Ahead of the Malappuram bye-elections, both the BJP and the LDF had claimed that they could successfully dent the IUML’s hold in the region, following the death of party MP E Ahamed. However, any claims regarding the vulnerability of the party have proved false, as the election turned out to be a cakewalk for the IUML.
At the final count, the UDF candidate, IUML’s Kunhalikutty, had secured a massive 5,15,325 votes, while the LDF stood a distant second at 3,44,287 votes, giving Kunhalikutty a winning margin of 1,71,038 votes. The BJP trailed far behind with just 65,662 votes. From the very beginning of counting, the UDF maintained a clear majority. The majority didn’t fluctuate at any point of counting. After 45 minutes of counting, Kunhalikutty established a lead of 14,055 votes and, within an hour it rose to 25,274 votes. By 10am Kunhalikutty had a commanding lead of 98,909 votes.
Ahead of the election, LDF insiders had admitted their main focus was on bringing down the massive majority of the UDF in the 2014 general elections, when E Ahamed had won by 1,94,739 votes. However, even this goal has proved elusive. While the absolute numbers of the winning margin have fallen, in terms of vote share, Kunhalikutty’s victory has improved on the vote share from the previous election, according to reports.
Kunhalikutty received 55.04% of the vote share, while the LDF candidate received 36.77% and the NDA received 7.01%. In the 2014 elections, the IUML vote share was 51.29%, while the CPI (M) claimed 28.47% and the BJP 7.58%. For the 66-year-old Kunhalikutty, the commanding victory has come despite ups and downs in his personal political fortunes. Among the low points of his career, most importantly, he was one of the accused in the sensational Ice Cream Parlour case, the long-running sex scandal in Kerala.
With allegations first levelled in 1997, it took almost a decade for Kunhalikutty to emerge from the legal battle. In 2006, a court in Kozhikode acquitted all the 16 accused in the case. It took another ten years for Kunhalikutty to fully wash off the taint. In 2016, the Supreme Court dismissed a plea by Achuthanandan seeking a further probe against Kunhalikutty.
The period after the case saw a more restrained politician in him. He was keen to abstain from controversies and was guarded in his speech ever after the case was closed. Even during the campaign for the current bye-polls, Kunhalikutty stayed away from any personal attacks of his opponents, and remained soft-spoken, even refraining from intense campaign speeches. Despite repeated questions on the margin of victory, Kunhalikutty remained silent, even as opponents declared that they would significantly cut into the IUML’s share.
Foraying into politics in 1980, Kunhalikutty has been elected to the Kerala Assembly seven times, in 1982, 1987, 1991, 1996, 2001, 2011 and 2016. He was a minister in the UDF-led governments from 1991 to 1995 and from 2001 to 2005. In the 2006 Assembly elections, Kunhalikutty tasted his first ever electoral defeat, as K T Jaleel, once a fellow traveler of the IUML, defeated him in the erstwhile Kuttipuram constituency. He bounced back in the 2011 elections, to assume the ministerial portfolio of Industries and IT in the Oomen Chandy government.
In February, following the death of IUML chief E Ahamed, Kunhalikutty was elected as the National General Secretary of the party. As one of the tallest leaders of the party after Ahamed, having a following that few other senior leaders in the party could claim, Kunhalikutty was the obvious choice for the Malappuram polls.