The LDF is determined not to allow the Nair Service Society's (NSS) latest snub to diminish its chances in the coming bypolls.
A day after the NSS supremo Sukumaran Nair's call to maintain the 'right distance', a clear pro-UDF stance, the LDF has decided to take the game into its own hands.
Nair's thinly veiled support for the UDF on October 8 was promptly met with two major announcements by the LDF government on October 9. One, Cheruvally Estate will be taken over for an airport near Sabarimala. Two, Kerala Bank, which the LDF calls "Kerala's own bank", finally wins RBI approval.
Banking on results
The intention was clear. The CPM wants to yank the byelection discourse away from caste and religion to development. It is expected that the RBI nod for Kerala Bank would show off the LDF government's doggedness in pursuing to the end a unique and ambitious development project.
But to make the new bank functional, the government will still have to wait for the High Court verdicts in a number of cases filed against the legal fine-tuning, cunning ones, it had done to make the bank a reality.
This, however, will not stop the government from going to town with its latest triumph. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's Facebook page was quick to have an artwork of a massive flood-lit hoarding, mounted on top of a tall iron pillar, with the words 'Approval for Kerala Bank' in bold. Right beneath is the picture of a beaming chief minister, and the words "We have kept our word" flash on his side.
"This was one of the promises we had made in our manifesto," minister for cooperation Kadakampally Surendran said after announcing the RBI nod for the bank to the media on October 9.
The timing of the RBI nod, right in the middle of the byelection campaign, would have been pure luck but the decision to take over Cheruvally Estate looks like a case of making one's own luck. Political observers call it a master stroke.
The Pinarayi Vijayan government had long before zeroed in on Cheruvally Estate as the most ideal spot for the proposed airport; it is closer to Sabarimala and would require far less displacement than any other sites. A feasibility study was done but an Environment Impact Assessment could not be carried out because Believers Church of India (BCI) claimed ownership of the land.
The BCI is said to have purchased the land from Harrisons Malayalam in 2005. However, special officer Rajamanickam had struck down the land transfer as illegal. The BCI still holds on the estate saying that both the High Court and the Supreme Court had rejected the arguments of the Kerala government. The government was silent about the disputed estate for nearly a year when the Cabinet sprang a surprise on October 9.
When the government is now determined to take over the land to construct an airport for Sabarimala, it can on the face of it mean that it is dead serious about its development goals. But what is apparent, the pro-development stance, is only a cover for the actual communal pitch.
"It is a way of subtly sending feelers to the majority community that was repelled by the government's handling of the Sabarimala women's entry verdict. Without doubt, the decision to have an airport at Cheruvally to service Sabarimala devotees has the potential to sway majority Hindu votes in a constituency like Konni and even Vattiyoorkavu. Pinarayi Vijayan could even be forgotten for his transgressions in Sabarimala," said Sebastian Thennivaram, a historian based in Ranni.
It is said that Sabarimala devotees are generally in favour of an airport that could serve them. The objections to an airport in Aranmula, now aborted, were both religious and environmental. Even then both the UDF and the LDF had argued forcefully for the airport knowing that majority voters were enthusiastic about it.
Plucking the Cheruvally Estate site from the Believers Church could also please the extreme elements in the majority community. “It is by now clear that the BJP has not been able to put up a fight in Konni or Vattiyoorkavu where it had a chance. So when the voter has to choose between the UDF and the LDF, we expect our decision to take over Cheruvally for a Sabarimala airport would tip the balance in our favour,” a top CPM leader in Pathanamthitta district said. Vattiyoorkavu, being the most upmarket swathe in the capital, is also seen as a place where development can brush aside caste prejudices.
The CPM's calculation is that the NSS call to vote against it will cease to matter when a Hindu voter sees a government that not just delivers but also takes a decisive stand in favour of Sabarimala.