Rajesh, a vendor, was at the election rally of V Sivankutty, the LDF candidate, in Nemom, Thiruvananthapuram. Nemom, once a secular stronghold, is today represented by O Rajagopal, the BJP’s lone MLA in the Kerala assembly.
“When this colony was established in the 1990s, there were 126 families. Except two or three of them, all were ardent CPI-M supporters. That has changed. Now many, especially young people, openly support the BJP and RSS,” he said.
Rajesh was talking about MSK Nagar, which was established for the Dalit community. Today it has people from other communities as well.
Rajesh was among a large group of Left supporters waiting at the entrance of the colony, which was marked by a giant hoarding of Ayyankali, the legendary Dalit leader of Kerala. “The BJP achieved this growth [in Kerala] only through communal polarisation,” Sivakumar, who introduced himself as “labourer, CITU” – the Centre of Indian Trade Union – said when asked what impact the Sabarimala issue would have in the election.
“I am a devotee [of Lord Ayyappa]. I have been to Sabarimala at least six times. I will go next year too. I am a communist also. I believe what Pinarayi Vijayan did was right,” he said, referring to the chief minister’s stand on entry of women to the temple.
Sivakumar and his comrades were eager to convince The Federal that the LDF government had been pro-people, pro-poor and efficient in handling the COVID-19 crisis.
At Punnakkamugal locality, the BJP’s booth level workers were waiting for their candidate, Kummanam Rajasekharan – O Rajagopal, who is 93 years old, decided to step aside this year.
“A few metres away, there is a booth committee office of the Congress,” Aji, the BJP’s area president, said. “You go there and talk to them. Although they work for the Congress, they all cast their vote for us.”
Aji said the BJP had benefited from the decline in the Congress’ fortunes.
“Around 3,000 votes in this locality that used to go to the Congress came to us in the 2020 local body election,” said Padmakumar, who coordinated the booth level activities. “The fight is between the LDF and the NDA. The Congress is nowhere in the picture.”
Nemom came to national attention in 2016, for being the first – and so far only – constituency in Kerala to elect a BJP legislator. Several factors led to Rajagopal’s victory, the senior-most BJP leader in the state who was admired by many for his performance as minister of state in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet in 1999-2004. The changes he initiated in the railway sector in Kerala, especially the modernisation of the Thiruvananthapuram Railway Station, secured him admiration from the public. This was reflected in the vote share – people said “Rajagopal’s vote” could not be transferred to other BJP candidates. The massive erosion of support for the Congress also helped the BJP open its account in the assembly.
Nemom has favoured the Congress six times so far. The CPI-M has won it four times. In 2006, the Congress’ N Shakthan won the seat, securing 60,884 votes and pushing the CPI-M to second place with 50,135 votes. The BJP received a measly 6,705 votes. Since then the party has seen consistent improvement in its performance. In 2011 V Sivankutty of the CPI-M grabbed the seat with 43 per cent votes (50,076) and pushed the Congress to third place. To everyone’s surprise, the BJP’s Rajagopal finished second with 37 per cent votes (43.661). In 2016, of course, Rajagopal made history by winning Nemom, securing 67,813 votes (47 per cent) against Sivankutty, who received 59,142 votes (41 per cent).
To everyone’s shock, the UDF candidate, Surendran Pillai of the JD-U, received only 13,000 votes – 9.7 per cent of the total votes polled.
Rajagopal always had his admirers in Nemom, Sivankutty said, adding that that did not translate into election wins. His victory in 2016 was a direct result of the Congress’ decline, he said.
The two-time MLA told The Federal that this year he had been fielded with the “intention of erasing the BJP from the map of Kerala’s legislative assembly”.
The Congress Fightback
Nemom was once represented by former chief minister and Congress heavyweight K Karunakaran. In order to wrest the seat back, this year the party has fielded his son and sitting MP from Vatakara, K Muralidharan.
“We are fighting this battle to win, no matter who is contesting,” Muralidharan said when asked if the fight in Nemom was a straight shootout between the LDF and UDF or a three-way affair.
That the Congress decided to field a senior leader like him showed the party’s intention, he said. “[Former chief minister] Oommen Chandy was willing to contest, but we may lose Puthuppally [Chandy’s constituency] if he does not contest from there.”
Although Muralidharan was optimistic, the Congress faces an uphill task. A closer look at the voting patterns in the 2020 local body polls and 2019 general election shows the BJP has a strong chance of retaining the seat. All Rajasekharan has to do is maintain his party’s vote share in 2020, when it won 14 out of 21 wards. The Congress does not have a single councillor in Nemom, which proves the BJP workers’ claims that “even the booth managers of the Congress cast their votes for the BJP”.
However, Muralidharan said the priorities of voters differ from election to election. “The criteria in a local body election are different. We are confident of winning over voters,” he said.
A trip through the constituency makes one thing clear: when it comes to booth-level operations, the Congress is still playing catch-up. In several places its offices are vacant. But all is not lost. Muralidharan is a crowd-puller who has consistently taken a strong anti-RSS position. “The secular votes may split. There is a chance that minority voters may favour Murali,” said a CPI-M insider in charge of the election campaign.