“I was never approached by candidates or their party leaders for support ever since I started voting in 1977,” said Abdul Rehman, an auto driver at Chemmad in Kerala's Malappuram district. “But this time, leaders of the rival fronts met me and solicited my vote even before the candidates filed their nominations.” Rehman’s statement is an indication of the tough contest in the Muslim heartland, once monopolised by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest ally of the Congress-led opposition United Democratic Front (UDF).
The IUML never had to appeal for votes in any elections in the district before. It only needed to ask the people to give them a bigger lead. Those times are gone. The party is virtually sweating to retain the two Lok Sabha seats in the district. The party considered Malappuram (formerly Manjeri) and Ponnani seats in the district, where Muslims account for over 70 percent of the 41.12 lakh population, as its impregnable fortresses. The myth was demolished by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the 2004 elections when it wrested the seat by a margin of over 48,000 votes.
Observers view the rising competition in the Muslim bastions as an indication of the changing face of Muslim politics in Kerala. The league wielded unflinching dominance over the community by projecting itself as the sole representative of the Muslims in the state. The claim faced a challenge post-Babri Masjid demolition when the party chose to stick to its alliance with the Congress, both in the state and at the Centre, and disregarded the pan-Indian Muslim anger against the then V Narasimha Rao-led government over its failure to protect the mosque.
This led to the emergence of a number of political parties such as Indian National League (INL) under former IUML president Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) led by firebrand cleric Abdul Nasser Madhani (now in jail for his alleged involvement in the Bangalore blasts of 2008), and many radical outfits like the National Development Front (NDF).
Though many of these political formations have made inroads into the IUML political space, none of them gained the political strength to defeat the party in either Assembly or Lok Sabha elections. However, the CPM made deft use of them, overtly and covertly, to enter the Muslim heartland. The support of the anti-IUML forces, including the INL and the PDP, saw the CPM winning the Malappuram seat for the first time in 2004 and making substantial gains in the subsequent civic body and Assembly elections in the district. The IUML faced its biggest jolt in the 2006 Assembly elections, when its tally of MLAs dropped from 16 in 2001 to just seven.
The emergence of Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political avatar of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical outfit involved in several terror activities, and the Welfare Party of India (WPI) is the biggest challenge to the IUML in its fortress. The CPM decision to drop the intermediaries in the wake of the arrest of PDP chief Madhani in 2010 in connection with the Bengaluru blasts and its subsequent moves to approach the minority community directly by allowing believers to follow their faith and projecting itself as a bulwark against the Hindutva politics has also affected the position of the IUML among Muslims.
The CPM inducted the INL in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) headed by it as part of the new strategy. Party strategists believe that the induction of INL will trigger a realignment in the Muslim politics as it has been emerging as an alternative to the IUML. A senior INL leader claimed lots of youngsters who flocked into the SDPI and WPI in the absence of a credible alternative to the IUML started joining the party following its entry into the LDF. He is also expecting the disenchanted sections in the IUML to join the party in the coming days.
Though the CPM tasted victory in Malappuram, its focus this time is on Ponnani. The reason is the steady decline in the victory margin of the IUML candidates in the constituency. Ponnani is perhaps a glaring example of the changing face of Muslim politics in Malappuram district. Candidates never mattered for the voters in the constituency, who looked only at the party symbol. GM Banatwala, a native of Mumbai was elected to the Lok Sabha from Ponnani six times and Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, a native of Bengaluru once. The victory margin in these elections was more than 1 lakh votes.
The majority in the constituency has been registering a steady decline since 1999. It came down from 1,29,478 votes to 1,02,759 in 2004. The majority plunged below one lakh in 2009, when the CPM took the seat from its ally-the Communist Party of India (CPI)-and experimented with an Independent candidate. The experiment helped the CPM in bringing down the IUML majority to 82,684 votes in 2004 and 25,410 in 2014.
The party pitted its independent MLA from Nilambur PV Anwar against sitting IUML MP ET Mohammed Basheer in Ponnani. The IUML is pinning its hopes on the strong stand Basheer took against the triple talaq bill for his victory in Ponnani. His voting against the bill in Parliament earned him the support of even some anti-IUML organisations.However, the party is not able to make full use of the issue since it is embarrassing for PK Kunhalikutty, the party candidate in the neighbouring Malappuram constituency, who was conspicuous by his absence in the Lok Sabha during voting on the bill.
Kunhalikutty, who has been the Legislature Party leader of IUML in Kerala, won the Malappuram seat in a by-election in 2017 by 1,71,038 votes. The party’s attempt to strike a deal with SDPI in Malappuram this time is being interpreted by his rivals as his lack of confidence in retaining the seat. Kunhalikutty’s opponent is VP Sanu, national president of Students Federation of India (SFI), the student wing of the CPM. He derives his confidence in taking on a heavyweight like Kunhalikutty from the upset victories his predecessors Suresh Kurup and A Vijayraghavan secured at Kottayam and Kozhikode in 1984 and 1989 respectively.
Kunhalikutty and Basheer have not taken their rivals lightly. They have been virtually sweating it out in the scorching summer heat by undertaking road shows in all the nook and corners of their constituencies and meeting as many voters as possible. The going is not easy as the people are passing through a crisis with the August flood and a reverse exodus from West Asia crippling the local economy. The returned expatriates and their families, who constitute a large chunk of the electorate in Malappuram, are angry with both the rival fronts for their failure to take any steps for their rehabilitation.
How this will reflect in the voting is to be seen.
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Updated Date: Mar 29, 2019 15:37:49 IST