Thrikkakara by-poll: Jolt to Pinarayi and Left; silver lining for Congress
The Thrikkakara by-election loss comes as a bolt from the blue for the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala. Not only have the LDF’s hopes of hitting a ‘century’ of seats in the Kerala Assembly come crashing down to a chastising loss, but it also gives a fresh lease of life to the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Congress’s Uma Thomas, the wife of late Congress leader and MLA P T Thomas, won with a historic margin of 25,016 votes, thumping Left candidate Jo Joseph, a reputed cardiologist.
By deploying the entire state machinery and personally leading the campaign from the front, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan needlessly raised the stakes, only to eat humble pie.
Thrikkakara, Kerala’s most urban constituency that was carved out after the 2009 delimitation, was always going to be a tough proposition for the LDF. Nevertheless, the CPI(M) believed it could win the polls by micro-managing the campaign, following its stunning return to power in the Assembly elections last year. It also went back to the template it tried out successfully in the 2018 Chengannur by-poll, where it reached out to different social groups and took them into confidence. Replicating such a strategy in an urbane constituency was always fraught with risks, and the huge margin of defeat should make the party go back to the drawing board.
As for the down-and-out Congress, the win comes as a huge relief after back-to-back losses in 2016 and 2021. The result also comes as a setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose senior leader AN Radhakrishnan polled fewer votes than it received in 2021. In fact, he lost his security deposit. That Kerala’s politics will remain bipolar for the time being, regardless of the LDF buckling the four-decade-old trend of voting out incumbent governments, was underscored in the process.
CPI(M)’s tactical blunder
The LDF’s candidate selection itself was marred by controversy as the CPI(M)’s district committee’s choice of KS Arun Kumar was shot down by the state leadership. The LDF repeated the same blunder it committed in 2021, when the Left had similarly backed an independent Dr J Jacob, rumoured to be the nominee of Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the powerful Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala. But then, the Cardinal was himself facing rebellion from within, on account of factionalism within the Church and allegations of corruption against him.
Thus, the Cardinal has been reduced to a rubber stamp in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archeparchy, with the majority of parish priests lining up against him, and the laity mostly throwing their lot with their vicars.
But the CPI(M) had been steadily engaging the Cardinal’s faction, the official faction of the Syro-Malabar Church, and while it worked for them in the traditional Congress stronghold of Central Travancore comprising the Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts in the 2021 Assembly election, it came a cropper in Ernakulam district, the seat of the head of the church, where the rebel faction holds sway.
By orchestrating an introductory press conference of candidate Jo Joseph at the Lissie Hospital in Ernakulam, run by the rebel faction of the church, state cabinet minister P Rajeeve offered a quick-fix solution to present him as a joint candidate of the rival factions of the church – instead, it backfired on the CPI(M). The rival faction went to town anointing Jo Joseph as a nominee of the Cardinal faction, which found traction among the electorate.
Despite feeble protests from the official faction of the church initially, the Cardinal faction ‘owned’ the Left candidate by enlisting support through unofficial channels like the ‘World Christian Council’ led by Kennedy Karimpinkala. In the 24 parishes of the Syro-Malabar Church in Thrikkakkara, 22 vicars have adopted an anti-Cardinal stance and that put paid to the hopes of the Left candidate.
CPI(M)’s alternative option
Instead of banking on ‘social engineering,’ the CPI (M) could have resorted to the positive politics it embraced in the recent by-polls of Vattiyoorkkavu, Konni, Ernakulam and Aroor, where it fielded young comrades with mixed results. Even in elections where it lost in Aroor and Ernakulam, the contest went all the way to the wire.
In Thrikkakara, however, the Marxists went back to the template they adopted in Chengannur in 2018 and successfully replicated across the state in the 2021 Assembly elections, resorting to social engineering, slander campaigns and concentrating their entire machinery in the constituency.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s ‘Social Engineering’
Of late, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had been successful in deploying cabinet colleagues Saji Cherian, VN Vasavan and P Rajeeve in Central Kerala and former minister KT Jaleel in Malabar to chip away at the support base of the UDF. While the strategy is overtly couched in euphemisms such as ‘social engineering,’ it has resulted in adding to the polarisation engineered by the BJP and fringe Islamist groups.
The CPI(M)’s traditional Hindu base in Kerala saw a slight erosion post the Sabarimala judgment and its aftermath and the CPI(M) calculates that it not only can offset any losses but also perpetually be at the hustings by attracting a section of the Christian and Muslim vote banks of the UDF.
The CPI (M) tried to pull off the same trick in Thrikkakara in more ways than one.
Setback for SilverLine
The Thrikkakara by-election results have also come as a huge setback to the CPI(M) and Vijayan in going ahead with the Silverline semi-high speed rail project, which has run into huge public protests. The cash-strapped government has been portraying the Silverline project as a silver bullet, reducing the travel time between Thiruvananthapuram in the south and Kasaragod in the north to four hours.
But there are concerns about the government giving the short shrift to due procedure and also to the damage caused to the environment. A win for the LDF would have been dubbed as an endorsement for the project – a loss only complicates the situation.