africa to America, and were engaged in bonded labour. When slavery ended, they were freed,’’ said the minister. Sudhakaran was made to apologise.
His political opponents now say that by calling Shanimol a 'pootana' - the mythical demoness who was killed by Krishna - the minister was poking fun at her colour. Shanimol is all set to play the victim card to its hilt.