PK Kunhalikutty seeks votes with a smile. For a seasoned politician like him, his approach is calm but assured, without the exuberance of his younger rivals. This is the second time the National General Secretary of the Indian Union Muslim League and the sitting MP from Malappuram is contesting the Lok Sabha constituency.
The veteran politician, who has been a seven-time MLA and a three-time Minister, is up against CPI(M)âs VP Sanu, SFIâs National President. The 30-year old is making his electoral debut and is the youngest among the candidates of the three fronts in the state. His vibrance his hard to miss, especially under the scorching sun as he seeks votes.
But Sanuâs youthful energy maybe no match for 68-year-old Kunhalikuty, whose partyâs roots are deep in Malappuram, a constituency which has been traditionally stood with the IUML in all elections barring one.
The Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency consists of six Assembly segments Kondotty, Vallikkunn, Vengara, Manchery, Mankata and Perinthalmanna. Prior to delimitation in 2009, Malappuram was a part of the Manjeri Lok Sabha constituency, which has seen the IUML emerge victorious on most occasions. It was only in 2004 that the Left tasted victory in Manjeri when the state saw a wave for the LDF alliance. Post delimitation, the Left is strong in segments such as Perinthalmanna and Mankada, while the remaining four segments are UDF bastions.
In the last two Lok Sabha Elections in 2009 and 2014, Malappuram elected E Ahamed, a senior leader of the IUML. In 2014, the former Union Minister won with a massive margin of 1,94,000 votes. Ahamed, however, passed away in March 2017, necessitating a bye-election.
The IUML fielded Kunhalikutty, who was sitting MLA of Vengara at that time, in the byelection. Kunhalikutty marched to victory in the bye-polls, defeating his CPI(M) rival MB Fazial by 1,70,000 votes.
Two years on, Malappuram will witness another direct fight between the Congress-led UDF and the CPI(M)-led LDF, although the BJP is also in the fray with V Unnikrishnan as the NDA candidate. The IUML with its headquarters in Malappuram is powerful in the northern region of the state, while Kunhalikutty as a leader is equally powerful.
Rumblings within IUML
But this time, Kunhalikutty is also battling dissent within the party.
A source close to the party says, âThere is resentment within various Muslim communities against fielding Kunhalikutty. Also his influence in the party has been diminishing, so has his ability as a crowd puller.â Whatâs more the source says that the accusation against Kunhalikutty is that he has not delivered on poll promises nor has he looked after the partyâs affairs.
âIt was for this reason that the IUML had considered fielding Kunhalikutty in neighbouring Ponnani, the other seat offered to the party as part of the UDF alliance. The source says, âEven the party is not too happy with him and hence considered him for Ponnani, which is the turf of his party colleague ET Mohammed Basheer. Because this time the fight in Ponnani is really tough. He reportedly became emotional when his name was suggested for Ponnani.â
He adds, âPanakkad Hyderali Shihab Thangal, the party supremo, has been keeping a tight grip over Kunhalikutty. The time has gone when anything would work in the party, as per Kunhalikuttyâs wish.â
Furthermore, the source says that it was at Kunhalikuttyâs behest that a meeting was arranged with the Socialist Democratic Party of India (SDPI), known for its communal politics. However, when the LDF accused the IUML of tying up with the SDPI, it was then that the party distanced itself from the meeting, calling it âaccidentalâ.
âThe meeting with the SDPI was organised by Kunhalikutty. But he came late for the meeting, but ET Mohammed Basheer came on time and Kunhalikutty managed to save himself when he was caught red handed. The SDPI had waited initially to field candidate, but after the meeting became public and since they got annoyed by Kunhalikutty playing safe, SDPI state president Abdul Majeed Faisi decided to contest,â adds the source.
Kunhalikuttyâs absence in Parliament when the Triple Talaq Bill was presented had also raised eyebrows within the party and the party leadership had even sought an explanation from him.
National over local issues
In Malappuram, a Muslim dominated constituency, people largely look at the national picture when voting for the Lok Sabha elections.
âThe rule at the Centre should change. Here people would mostly have that feeling. We donât want anyone who promise wonders, but all sections of people should feel safe in a country,â says Nissar Ahammed, a watch shop owner at Manjeri Road.
âHere we vote for the candidate, whoever is doing well for the people. We all want a firm and fair rule,â say Vasantha and Kanakavally of Kondotty.
Even Kunhalikutty has focused his campaign on national issues. âWhat is the relevance of the Left parties at the national level? The fight is between the Congress and the BJP,â he tells TNM.
The IUML also raises political violence between the Left and the RSS as a campaign issue.
The Leftâs counter campaign has, however, focused on Kunhalikutty as a leader who wonât give opportunity to the youth. When asked about his chances, Sanu confidently says, âThere is history of beginners like me trouncing big leaders in the elections.â
Sanuâs father and CPI (M) VP leader Zakaria, who had lost to Kunhalikutty from Kuttippuram in the 1991 Assembly Election also took a dig at the IUML leader when he learnt that his son had been given a ticket. Zakharias said, Kunhalikutty would continue to stand for elections even against Sanuâs son.
The LDF has also slammed IUML for centering power in the hands of a few leaders and for not giving chances to the youth in elections. And while the Left raises issues of development, there has also been criticism over the fact that the LDF has chosen to field a political novice against a veteran like Kunhalikutty.
âThere was possibility for a fair political fight. But by fielding not such a strong candidate who can take on Kunhalikutty the Left has actually lost the fight,â says a source in the Left camp.