Lok Sabha 2019
The Kottayam constituency, a stronghold of the UDF, has been lying vacant since the MP, Jose K Mani, left it in June 2018 to join the upper house.
Thomas Chazhikadan (UDF), VN Vasavan (LDF) and PC Thomas (NDA)

Kottayam is known as the land of lakes, letters and latex. It is where many of the Malayalam dailies originated from and where the first college in Kerala was built. It is where at least 20% of the country’s natural rubber trading comes from. It is where Kumarakom, the famous backwater destination that attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, is located.

It is also one of the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies in Kerala, comprising seven assembly seats, including one from the nearby Ernakulam district (Piravom). For 10 months now, this Lok Sabha seat has been lying vacant. The elected MP, Jose K Mani of the Kerala Congress (M), had left to join the upper house in June 2018.

LDF raises secularism

CPI(M)’s VN Vasavan, contesting the seat this year for the LDF, says the predecessor had left it without a people’s representative. He would, in this election, raise the issues of secularism and federalism, both of which he believes have been challenged by the ruling government at the Centre. “The whole idea of India would become meaningless, and there is an urgent need to save the Constitution,” Vasavan tells TNM, as he gets down from his campaign vehicle at Manganam in Kottayam on a hot Thursday afternoon.

The CPI(M) has won the seat five times in the past and lost to Congress and its allies, forming the UDF, the rest of the time. Four of these five times, the seat was won by Advocate Suresh Kurup. In 2009, Jose K Mani won the seat from Kurup with a margin of about 70,000 votes and retained it in 2014, beating Adv Mathew T Thomas of the JD(S).

The LDF let Suresh Kurup, who is now MLA from the Ettumanoor constituency in Kottayam, continue in his role while fielding Vasavan, who is a former MLA and the district secretary of the CPI(M) since 2015. Sabarimala and the court ruling allowing entry to all women will not be an issue, Vasavan says, adding that people have understood ‘those who have created issues over it’.

The LDF government had given all support for women’s entry following the court order, while the rival parties called it an intrusion on matters of faith. The Election Commission has warned the candidates not to mention the topic when they campaign, but with Kottayam being so close to Sabarimala, it’s likely to influence the voting decisions of many.

UDF stronghold and KC(M) infighting

The seat, which was won at least five times by the Kerala Congress factions (there are about nine of these) and six times by the Indian National Congress, is an obvious stronghold of the UDF. This is where Ramesh Chennithala, the Opposition leader in Kerala, won as an MP three times in a row – 1989, 1991 and 1996. But breaking predictability, Suresh Kurup won the next election in 1998, defeating Chennithala by a mere 5,400 votes. Kurup won again the next two times, making Kottayam look like a miniature version of how the state of Kerala votes, giving its charge alternatively to the two main political parties.

After the last general elections in 2014, there have been quite a few developments, apart from Jose leaving the seat. Jose’s father KM Mani, the leader of the united Kerala Congress (M), had to quit as a minister from the previous UDF government, his name featuring prominently in the bar bribery scandal. New assembly elections took place a year later in 2016, and the LDF came to power. Within the Kerala Congress (M) too, there appeared to be trouble. After Jose left for the upper house, veteran party leader PJ Joseph was expected to contest in his place. The Manis, however, chose Thomas Chazhikadan, former MLA, as the UDF candidate from Kottayam.

“There are no issues with him (Joseph) anymore, everything is sorted out, and he is cooperating with us,” claims Chazhikadan, as we speak to him in Pala where he has come to ask for votes, following a street play campaign. He echoes the concerns raised by LDF’s Vasavan when he says the fight is for democracy and secularism, because the present (NDA) government does not seem to believe in either.

NDA’s plea

The NDA, which has had very little voting percentage in Kottayam the previous years, is fielding PC Thomas, who belongs to yet another Kerala Congress faction – KC (Thomas), and had been an MP from the erstwhile Muvattupuzha constituency for six terms. He is confident, Thomas says, because he has beaten both the LDF and the UDF all those six times, and Muvattupuzha had comprised two of the seven assembly segments that Kottayam is made of. He doesn’t speak of secularism or democracy but slips in the very familiar term of development that the NDA has been using since the run-up to the 2014 polls.

“I would raise issues relating to the development of the constituency – a new policy has been declared to consider rubber an agricultural produce,” he says on Thursday, after filing his nomination.

The people of Kottayam, stepping out of their homes and shops to shake hands with the leaders asking for votes, seem clear about what they want, even as they don’t name names – peace and security. The peace of knowing their little girls are safe on the streets, and the security that a job brings.