While the bye-poll is hardly a do-or-die battle for the LDF, the stakes remain high, as the result could be interpreted as an appraisal of the one-year-old second Pinarayi government and its ambitious SilverLine project.

Kerala Thrikkakara bye-poll candidates Jo Joseph and Uma Thomas
news Thrikkakara bye-poll Thursday, May 12, 2022 - 17:21

It is rare to see Kerala’s Opposition United Democratic Front alliance, with the Congress party at its helm, announce its candidate before that of the rival front for any election. For the Thrikkakara bye-election, however, the Congress had dropped the usual practice of long deliberations spanning days to decide on the candidate, instead almost unanimously picking Uma Thomas just a day after the notification was released on May 2. Uma is the wife of the late Congress leader PT Thomas, the Thrikkakara MLA whose death in December last year paved the way for the bye-election. She is taking on CPI(M)’s surprise candidate Dr Jo Joseph, a cardiologist who has been famously part of several successful heart transplant surgeries in the state.

The ruling Left Democratic Front enjoys a commendable majority of 99 seats in the 140-member Legislative Assembly, which means the Thrikkakara fight is hardly a do-or-die affair for the ruling front. The bye-poll, scheduled to be held on May 31, is unlikely to have any tangible impact on the state’s current political scenario. Wresting the seat from the Congress, however, is a matter of prestige for the Left government mainly for three reasons. One, the Thrikkakara bye-election result can be read as a yardstick to measure the acceptability of the one-year-old second Pinarayi Vijayan government. Two, it can act as a litmus test to assess the success of a huge tactical move made by the CPI(M) with its surprise candidate. Three, perhaps the most important one, the bye-poll result could be a voters’ testimony of the state government’s ambitious, yet controversial, SilverLine semi high-speed rail project.

A Congress bastion

A relatively young constituency, Thrikkakara came into existence in 2011 post a delimitation exercise in Kerala. Situated in the Ernakulam district, Thrikkakara is often referred to as an ‘urban’ constituency due to its floating population and housing of IT hub Infopark among other factors. This urban nature of the Assembly constituency, which falls under the Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency, has seen a consistent growth over the past years, even as it steadfastly stood by the Congress.

Benny Behanan, prominent Congress leader and once a close confidant of former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, had won the Thrikkakara seat during the 2011 elections with a margin of 22,406 votes. He was followed by PT Thomas, who won by a margin of 11,996 votes during the 2016 Assembly elections. PT, as Thomas was popularly known, was a tall leader of the Congress hailing from the high range district of Idukki. He won the Thodupuzha Assembly seat in Idukki in the 1991 and 2001 elections, and later went on to represent the Idukki Lok Sabha seat from 2009 to 2014. In fact, he had won the Idukki seat in 2009 with a commendable margin of 74,796 votes against Francis George, who was the sitting MP at the time.

Despite his popularity, however, the Congress did not issue a ticket to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to PT – a decision that is said to have upset him. The senior leader later stated in interviews that he was likely dropped because of his stand on the conservation of the Western Ghats, which did not sit well with many including the Idukki dioceses of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church. But two years later, in a surprise move possibly made as a reconciliation effort by the Congress, PT was fielded from Thrikkakara in the 2016 Assembly elections. In the subsequent 2021 elections as well, PT won the Thrikkakara seat with a margin of 14,329 votes.

The popular Congress leader, however, was not a favourite of the Church, for he mostly renounced religious beliefs and had an interfaith marriage. Even in his death, he had preferred to be cremated at a crematorium in Ernakulam, going against the Church’s beliefs. Half of his ashes were later buried in a church cemetery. Even during his final journey to the crematorium, he had wished for the evergreen Malayalam film song Chandrakalabham chaarthi urangum theeram to be played, instead of the traditional Christian farewell song. Hence, the Congress decision to opt Uma as the next Thrikkakara candidate is unlikely to go down well with the Church. 

The CPI(M) has cashed in on this opportunity, fielding the Catholic Dr Jo Joseph in a tactical move to win over the Church’s support. The cardiologist works at the Ernakulam Lisie Hospital, run by the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church. In 2011, Jo had campaigned in Thrikkakara for the then LDF candidate J Jacob. He also fervently denied the charge that he is a nominee of the Church during a press meet at the Lisie Hospital, where he sat flanked by CPI(M) leaders and Catholic priests. 

While the CPI(M) has presented Jo as a 'fellow traveller’ of the party to counter the allegations that he is a ‘Church nominee’, the Congress – accused of attempting to garner sympathy votes by pitting the late MLA’s wife in the fray – has been defending Uma’s candidature citing her student politics days as a Kerala Students Union (KSU) leader at the Maharajas College in Ernakulam.

The core poll issue

A major development that Kerala has witnessed post the 2021 Assembly elections is the stiff resistance against the SilverLine project spearheaded by the K-Rail, and the state government’s unrelenting stand on the same. The opposers of the mega infrastructure project, which seeks to cover the 530-km distance from Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram to its northernmost district Kasaragod in less than four hours, primarily cites its whopping cost (estimated to come up to Rs 1.60 lakh crore) and its potential adverse effects on the state’s fragile ecosystem. 

The Congress, which has taken a firm stand against the implementation of the rail corridor, has highlighted the matter and criticised the project time and again during its campaign in Thrikkakara, using it as a core poll issue to sway votes. Several environmentalists who oppose the K-Rail have also been projecting the Thrikkakara election as a yardstick to measure the acceptance of the project among voters. “It will be the K-Rail that will be defeated in Thrikkakara,” Sridhar Radhakrishnan, an engineer turned environmentalist, recently wrote in a Facebook post.

AAP, Twenty20 not in the fray 

The Aam Aadmi Party as well as the Twenty 20, a corporate group led by Kitex CMD Sabu Jacob that forayed into electoral politics in the recent years, have decided to stay away from the bye-election. The Twenty 20 is in power in the neighbourhood Kizhakkambalam panchayat, where it secured 13,897 votes – 10.81% of the total vote share – in 2021. The group’s decision to stay away from the fray is a favourable factor for both the Left and the UDF, as its voter base can be crucial in deciding the outcome of the bye-election. The CPI(M) seems to have pinned its hopes on this development, along with the Church’s support, to overcome the 14,329 margin set by the UDF in the 2021 elections. The UDF, on its part, is optimistic about increasing the margin. Meanwhile the BJP, which secured 11.34% of votes in the constituency in 2021, has fielded senior leader AN Radhakrishnan for the bye-election.The votes will be counted on June 3. 

Read: Congress leader KV Thomas backs LDF candidate for Thrikkakara bye-poll

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