Kerala is in the throes of a heatwave that many would not understand unless they touch down on God’s own country. It is in this heated political space that electioneering is being conducted and the mercury levels in Pathanamthitta, seat of the Sabarimala Ayyappa, are a few degrees higher. Pathanamthitta has become a prestige battle for UDF, LDF and the BJP.
The Congress-led United Democratic Front candidate Anto Antony hopes for a hat-trick from the constituency. He supported those who were against the entry of women into the Sabarimala Ayyappa shrine.
For the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, a win here would help establish their ‘secular’ credentials. A win from Pathanamthitta for their candidate, Veena George, who is currently the Aranmula MLA, would be a vindication of their stand. A former journalist, she is known to be accessible and available.
The BJP is hoping to transfer the high-intensity, violence-driven protests during Sabarimala against the entry of women into an electoral victory. K Surendran, the BJP candidate, was even barred by the court from entering the district in the aftermath of the protests.
Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency straddles across two districts, Pathanamthitta and Kottayam and comprises six Assembly seats – Poonjar, Kanjirapally, Thiruvalla, Ranni, Aranmula, Konni and Adoor. It is because of the presence of Christians in these districts that Union minister KJ Alphons had wanted to contest from here but was refused by the BJP central leadership.
In the 2014 general election, UDF led in all seven Assembly segments, including Ranni, Thiruvalla and Adoor, which was earlier won by LDF. But in the 2016 Assembly elections, the LDF retained these three seats and wrested Aranmula from the UDF.
But, unlike what the poll pundits predict, there is no BJP wave in the district. Surendran, who was campaigning in Aranmula on Saturday, didn’t receive much of a rousing welcome. A single team travelled with Surendran to all the local spots, but his visits saw less than 60 people in attendance.
Quite contrary to this, Veena George’s rally in Kanjirapally progressed like a well-oiled machine. At every village, a new team accompanied her and the ground support was impressive.
In fact, across the district, one cannot traverse more than 100 metres before coming across the Veena George’s campaign poster. A close second is the BJP candidate’s presence. Posters with Antony on them are far and few. Most households had even got Veena George’s ‘Vishu wishes’ as a flyer by Sunday evening.
On Sunday, Anto Antony was campaigning in Poonjar and the week prior to that he was in Thiruvalla. But, he hasn’t been going for door-to-door canvassing and most residents say that they haven’t seen him in their locality. In fact, the word on the ground is that the local leadership was quite unhappy with the choice of Anto Antony as the candidate.
But, Pathanamthitta district Congress president Babu George dismisses these rumours. “This is nothing but LDF gossip. When AICC asks us for recommendations, we always give a couple of names, but that doesn’t mean we are against anyone’s candidature. Once the Central leadership chooses, we all rally behind the person,” insists George.
But this doesn’t point overtly towards a Left victory. Most people say, the situation is quite muddled and the devil lies in the details.
Kaviyoor village in Pathanamthitta is more than 2,700 km away from New Delhi. But, the distance is no signifier of the discourse in the village. A majority of them had the national picture when they discussed elections. It was not of Pulwama or Balakot or national security, but of Amit Shah’s statement that if BJP comes back to power, they would implement National Register for Citizens across the country and only ‘Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs’ would be safe.
“I am not sure who will win. I have not seen the local UDF MP Anto Antony after his election and I don’t think he has done anything here. Which leader does anything these days? But, if BJP comes to power, they will make life a living hell. Moreover, the Left does not have much of a national presence, so it will be beneficial to vote for the UDF,” emphasises Kunjumol, a resident.
“Anto Antony’s wife has also been canvassing for votes. She has been going to schools and is a woman of prayer. One sees in at several prayers organised here. Moreover, if UDF comes at least there won’t be violence,” said Jessy Thomas, a resident of Nellad.
Politicians would rather use the Sabarimala than focus on the problems in the region. There is the question of the sliding rubber prices, which has worsened the crises in the region. After the Central government signed the India-Malaysia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2016, the import duty on rubber was slashed. Then the domestic prices fell to a decade low of Rs 90 per kg and has now become Rs 128.5. For the crop to be profitable, the price should be more than Rs 180 per kg.
“KM Mani, who died recently, was the only minister who was actually concerned about the falling rubber prices. Here almost everyone has cultivated rubber. If the prices were right, we wouldn’t have to depend on these politicians,” quips Shimnas, a Gulf-returnee, who has taken to driving an auto.
Then there is enough disgruntlement over the flood relief. Pathanamthitta was one of the districts which the worst affected, but many have not received the compensation. The deluge destroyed agricultural land.
“In Konni, due to the incessant rainfall, there was severe landslides. My sister-in-law and her husband died when their house was washed away as a result of the landslide. The government had promised that the houses would be rebuilt. But, none of our houses have been rebuilt. We got compensation for their death and Rs 10,000 for the land that was destroyed. What can they do with that?,” laments Revathy, who stays in Eliyarackal near Konni.
Revathy had voted for the LDF candidate during the Assembly elections, for the UDF candidate during the Panchayat elections and now she is still deciding. “BJP unleashed far too much violence in the district during the Sabarimala protests. If women want to enter, let them enter, if they don’t, let them not, but these are not reasons for protests. None of us will vote for the BJP. If they come, we won’t be able to live,” emphasises Revathy.
Adding to this is the high number of non-resident Indians returning because of lack of employment, shortage of drinking water and issues facing the tribals living in the forests here.
The electoral authorities had warned against making the entry of women in Sabarimala a poll issue, but the parties are liberally using this. In fact, the UDF candidate’s booklet had it initially, but it was removed in the subsequent print run.
LDF has made development their plank as they are on a backfoot on Sabarimala issue in the region. They point towards the bridges and roads which their MLA Veena George helped built. But, the UDF camp says, the road in front of her house itself is because of UDF. “We can show more development than they can,” quips Shobi, who works with Anto Antony.
Pathanamthitta constituency has 13.5 lakh voters, of which usually around 9.6 lakh vote, making it a 70.5% voter turnout. Of this 56% are Hindu voters, 38% Christians and 4.6% Muslims. Neither Christians nor Muslims are likely to vote for Surendran.
Anto Antony belongs to the Catholic community, while Veena George belongs to the Orthodox church. During the Assembly elections, the Orthodox church had showcased their full support with priests stepping out for campaigning, but this time around, their response has been muted. Some priests are out canvassing, but most are keeping away. However, the Jacobite faction has lent her support, but they are a minority in the constituency.
Of all the approximate five lakh Hindu voters, not all are likely to vote for the BJP. The Ezhavas are likely to go with the LDF. In all the seven mandals in the district, BJP had got only 1.5 lakh votes. In 2016, it increased to 1.9 lakh. Even if it increases to 2.5 lakh, it will not be enough to secure a victory for Surendran.