Puthuppally bypoll: Advantage Congress, but it may not be a walkover at Oommen Chandy bastion
Chandy Oommen aims to revive the voters’ empathy and establish a connection with them, reminiscent of his late father’s approach.

Puthuppally bypoll: Advantage Congress, but it may not be a walkover at Oommen Chandy bastion

The byelection was necessitated by the death of sitting MLA and former CM Oommen Chandy who represented the seat for 53 years

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Nobody expects an upset in Puthuppally, unless some miracle happens. Though it is not expected to have any major impact on Kerala's political landscape, the contest in Puthuppally is shaping up closer than expected.

The constituency, which has a predominantly Christian population, has been a stronghold of the Congress party for over 50 years, and the late Oommen Chandy, arguably the most popular Congress leader the state has ever produced, represented it for 53 years.

The bypoll is being contested by three major contenders. Chandy Oommen, the son of Oommen Chandy, Jaick C Thomas from the CPI(M) and G Lijin Lal from the BJP. Oommen Chandy’s ability to connect with voters of all backgrounds was the foundation of his political career for over 60 years. The people of Puthuppally so liked him that they affectionately called him “Kunjunju” and considered him a part of their families. Chandy Oommen, his son, is banking on this connect to succeed his father. For this very reason, it has become an emotional issue for the Congress and Chandy Oommen, to keep up the legacy.

Also read: Puthuppally Assembly bypoll: It's Jaic Thomas vs Chandy Oommen

Striking a chord

The St George Orthodox Church in Puthuppally, a revered pilgrimage destination for Syrian Christians, has already been attracting hordes of visitors due to its recent recognition as the final resting place of Oommen Chandy. August 16 marked the 30th day of Oommen Chandy’s demise and the UDF started its campaign from his burial site. Family members of Oommen Chandy and the UDF leaders assembled at the St George Orthodox Church to offer prayers for the departed soul before Chandy Oommen kicked off campaign in his own panchayat ward. The Federal trailed Chandy Oommen, fondly referred to as Chandy Mon (which means Young Chandy) by his senior party members, during his visits to homes where he aimed to revive the voters’ empathy and establish a connection with them, reminiscent of his late father’s approach.

“He’s just like his father, always on the toes, going around to meet people, listening to their issues, and trying to resolve them. We can see Oommen Chandy sir in him,” remarked Kunju Mon, a resident of Thuruthi in Angadi ward of the Puthupally village panchayat.

This is precisely the approach being adopted by Chandy Ommen, mirroring his father in every gesture. He entered every household in Thuruthi, introduced himself, and sought their blessings in just a sentence or two. Particularly for female voters, his specific message was, “I seek your prayers”, sounding like more of a faithful churchgoer, than a politician. At some homes he even prayed with the families.

“Today I have opted for house visits. Even though it is impossible to cover all the households, I am trying to meet these guys who always gave my Appa thumping majority,” Chandy Oommen told The Federal.

Lack of amenities

Thuruthi, an islet near the Puthuppally church, housing more than a hundred families does not have a proper road or other facilities. Some women wanted to raise this issue before Chandy Oommen, but their husbands stopped them saying this is not the time.

“It’s true that our facilities are limited, but now isn’t the moment for grievances.” Thomas, a Thuruthi resident, mentioned that they will visit him after he becomes their MLA, as he is currently mourning the loss of his father.

Also read: Chandy was a great leader who carried everybody along, says Rahul Gandhi

When asked about why Oommen Chandy couldn’t bring about the progress they needed, despite serving as their MLA for 50 years, he responded with a smile, saying, “You know why.”

This aligns precisely with the focus of the LDF’s campaign. They are putting in significant effort to shift the discourse away from Oommen Chandy and the calls for his canonization by certain Congress leaders, redirecting it towards the inadequate progress in the constituency.

Open to debate

When Chandy Oommen and his family offered prayers at the church in the morning, the LDF candidate, Jaick C Thomas, was busy filing his nomination papers at the district collectorate. He was accompanied by party leaders and comrades who were very confident and enthusiastic. After the submission of his nomination papers, Jaick reiterated his willingness to engage in a debate concerning the developmental initiatives undertaken by the Left government in the past seven years within the state, in comparison to the progress within the constituency over a period of time.

“We can assess everything. We can assess the development carried out in the state in last seven years and the development that happened in Puthuppally during the same time.” Thomas confidently said he was ready to debate and discuss everything and the UDF candidate can decide the date, time and venue for the same.

“Aware and engaged people of Puthuppally, who are my family, are already deliberating about the progress in the constituency, recognising the contributions my father has made,” asserted a self-assured Chandy Oommen. He further noted, “My inquiry regarding their preparedness for an evaluation of the ruling coalition’s governance remains unanswered.”

“Both parties have valid points, Oommen Chandy was akin to a family member for many of us, yet there’s lack of development in this area. This time maybe Chandy Mon wins, but unless he works hard it would not be the same next time,” says Omana who runs a small bodega near Pambady.

Also read: Fissures in Congress over Pinarayi Vijayan's invite to Oommen Chandy event

Bid to shift focus

As the Congress endeavours to increasingly draw their attention to Oommen Chandy's legacy, the LDF is putting in significant effort to change the focal point of the election debate. Emphasising this redirection was MV Govindan, the state secretary of the CPI(M), who inaugurated Jaick C Thomas’ election convention in Manarcaud. He highlighted the negligence that Kerala has faced from the central government. “The Union government is strangling the state by withholding our rightful funds, and the Congress appears to be finding amusement in this, given that the LDF governs the state,” said Govindan.

The LDF leaders campaigning for Jaick C Thomas are constantly raking up the recent hobnobbing of Congress-led UDF and the BJP in a nearby panchayat where both the rival fronts joined hands to oust the LDF governing body.

On the other hand, the UDF leaders claim that the anti-incumbency factor is definitely going to come in to play in this bypoll. “We are prepared to engage in a political battle in Puthuppally. The accusations regarding the chief minister’s daughter receiving funds from a company will be deliberated upon, along with other pertinent political matters. The chief minister has not addressed the media for the last six months,” alleged the leaders of Opposition.

The BJP has put forth a relatively less familiar candidate in Lijin Lal and is attempting to evoke religious sentiments by highlighting the Ganesha controversy. Additionally, the BJP is emphasising the “Lord Ganesha is a myth” dispute initiated by Kerala Assembly Speaker AN Shamseer, aiming to polarise the Hindu vote in the predominantly Christian constituency of Puthuppally.

Emotional factor

Despite the LDF nominating a formidable candidate, their on-ground leadership suggests that they might be strategically targeting the 2026 elections, anticipating a potential sympathy wave favouring the UDF.

“You have seen the people’s turn out for the funeral procession of Oommen Chandy. So that emotional factor will be there and we are aware of it. Even if Chandy Oommen manages to win this time, we are confident that we could wrest it back in 2026,” said a district level leader of the LDF. He highlighted the significant decrease in Oommen Chandy’s victory margin, dropping from 27,092 votes in 2016 to 9,044 votes in 2021. Furthermore, during the 2020 local body elections, the LDF also gained control of the Puthuppally panchayat. “It should be noted that the LDF candidates have been increasing the vote share consistently in this constituency, and Oommen Chandy managed to get away as the BJP’s share got diminished,” he added.

Also read: Former Kerala CM Oommen Chandy's burial without state honours. Here is why

With the election campaign getting into the next phase, the Congress and the CPI(M) are presenting their distinct accounts of Puthuppally’s development. The Congress definitely has an edge from Oommen Chandy’s impeccable reputation within the constituency, while the CPI(M) should work overtime to get over it. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is scheduled to conduct his campaign in Puthuppally on August 24.

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