Puthuppally byelection: Why a big win is a must for Congress
The contest was mainly between Chandy Oommen, the son of Congress veteran and former chief minister Oommen Chandy, and Jaick C Thomas of CPI(M)
The Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) it leads in Kerala will consider as a disappointment anything less than a decisive win in the Puthupally Assembly byelection.
While the outcome won’t have any immediate impact on the current House dynamics, the Congress is battling to uphold its pride and facilitate a possible comeback in the state.
On the contrary, the Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the CPI(M), needs to perform well to assess its popularity and develop strategies to counter potential anti-incumbency sentiments in the upcoming general elections.
Puthuppally constituency, a traditional stronghold of the UDF, has 176,417 registered voters, comprising 90,281 women and 86,132 men. Of this, 128,626 votes were cast.
The contest was mainly between Chandy Oommen, the son of Congress veteran and former chief minister Oommen Chandy, from the Congress and Jaick C Thomas of CPI(M) besides BJP’s Lijin Lal and four other contenders.
For more than five decades, Puthuppally has been synonymous with Oommen Chandy. His connection to his constituency was so strong that he even named his residence in Thiruvananthapuram as ‘Puthuppally House’.
Oommen Chandy’s political journey in Puthuppally began in 1967 when he first contested assembly elections. Representing the Congress, he got his maiden victory with an impressive majority over the CPI(M) MLA.
Over the initial years, Oommen Chandy steadily consolidated his presence in the constituency, gaining the trust of the electorate and became the longest serving MLA of the state winning 11 back-to-back elections.
Once, in 1980, he was part of the LDF when the faction led by AK Antony quit the grand old party for a brief period.
In 2011, he achieved his largest victory margin by defeating Suja Susan George of CPI(M) by a whopping 33,255 votes. In 2016, he repeated this feat, though with a slightly reduced majority, against Jaick C. Thomas, who was the youngest candidate in the race, winning by 27,092 votes. But in 2021, Jaick put up a significant challenge, reducing his majority to 9,044 votes.
In the 2020 local body elections, the CPI(M)-led LDF made significant advances into constituencies traditionally dominated by the Congress. The LDF won in six out of the eight panchayats in the constituency.
Right from the beginning of this by-election, the Congress aimed to evoke emotions related to Oommen Chandy in an attempt to strike a chord with the voters. The selection of his son as a candidate was a part of this strategy.
Over the past decade, barring the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress has faced a series of losses. But there are indications of a resurgence in certain Local Self-Government (LSG) by-elections and the one held last year for the Thrikkakkara Assembly seat.
Kerala had never experienced consecutive victories for a political front, a streak that was broken by the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government in 2021.
The Congress’ electoral decline can be pinpointed to 2004 when they suffered a significant setback in the Lok Sabha polls. In that election, they lost all 19 seats, with their candidates facing resounding defeats.
Only the IUML managed to win a seat in Ponani.
In the 2006 state assembly elections, the LDF, led by VS Achuthanandan, achieved a sweeping victory in the state.
Although the Congress rebounded in the 2009 Lok Sabha battle and regained power in the 2011 Assembly elections, the LDF was not far behind. Oommen Chandy became the chief minister in 2011 but with a very narrow majority of just two seats. Even this victory was partly attributed to the factional conflicts within the CPI(M).
During this period, except for a slightly disappointing performance in the 2010 Local Body elections, the LDF consistently maintained its dominance in panchayat, municipal and corporation elections, a trend that had been ongoing since 1995.
Kerala voters often exhibit a distinct political inclination, typically voting for the Congress in Lok Sabha elections (with that aberration of 2004 caused by a huge minority consolidation) and favouring the Left in state and local body elections.
With this pattern and the increasing influence of the BJP-led NDA, every election poses a significant challenge for the Congress. In recent assembly elections, contrary to popular belief, the BJP’s expansion in the state has come at the expense of Congress votes.
The absence of widespread dissatisfaction with the incumbent government has been the primary reason for the LDF’s successive victories in Kerala.
Left pluses, minuses
Their effective management of natural disasters such as floods and outbreaks of diseases like Nipah and COVID along with welfare initiatives have cultivated an image of a government focused on the well-being of the people.
However, in their second term in office, the government has somewhat tarnished this reputation due to a series of controversies involving the chief minister, other ministers and their relatives. There is growing dissatisfaction among the general population regarding the government’s financial management and its approach to law enforcement.
These signs of discontent have become evident in recent elections, with the UDF performing well in numerous LSG by-elections held over the past 18 months.
The Thrikkakkara by-election in 2021, in which Uma Thomas, the wife of the late MLA PT Thomas, secured a resounding victory, is as a notable example. Even though the constituency was held by the Congress, the majority went up sky high.
“This election was held in a highly favourable environment for us. People were eager to pay homage to OC (as Oommen Chandy was fondly called), and that will be evident in the outcome,” said a Congress leader.
He added: “We anticipate securing a majority of approximately 30,000, which we attribute to the state government’s unpopular policies. The anti-incumbency sentiment became apparent as we engaged with the voters.”
On his part, Chandy Oommen said after the polling ended: “I am confident of winning the election and do not want to comment on the majority.”
A CPI(M) worker told The Federal: “Their sole strategy seemed to revolve around capitalizing on the emotions surrounding Oommen Chandy’s passing, and they were exaggerating it. We don’t believe it will have a substantial impact. They lacked substantial achievements or projects to highlight as his contributions to the constituency.”
Said LDF candidate Jaick: “We were focussing on the under development of the constituency, and we believe it works.”
The presence of the BJP candidate appeared to have made little to no impact, with their campaign seen as more of an “also-ran” effort.