Open season in Thrissur: Triangular contest will be down to the wire

A tight race is on the cards in Kerala between UDF candidate and Congress leader K. Muraleedharan, the LDF's V.S. Sunil Kumar and the BJP's Suresh Gopi

K. Muraleedharan seeks to maintain Congress's historic dominance (photo: @KM_KPCC/X)
K. Muraleedharan seeks to maintain Congress's historic dominance (photo: @KM_KPCC/X)

Ashlin Mathew

It’s open season in Thrissur this Lok Sabha election.

The battle between UDF candidate and Congress leader K. Muraleedharan and the LDF candidate and Communist Party of India (CPI) leader V.S. Sunil Kumar is likely to go down to the wire. Completing the triangle, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has placed its bets on former Rajya Sabha member and actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi.

In 2019, Congress leader T.N. Prathapan won this seat. The Congress has won the general elections thrice in Thrissur, the CPI twice, between 1999 and 2019. In the last Assembly election, all seven constituencies were won by LDF candidates—the CPI(M) won four seats and the CPI the rest.

The electorate here is known to be temperamental. They voted to defeat veteran Congress leader and former chief minister K. Karunakaran, though it was known as his home turf. His son, K. Muraleedharan. is the Congress candidate this time. He too has been defeated in this constituency—in 1998, when he contested against CPI leader V.V. Raghavan.

Muraleedharan's candidature came after his sister Padmaja Venugopal crossed over to the BJP in March this year. But Thrissur ensured her defeat too, when she contested for the Assembly seat in 2016 and 2021. In 2016, she lost the poll battle to the current CPI candidate, Sunil Kumar.

And so we come full circle.

After Muraleedharan’s victory in the last general election from the Vadakara Parliament seat, known to be a Left bastion, he has acquired the stature of an electoral strongman. His candidacy from Thrissur has invigorated the party.

“Murali seems to have an upper hand in the coastal belt and Ollur, which used to be a Congress stronghold. But we don’t know his stand on many issues. He has come from Vadakara; we don’t know if he will work for us,” said George, an auto-driver in Thrissur town.

On the other hand, several people around the famous Wadakkunathan Shiva temple seem to favour Sunil Kumar. “He is always around," said Pradeep, who is part of the temple administration. "Sunil is approachable and we can go to him for issues. He doesn’t refuse anyone and he remembers every person. This is important for all of us.”

Several priests and administrative staff were around, as preparations were underway for the Thrissurpooram on 19 April. Listening in on this conversation, a priest in the temple chimed in to sat he wasn’t sure who would win but the contest looked tough between Muraleedharan and Sunil Kumar.

At the Vanitha food centre, where several people are gathered as usual for a tasty meal at an affordable price, talk of elections triggers a debate.

“My family is in Natika near the coast. I think Muraleedharan will win. He was defeated once from here and yet he has come back," said Mini. "It shows his willingness to take on any candidate based on what Congress expects. He has no dramatics.”

Here, it is mostly the women who are carrying the torch for BJP candidate Suresh Gopi. “We want Suresh Gopi to win and this is above all politics. I am from a traditionally Congress voting family, but I want Suresh Gopi to win,” said Geetha, who works at the railway station.

This sentiment was echoed by Vijaya, who also works at another temple close by. “How can you say only the other two candidates stand a chance? Suresh Gopi has helped a lot of traders in the Sakthan market here. He spent funds even though he was not the local MP,” she said. While he was Rajya Sabha MP, Gopi spent around Rs 1 crore from the MP Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to improve the facilities in the vegetable market and the fish market.

Gopi’s women supporters attend most of his gatherings.

Thrissur is at the top of the BJP's agenda in Kerala, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching his campaign in the state from here, with a women's rally in January.

Where the BJP leadership goes, it seems the central agencies can't be far behind either.

The Enforcement Directorate has summoned the CPI(M)'s Thrissur district secretary M.M. Varghese to appear before it in connection with an ongoing investigation into the Karuvannur Service Cooperative Bank fake loan case. The CPI(M) controls this bank.

Several bogus loans were sanctioned multiple times for the same property without the knowledge of society members. The scam became a crisis when a former member was harassed to return an amount (Rs 50 lakh) that he had not borrowed—until he ended his life in July 2021. This scam has been the BJP's talking point, with even Modi mentioning it in his rally in Thiruvananthapuram recently.

What do the Syrian Catholics say?

In Thrissur, where Hindus form 58.42 per cent of the voters, Christians 27.27 per cent and Muslim 17.07 per cent, the Christians are known to switch votes.

In November 2023, the Thrissur archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala had hit out at the BJP, stating that it "will not forget Manipur".

The spokesperson for the Syro-Malabar church, Fr Antony Vadakkekara, said the church would never tell its parishioners whom to vote for, but “this is our weapon”.

The spokesperson underscored that the church would never speak for any political party or leader either. “But the church has opinions on matters related to the building and strengthening of the nation," said Vadakkekara. "Democracy needs to be preserved as envisioned in the Constitution; fascist and autocratic tendencies should not be entertained or encouraged in our country."

Religious freedom is enshrined in our Constitution and it allows every citizen to practise and speak about it, he said, adding: "The ruling party should not support one religion and be against other religions."

People’s concerns have always been taken up by the church, Vadakkekara noted—be it human–animal conflicts in the hilly regions or a minimum support price for farmers, especially for rubber and paddy. "Farmers are suffering," said Vadakkekara.

Highlighting the other issues in the state, Vadakkekara said there is a mass exodus of youngsters in search of education and jobs, because "there are no opportunities in the state for the youth".

"The union government did not intervene in Manipur to stop the violence when they should have," adds Vadakkekara. "The government should be aware of the rights of minorities and it should be protected. So, the people here should vote for the best person who has a track record of addressing the concerns of people."

It is this that Muraleedharan is using during his campaign. The Congressman has been pointing out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Thrissur multiple times, but not Manipur.

A poll watcher who did not want to be identified said the coastal belt Christians will vote for Muraleedharan. “Muslim votes cannot be decided yet," said the observer. "They will decide based on who is most likely to defeat the BJP candidate.

"Earlier Christians too voted similarly. Currently, with a lot of anti-Muslim hatred being spread by certain elements in the church, a few amongst the moneyed Christians are turning pro-BJP. It is mostly fuelled by their business interests thought," said the observer.

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