Thrikkakkara by-election to be a referendum on SilverLine project

The election in Kerala’s Thrikkakkara, traditionally a stronghold of the UDF, has been necessitated following the demise of P T Thomas, one of the popular faces of Congress in Kerala

UDF candidate Uma Thomas, the wife of late Congress leader P T Thomas, whose death necessitated the by-election, with actor Mammootty.

As the LDF government in Kerala completes one year, it faces a by-election which could be termed as a litmus test of its government’s policies, especially the proposed semi-speed rail project SilverLine.

The by-election to Thrikkakkara constituency in Ernakulam district traditionally a stronghold of the UDF, is to be held on May 30 and was necessitated by the demise of PT Thomas, one of the popular faces of Congress in Kerala who represented the constituency two times since 2016.

UDF has fielded Uma Thomas, wife of late PT Thomas, hoping to garner sympathy votes. On the other side, LDF has put a surprise candidate in Dr Jo Joseph, a senior cardiologist at Lissy Hospital, Ernakulam. Though LDF supporters outside Ernakulam were surprised at Joseph’s selection, for the people of Ernakulam and Thrikkakkara constituency, he is a familiar name. He is a popular cardiologist known for his philanthropy.

It would be interesting to see how social issues being widely discussed today in Kerala, including the ‘anti-Muslim’ tirades spread by a section of the priests, would have a bearing on the outcome of the by-election.

Thrikkakkara has the largest number of urban middle-class and upper-class voters in Kerala. Home to a large number of IT-related companies, it is an IT hub that includes an Info Park, a Smart City and a Start-up Village.

Congress stronghold

Since it became a constituency in 2011, Thrikkakkara has favoured only the Congress. Benny Behannan of Congress won the seat in 2011 with 55.8 per cent votes, pushing the LDF candidate (M E Hassainar) to the second place with 36.8 per cent votes. In 2016, vote share of the UDF came down to 45 per cent while the LDF remained at 36.5 per cent. It was the BJP that cut into UDF’s vote, increase its vote share from 5 per cent in 2011 to 15.7 per cent in 2016.

Dr Jo Joseph, a cardiologist from Ernakulam, is the LDF candidate

In 2021, all the three — LDF, UDF and the BJP — suffered a loss in their vote share following the entry of Twenty 20, the political party formed by Kitex Group of companies, which captured three panachayats in the district.  P T Thomas won the with 43.6 per cent votes, while the LDF candidate J Jacob got 33 per cent votes. The vote share of the BJP came down to 11 per cent and Twenty-20 got an impressive 10 per cent.

SilverLine in focus

Thrikkakkara is an important location in the route map of SilverLine, the semi-high speed railway from the North to the South of Kerala. One of the two proposed stations of SilverLine in Ernakulam district would be at Kakkanadu, the heart of Thrikkakkara constituency. The rail project thus would be a decisive factor in the by-election.

Also read: Kerala govt’s panel discussion on SilverLine runs into controversy

As soon as her candidature was announced, Uma Thomas launched the campaign by talking against SilverLine. KPCC President K Sudhakaran asked the government whether it would be ready to give up the project if it lost the election.

CPI-M leaders too did not shy away from making SilverLine the major campaign theme. As far as the CPI-M is concerned, ‘development’ is going to be a major theme of this election of which SilverLine is a part of. The Left is trying to portrait UDF as a force that opposes development projects like the Silver Line. Thrikkakkara being the hub of Kerala’s IT industry, LDF is hoping to get the support of the youth who would prefer faster modes of transportation.

The church impact

Thrikkakkara has a large number of Christian voters; it is roughly estimated that they constitute 36 to 38 per cent of the total population (the Muslim population is 13 per cent and the rest, around 50 per cent, are Hindus). As soon as the CPI-M announced the name of Dr Jo Joseph, it faced widespread criticism for giving in to ‘communal interests’. It was widely speculated that CPI-M would field Arunkumar, a young lawyer and DYFI leader, a popular orator and a strong voice of the party in primetime television debates. Fielding Joseph instead of Arunkumar is said to be an indication of party’s strategy to woo the Christian voters. ‘Is Jo Joseph a nominee of the Syro Malabar Church’, became a topic of hot debate in the state.

P T Thomas was never a blue-eyed boy of the church. He was a man who openly denounced religious beleifs. Thomas, who went for an interfaith marriage, was cremated in a public crematorium with no religious rituals. His wife and the candidate of UDF, Uma Thomas belongs to the Hindu community.

Uma Thomas does not have any major political experience except for being an activist of KSU as a student. She though was an easy choice for Congress – the party is expecting a victory on sympathy wave in this stronghold of theirs.

‘The ‘Archdiocese Movement for Transparency’ (AMT), a reformist organisation within the Syro Malabar Church, openly alleged that Joseph was a nominee of the head of the church, Major Archbishop Mar George Alencherry who is facing trial in corruption cases. “We all believe that CPI-M changed Arunkumar and brought in Jo Joseph because of pressure from the Bishop’s side. It is unfortunate to see that the Left in Kerala is wooing communal interests,” Shyju Antony, the spokesperson of AMT told The Federal. Shyju hinted that the ‘Almaya Samgham’ (the followers of Christian faith) has its own ways to ‘defeat such unholy alliances’.

Also read: Kerala Christians’ beef with Muslims proof of BJP’s divide-and-rule policy

AMT is an organisation engaged in efforts to ‘purify’ the church. It supports the legal battle against the land deal and the financial fraud allegedly committed by Alancherry. “We have been fighting corruption and communalisation within the church. Jo Joseph has never extended solidary to our battles. As a candidate, he has to make it clear where does he stand — either with the head of the church or with the followers” Shyju asked.

On the other hand, it would be untrue to say that Joseph is an ‘air-dropped’ candidate. He was an active follower of CPI-M and had even participated in the election campaign for party candidates in 2021. He has been a co-traveller of the party and has often expressed Left ideals in his social media interactions and articles.

The entry of AAP

A new entrant in the electoral arena this time is AAP.  Arvind Kejriwal is expected to arrive in Kochi on May 15 and would be announcing a tie-up with Twenty 20. So far, AAP has an insignificant presence in the constituency and would be a lesser partner to Twenty 20, which expanded its influence by winning three more panchayats in addition to the existing one — Kizhakkambalam — in local body elections in 2020. The new alliance thus could indeed make the fight tough for both the fronts, causing more harm to the UDF.

Also read: One year of Pinarayi 2.0: How ‘women-friendly’ has LDF been in Kerala?