In Thiruvananthapuram’s Kazhakuttam, voters need homes, help and development

Kazhakuttam, home to India’s first IT park, has received renewed attention with CPI(M) Minister Kadakampally Surendran facing BJP’s Sobha Surendran.
Kazhakuttam Assembly election candidates
Kazhakuttam Assembly election candidates
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In 1977, months after he got elected as the Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Kazhakuttam in Thiruvananthapuram, Congress leader Thalekunnil Basheer resigned from the post. He reportedly resigned to pave the way for AK Antony, who was hurriedly sworn in as Chief Minister of Kerala that April. Antony needed to win from an Assembly seat within six months since he was not an MLA then. Days before the deadline, in October 1977, Antony won the Kazhakuttam bye-election – facilitated by Basheer’s resignation. All the rush was forced by the sudden resignation of K Karunakaran as CM, within a month of taking office, following the furore over the Rajan case.

Watch: How Karunakaran govt fell within a month due to a missing student

Kazhakuttam was formed as a constituency 12 years before this political development, in the 1965 Assembly election, when Congress candidate N Lakshmanan got elected. It now includes Kazhakuttam and Sreekaryam panchayats, and wards 1 to 12, 14, 76, 79 and 81 of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. Voters would not loyally stick to one front or another the first many years. From Congress, it went to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), then to the Socialist Party and later the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the CPI(M). Independent candidates got supported by the Left or the Congress. In 1987, the first woman MLA of Kazhakuttam – Nabeesa Ummal – got elected.

For the 2021 election, the incumbent minister of Co-operation, Tourism and Devasom, Kadakampally Surendran, is the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front’s candidate for Kazhakuttam. He has been elected twice from the constituency – in 1996 and 2016. In the 15 years between his two tenures, Kazhakuttam was ruled by advocate MA Vaheed, a Congress leader.

But Vaheed went to third place in the 2016 election, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s V Muraleedharan placed ahead of him. Kadakampally won by a margin of less than 8,000 votes. Kazhakuttam, therefore, became a seat the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) pinned its hopes on. Sobha Surendran, a very vocal member of the party, declared that she’d contest the election only if she was fielded from Kazhakuttam. After some murmurs within the party, Sobha was finally given the seat. And Kazhakuttam suddenly got new attention.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is fielding Dr SS Lal, a medical doctor and state president of All India Professionals’ Congress.

Hoardings of Kadakampally Surendran, SS Lal and Sobha Surendran in the consituency

“We might want a change of leadership every five years but this time, there are no better options. The sitting MLA is someone we are all familiar with. But, not so with Dr SS Lal. So there is not a lot of confidence in voting for the Congress candidate. And the NDA is not talking about development, but only about Sabarimala. So, I can’t think of a better candidate this time,” says Prashanti, an employee at the Technopark in Kazhakuttam. Technopark, India’s first Information Technology (IT) park, was established in 1990, during the tenure of the EK Narayanar government of the LDF.

“The Technopark is what brought significance to Kazhakuttam after many years. Long before that, it was known to be the home of one of the eight Pillas of the Ettu Veetu Pillamar (eight lords of eight Nair houses famously associated with Padmanabha Swamy Temple, and later defeated by former Travancore king Marthanda Varma). It was home to Kazhakoottathu Pillai,” says TP Sankarankutty, historian.

But there’s not enough development happening in a place that hosts Technopark, says Biju, a voter in the constituency who is also in the campaign team of Sobha Surendran. Unlike his leaders, Biju, who runs a vegetable store, does not mention Sabarimala among his reasons for voting for the BJP. “It is an area where proper development should come. There is more to be done in the IT department. Bypasses should be made using the Union government funds,” says Biju.

Biju at his vegetable store with hoardings of Sobha Surendran

A few meters away, Balakrishnan, running a medical shop for 37 years, says he finds no issues with the current governance. “The vote should go to the best candidate,” he says vaguely, without mentioning who he considers the best.

At Kazhakuttam that evening, Dr SS Lal is having a convention with actor Jagadeesh expected to visit it. Jagadeesh, who has earlier contested the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket, has been campaigning for UDF candidates.   

Dr SS Lal's convention in Kazhakuttam

On the ground, however, Dr Lal’s name is seldom mentioned. A group of auto-rickshaw drivers, resting on a side path, comprises mostly LDF supporters, with the exception of one man. Sukumaran, who has been riding the rickshaw for many years, says it has been a good rule. “I am happy with all the help this government has been providing, during Nipah, floods and every other disaster. All the good initiatives they began should be completed,” he says.

Standing next to him, Naveen, a younger man, says he is not happy with the state government. “The state government should provide auto kshema nidhi (welfare funds),” he says. 

The Kerala Autorickshaw Workers' Welfare Fund Board falls under the Welfare Fund Boards, as classified by the government of Kerala. Auto rickshaws that are not covered under the scheme fall under the Kerala Motor Transport Workers Welfare Fund Board. However, Naveen says he does not get his welfare fund or even the free ration food kits, since he has a white ration card (above poverty line).

Autorickshaw drivers near Kazhakuttam - Sukumaran is leftmost, Naveen is rightmost

However, the ration kits have been distributed to ration cardholders, regardless of category, for the past many months, due to the difficulties posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While many are happy with the kits, others mention reasons for their discontent with the LDF rule.

Kavitha, who works in a grocery shop, complains that she has been living in a rented place for 20 years and the countless number of applications to different governments for a house, has not yielded results. “It will be better if no one rules the place. There are all sorts of difficulties. Look at this road (crowded in front of the shop), the fuel price (‘that is the Union government’s doing’), and then there is the home I have been promised but never got. No vote has brought me five cents of land to live in. There are so many people like me. Applying to the LIFE mission (the LDF government’s flagship project to build homes for the poor) has not helped. Yes, we got free ration kits, but a home is a basic need,” she says.

A few kilometres away in Chenkottukonam, Kadakampally Surendran’s campaign rally has just passed. Red flags are on the roadside.

Watch: A campaign rally of Kadakampally

Kiran, an IT professional who lives in the area, says the only problem he has seen is the difficulty in travelling along the service roads, as part of the flyover work in Kazhakuttam which has been under construction since 2019. “Some years ago, there were some issues along the path outside the back gate of Technopark. There were hardly any streetlights and women employees who left through the gate faced many difficulties. Once we approached Thiruvananthapuram city mayor VK Prasanth (who later got elected as MLA of Vattiyoorkavu) and he got street lights put up immediately. The Chenkottukonam school was also developed in these years. I heard that the Corporation has also arranged a park for the disposal of plastic waste, though I have not used it yet. These are the real issues and I don’t think raising issues of temples would have an effect on voters from Technopark,” Kiran says. “Other than that, I have been a happy dweller of Chenkottukonam,” he adds. 

Sobha Surendran has been most vocal about the Sabarimala women’s entry at the time of the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages into the Lord Ayyappa temple. She took part in protests against the state government’s decision to allow women into the temple. She also raised it as a campaign issue during the Lok Sabha elections when she contested from Attingal. This time too, she has mostly banked on the Sabarimala question.

Watch: Sobha Surendran's campaign

Perhaps sensing this, Kadakampally, too, had recently made a vague comment on Sabarimala, saying, “it should never have happened.” He did not make it clear what should never have happened – the stand taken by the Left government or the attacks on many during the protests. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and LDF members have, however, been answering the Sabarimala question with the standard reply – the matter is with the Supreme Court and once the verdict comes, it will be discussed with all parties concerned.  

Voters of the constituency, however, do not mention Sabarimala. Omana Rajan, who runs a sports store in Pongumoodu, says her problem is the loss she suffered during COVID-19. “The shop had to be closed down for months. There was a big loss. It would be good if some compensation could be given for small businesses that suffered during the pandemic. I am happy otherwise. I would vote for a party that would help in all ways to make Kerala better,” she says, echoing the UDF’s slogan (Naadu Nannakan UDF).

Omana Rajan, a voter, in front of her sports store

Daily-wage labourers, having their evening tea outside a street-side stall nearby, say the rule is good now. Vijayan and Manoharan, two labourers, are sure “the Left will come back to power.” 

Manoharan, Vijayan and Babu

Babu, who is a pensioner, says, “They are helping everyone without discriminating on the basis of religion, caste or politics. This is how a place should be ruled. It will be good if the next government – whoever it is – also follows this principle.”

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