Counting was nearly over in all constituencies in Kerala on Sunday, May 2, when one little box kept blinking on television channels. Votes in Thripunithura, a constituency of interest, were still being counted. M Swaraj, the sitting Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA), was a popular leader of the CPI(M), the party that was stealing the show on Sunday. In the end, the Left Democratic Front (LDF), which the CPI(M) leads, swept 99 of the 140 Assembly seats but Thripunithura was not one of them. Swaraj, the man hailed for his speeches on TV and in the Assembly, lost to Congressâs K Babu by 992 votes.
Even as LDF supporters rejoiced in the landslide victory in the state, they mourned the defeat of two strong leaders. Along with Swaraj, J Mercykutty, a minister in the last LDF government, lost to Congressâs PC Vishnunath by 4,523 votes.
âVishnunath is a good candidate, one of the best the Congress fielded. There is also hearsay that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) cross-voted for the Congress. In Swarajâs case, K Babu had earlier claimed that he would get the BJP votes, so that could have happened,â says Jacob George, political commentator and columnist.
The BJP sold votes to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in many constituencies, alleged Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, a day after the results were announced. He named both Swaraj and Mercykutty as victims of this âbargainâ.
Swaraj and Mercykutty
Swaraj is relatively a new member on the scene compared to Mercykutty, who has been contesting Assembly elections since 1987. She has won three times from Kundara, including the 2016 Assembly election when her victory margin was 30,460. Twice she has also lost to Congress candidates. In 2006 and 2011, she had stepped aside as MA Baby, now politbureau member of the CPI(M), contested and won from Kundara.
Swarajâs first Assembly election was in 2016, when he defeated the same rival, K Babu, by 4,467 votes. But he was very much a party worker since his college days, earning new labels as the years rolled by â state president of the Students Federation of India (SFI), the CPI(M)âs student wing, at age 26 and then state president of the partyâs youth organisation, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), at 32. Even now he is short of 42, and has a long way ahead in terms of political aging.
Swaraj has never shied away from making speeches against rival parties and is a favourite panellist in TV discussions. He is noted for his informative dialogue, punctuated with data and history, never relying on inappropriate language or behaviour. He addresses all rival panellists respectfully in Malayalam, bringing up only facts to criticise them.
On connecting with people
However, Swarajâs confident manner is sometimes perceived as arrogance, says Jacob George. âThe personal acceptability of a candidate is very important. Shafi Paramabil (the Congress candidate who won the Palakkad seat) and Veena Geroge (the CPI(M) candidate who won in Aranmula) are examples of candidates who communicate well with their voters, mingling with families, talking to youngsters and grandmothers with equal ease. CR Mahesh, the Congress candidate who won the Karunagappally seat this time, had lost the last time. But he remained there, he went to meet people over these five years, and listened to their problems. And now has won the seat. That is the art of politics.â
Both Mercykutty and Swaraj, in Jacob Georgeâs opinion, lack that ability to connect with people. âMercykutty is a good leader but sheâs seen as a little rough on the outside,â he says.
The deep-sea fishing deal that cropped up just months before the election had mired the otherwise quiet Fisheries Ministry, headed by Mercykutty, in a controversy. However, both Jacob George and Sajad Ibrahim, professor of political science at Kerala University, donât think it had had an effect on the election results.
âIf those ministers who were entrapped in controversies were to lose then KT Jaleel would have been a casualty too. But he won. In every election there will be a few such cases where strong leaders of the winning party do not make it,â says Sajad Ibrahim.
Vote trading allegations
Party cadres are however firm in their belief that both the seats were rigged by an understanding between the BJP and the Congress candidates. âIt is a planned operation by the BJP,â says P Vasudevan, Thripunithura area secretary of the CPI(M).
He explains. âIn Thripunithura town limit, there are 14 wards ruled by the LDF, 14 by the BJP and six by the UDF (United Democratic Front led by Congress). Seven of these 14 wards ruled by the BJP showed a major slide towards the Congress this time. If you study booth by booth, you will see that in the BJP wards, which mostly have dominant caste voters, the votes still went for the BJP. The BJP played it cleverly. They know they canât influence the dominant caste voters to cross-vote for the Congress. So they didnât try talking to them. Instead, they went to others.â
The local body election had taken place only four months before the Assembly polls, so it did not seem reasonable that the voters changed their mind so soon, he reckons.
KS Radhakrishnan, the BJP candidate in Thripunithura this time, got 23,756 votes, over 6,000 less than what the BJP got in 2016. âThis happens when Radhakrishnan is more popular than Thuravoor Viswambharan, the BJP candidate in 2021,â says Vasudevan.
Kerala Kaumudi reported that Radhakrishnan too alleged that he lost a significant number of BJP votes to Babu and the partyâs state leadership should look into this.
CPI(M) workers had tried to work against this âunderstandingâ after K Babuâs public announcement ahead of the election that he would get the BJP votes. âSwaraj actually increased his votes in 2021 compare to 2016. He got 2,000 more votes this time. This is because we tried to work against the possible cross-voting, our squads talking to people, the youth standing by Swaraj. Thatâs why the victory margin turned out to be so less,â Vasudevan says.
The CPI(M) is also reportedly approaching the High Court against K Babu for allegedly misusing the Sabarimala issue in the election.
In Swarajâs case, reports of cross-voting might be true, agrees Sajad Ibrahim. âMoreover, there were multiple corruption charges against Babu. And Swaraj has been very vocal in his criticism of the BJP.â
âMercykutty is not a controversial figureâ
But Mercykutty, he says, was not a controversial figure. The only bit of news that brought her to the headlines for the wrong reasons was the deep-sea fishing deal.
âThey could create a smokescreen about the government deal with the EMCC (the foreign company the Kerala government signed an MoU with for deep-sea fishing trawlers). Another reason is the reduced support of minorities. Last time, the Congress candidate, Rajmohan Unnithan, was seen as a pro-RSS politician. So voters from minority groups didnât want to vote for him. This time, it was not the case. Also it is believed that the Latin Catholic church put out a pastoral letter against Mercykutty,â says SL Saji Kumar, CPI(M) area secretary for Kundara.
He adds that cross-voting happened in Kundara too. It is true that the NDA, which got 20,257 votes in 2016, secured only 6,100 votes in 2021. âIn a ward where the BJP won 842 votes in the local body polls, it won only 40 votes in the Assembly election. In another ward, 530 votes of the BJP were reduced to a mere three,â Saji says.
Yet another factor was that the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) did not have a candidate this time, whereas they had secured more than 1,000 votes last time. âThe NSS and the BJP too had an understanding,â Saji claims.