Except on a couple of occasions, elections have always been a cakewalk for the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest party in the United Democratic Front (UDF), in Kerala. League stalwarts such as GM Banathwala and Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait (who quit IUML and formed the Indian National League) used to win with a thumping majority without even once meeting the voters.
Those days are gone, but the League still enjoys unchallenged dominance in many parts of Northern Kerala – as no other party does.
The CPI-M’s crushing victory in Manjery constituency in Malappuram in the 2004 Lok Sabha election was the first ever shock that the League received in Kerala. In the 2006 assembly election, Left Democratic Front (LDF) delivered another bodyblow by defeating all of the League’s top leaders: PK Kunhalikutty, MK Muneer and ET Mohammed Basheer.
And now the League faces another stern test, as Kerala goes to the polls in a few weeks. Three of its leaders are facing serious criminal charges. MC Kamaruddeen, who represents Manjeshwaram in Kasaragod, has a record 114 cases of cheating and fraud against him.
VK Ebrahim Kunju, the former revenue minister and MLA from Kalamassery in Ernakulam, faces a case registered by the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau with regard to alleged corruption in the construction of a bridge at Palarivattom in Kochi. The bridge developed cracks shortly after completion and an audit found that it was weak. The subsequent closure and reconstruction of the bridge caused widespread anger among the people.
KM Shaji, the MLA from Azhikode, in Kannur, faces disproportionate asset charges.
The series of criminal charges and allegations of corruption may well create cracks in the party’s vote base.
“This will have a very serious impact in certain constituencies, though not everywhere,” says a local leader of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), in Kasaragod. The SDPI functions as the League’s ground force in many places in North Malabar.
The Sunni factions that traditionally align with the League have moved closer to the LDF this time for several reasons. One major factor is the staunch resistance raised by the Kerala government against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. Many community leaders have openly praised Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for his unambiguous stand against the CAA. Organisations such as the Samastha Kerala Jamiat ul Ulema and Kerala Nadvathul Mujahideen participated in the ‘human chain’ organised by the LDF last year. Samastha, the principal Sunni scholarly body in Kerala, has been a close ally of the League for a long time. According to party insiders, the League is worried about the conflicts with Samastha and is trying to resolve them.
However, the Samastha recently came up with yet another controversial statement against fielding women. “Samastha does not prefer Muslim women contesting and engaging with the public. It is not necessary,” Abdul Samad Pookkottur, the leader of the Sunni Yuvajana Sangham, said recently.
The statement came amidst growing demand for parties to field more women. (The LDF fielded record number of women in local body elections recently.)
A faction within the League agrees with the Samastha. KPA Majeed, the general secretary of the League, has openly expressed his displeasure at fielding women. But there is a counter view – that this is nothing but a strategy adopted by the League leaders to keep their seats. “In fact League leaders do not want to incorporate women as they do not want to lose their own seats. That is why they are making the Samastha say these things,” said Advocate Shukoor, a former League activist who recently joined the CPI-M.
“Development and welfare schemes will also reflect in favour of the LDF. But more than that, ordinary Muslims who traditionally cast their vote for the League are disgusted with the flood of criminal cases and corruption charges against League MLAs. The party, instead of taking action against the tainted members, kept supporting and protecting them,” he said.
A district level leader of the SDPI in Kasaragod hinted that there was going to be a massive vote shift in at least a few constituencies.
The Muslim League has a consistent vote share of 7 to 8 per cent in the state. With 18 members in the assembly, it represents a significant section of the Muslim population – in Malabar mostly but also in central Kerala.
The party, steered by the Panakkad Thangal family in Malappuram, now has to deal with problems it has never faced before. The displeasure among the Christian community (traditionally a UDF ally) over the alliance’s pro-Turkey stance on the Hadia Sophia issue and the ‘love jihad’ bogey raised by the BJP might also affect the League’s status in the state.
“This is going to be a very crucial election for the League for many reasons,” said Shukoor. “An invisible shift is taking place. It seems that Muslims in Kerala prefer to stay with secular politics like that of the Left. That seems to be a safer option than going with identity politics,” said Shukoor, who fought many legal battles against the corruption of League leaders.