Thiruvananthapuram: By-election in a state Assembly constituency is seldom considered as an evaluation of the government at the Centre. But the electoral battle in the Vengara Assembly constituency in Malappuram district of Kerala is increasingly veering around the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.
The focus of the campaign turned towards the nearly three-and-a-half-year-old Modi dispensation after senior BJP leaders Subramanian Swamy and Yashwant Sinha came out openly against the economic policies of the government.
Following this, national issues like economic slowdown, rising petroleum and cooking gas prices, GST and Rohingya Muslim refugees have taken centre stage of the campaign in the Muslim-dominated constituency.
The by-election was necessitated by the resignation of sitting legislator and senior Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) leader PK Kunhalikutty following his election to the Lok Sabha from Malappuram in April this year.
Kunhalikutty had won the Assembly seat in the 2016 assembly poll by a margin of over 38,000 votes. The margin in the segment went up to over 40,000 votes in the Lok Sabha by-election.
Though there are six candidates in the fray, the contest, as usual, is expected to be between the traditional rivals-Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The BJP is vying for the third position.
The three major candidates in the fray are LDF's PP Basheer, UDF's KNA Khader and BJP's K Janachandran. Political analysts have no doubt about the outcome of the poll as Vengara and the Malappuram district had been the citadel of the IUML.
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s refusal to consider the by-election as an evaluation of the government headed by Pinarayi Vijayan is viewed as an open admission of defeat. The focus of the candidates, therefore, is to increase their vote share.
The additional votes for the rival fronts will have to come from the BJP since there is no significant increase in the electorate since the April Lok Sabha by-election. Therefore, the two parties are trying to cash in on the growing discontent against the Modi government among the people for increasing their vote share.
The BJP has the onerous task of defending their government at the Centre. The party can do this only by increasing its vote share. Even though the party had more than doubled its votes from 3,417 in 2011 to 7,055 in 2016, it came down to 5,952 votes in the Lok Sabha by-election.
The task is considered stupendous in the current political situation, which is filled with fears of an impending economic crisis. The BJP had increased its share in the state from a mere 6.3 percent in 2011 to over 14 percent in 2016 mainly on the strength of the Modi wave that swept the North in 2014. But senior leaders admit that the Modi effect is on the wane now and it may not help the BJP in the state anymore.
Reports from Vengara show that the BJP leaders were finding it difficult to defend their government’s policies with both the LDF and the UDF subjecting the warnings sounded by Swamy and Sinha to threadbare discussions in their meetings across the constituency.
The two have conveyed the mounting protests the rising prices of petrol and other essential commodities to the people effectively through parodies of a popular Malayalam song from Mohanlal's film Velipadinte Pusthakam directed by Lal Jose. The parody of the hit song Entammede Jimikki Kamal that takes a dig at Modi and his government has got everyone in the constituency grooving.
The parody that was viewed about a million times on social networking sites by now has also not spared newly appointed Union Minister Alphons Kannanthanam, who justified the hike in petroleum prices, and party’s state president Kummanam Rajasekharan.
Kunhalikutty, who leads the IUML campaign at Vengara, is confident that the people’s dissatisfaction with the BJP-led Central government as well as the LDF government in the state will reflect in the by-poll in the form of a higher victory margin for the UDF than in previous elections.
"There are no two opinions among people now that their life has become miserable. The Centre is choking people with a serial hike in fuel prices while the state government is taking it as an opportunity to make a kill. People are also reeling under GST," he said.
He added that people across the country have started discussing the ill-effects of currency demonetisation and GST and the sufferings in store for the economy as predicted by former prime minister Manmohan Singh when demonetisation got underway.
"The slide has started for the Modi government. People are sensible enough to judge the goings on. They have started realising that things were better when UPA held power at the Centre and when UDF ruled the state. The Vengara by-poll outcome will be a verdict of the people against the anti-people policies of the two governments," he said.
Interestingly, the BJP leaders are not harping on the Modi dispensation anymore. Instead, the party is trying to woo the Hindu voters in the constituency by highlighting dangers of the jihadi elements gaining strength among the Muslim community.
Former BJP state president and national executive council member V Muraleedharan said that the victory of IUML will strengthen the jihadi forces. He has also accused the LDF and the UDF of promoting this by giving political patronage to the IUML and other Muslim outfits.
The BJP’s attempt is to consolidate the Hindu votes. The party has already reached a rapprochement with its new ally, the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), which had kept off the initial poll conventions, by promising accommodation to its leaders in the government-run corporations. Party president Amit Shah himself invited BDJS chief Thushar Vellappally to New Delhi and the gave the assurances.
However, his father and patron of the party Vellappally Natesan is not convinced. He has rejected Shah's offers and is trying to chart a new course by building a bridge to the LDF. Natesan, who heads the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP), the social arm of the Ezhava community, has asked his son not to associate with the 'Janaraksha Yatra' of Kummanam Rajashekharan that Shah will flag off from Payannur on Tuesday.
Ezhavas account for more than 50 percent of Hindu population in the state. The BJP has also launched an intensive campaign to woo Dalit voters, who number between 12,000 to 15,000 in Vengara. The party workers have been visiting the Dalit colonies and holding one-to-one discussions with the residents regarding the problems they face.
The party candidate himself has visited a dozen such colonies after he filed his papers. There are 40 such colonies in the constituency. Janachandran will visit as many colonies as possible, said the party’s campaign managers at Vengara.
Though the campaign managers are not expecting any surprise in the election, they claim that the party will re-write the record in the Muslim bastion.
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Updated Date: Oct 02, 2017 21:27:18 IST