VP Sajeendran, who represents Kunnathunadu constituency in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, is on a mission. At his election roadshows, the UDF candidate tells voters about the “dangers” of falling at the feet of a “corporate”.
The “corporate” that he talks about is Kerala-based Kitex Garments, which has formed a collective called ‘Twenty20’ that is giving a headache to establishment candidates.
Kitex, which has an annual turnover of ₹1,000 crore, floated Twenty20 in 2013 as an NGO. Twenty20 started off by organising medical camps for the poor but soon set up discount shops offering essential goods at subsidised rates, which became a big hit. In 2015 Twenty20 entered the political arena and contested the local body polls, capturing the Kizhakkambalam panchayat, which was run by Congress until then. Last year it retained that panchayat and captured three more, setting off an earthquake in local politics.
Sajeendran tells voters evidence of Twenty20-led development is thin on the ground.
“Twenty20 has given you plenty of promises, but you can see what they have accomplished so far. There is no infrastructure development in this panchayat, as you can see,” he says at an election meeting in Kizhakkambalam. “They are misleading people through social media. We have to realise the danger of falling at the feet of a corporate.”
In his brief poll speeches, Sajeendran tells voters about the “dangers” of sending corporate-backed candidates to the assembly.
Both the LDF and UDF tell The Federal that Congress has been the real target of Twenty20 ever since its formation. In 2010 the Congress-run panchayat refused to renew environmental clearance for a Kitex factory.
“It is a story of revenge,” Sajeendran tells The Federal. “The factory was causing heavy pollution, that it why environmental clearance was denied.
“Kitex formed Twenty20 and used the CSR funds to give people freebies and incentives. That is how they won here.”
Sajeendran says despite the obstacles — Twenty20 will likely split votes — he is confident of retaining the seat.
Twenty20 has fielded candidates in eight out of 14 constituencies in Ernakulam: Muvattupuzha, Kothamangalam, Perumbavoor, Kochi, Vypin, Kunnathunadu, Thrikkakkara and Ernakulam. Four of these seats are held by LDF, and four by UDF. Twenty20 is contesting to make its presence visible, but it expects to win at least one seat: Kunnathunadu.
“We are contesting to win [here],” Twenty20 candidate Dr Sujith P Surendran, a university professor in legal studies in Kunnathunadu, tells The Federal. “We are presenting an alternate style of governance. We take up genuine issues of the people.”
Dr Surendran avoids questions on issues such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, and the Centre’s contentious farm bills, and says providing people better living conditions is his party’s only objective at the moment.
LDF clearly hopes to benefit from Twenty20’s entry. “Twenty20 received 39,000 votes in Kunnathunadu in last year’s local body election,” says Antony, a local committee member of CPI-M.
Sajeendran won in 2016 with a narrow margin of 2,600 votes.
Both LDF and UDF believe — or hope — that the BJP’s votes will go to Twenty20. “They have money. They will purchase BJP votes,” says Issac Sebastian, a local Congressman who is accompanying Sajeendran.
Sebastian accuses the CPI-M leadership of secretly promoting Twenty20 in Ernakulam — a perception shared by local Left workers.
“It was certainly true in the beginning”, when Twenty20 was formed, says Antony. He hopes LDF supporters who voted for Twenty20 last year would return to the fold.
The Congress’s candidate alleges that the CPI-M and Twenty20 have struck a clandestine deal. “Ernakulam district is traditionally a UDF stronghold. They are fielding candidates in eight constituencies here,” Sajeendran says.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is “not saying a word against Twenty20 in his election speeches in these constituencies”, he says. “Besides, there is no Twenty20 candidate in Kalamassery constituency.” P Rajeev, a secretariat member and a prominent CPI-M face in Ernakulam, is contesting from Kalamassery.
CPI-M denies all such allegations and maintains that the fight is still between the LDF and the UDF, and that Twenty20 is not in the picture, except in Kunnathunadu.