Congress played smart in shifting Muraleedharan to Thrissur but will it pay off?

A day after his sister Padmaja defected to BJP, the Congress in Kerala strategically fielded K Muraleedharan, sitting MP of Vadakara, in the Thrissur constituency against Suresh Gopi.
K Muraleedhran during his election capaign
K Muraleedhran during his election capaignFacebook page /K Muraleedharan
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Padmaja Venugopal, the former Congress leader and daughter of the late former Kerala Chief Minister K Karunakaran, made headlines by joining the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on March 7. The next day, the Congress in Kerala strategically fielded K Muraleedharan, sitting MP of Vadakara and Padmaja's elder brother in the Thrissur constituency against Suresh Gopi of the BJP and VS Sunil Kumar of the Communist Party of India (CPI).

It came as a surprise since they had already fixed sitting MP TN Prathapan as their candidate. Vadakara was then given to Palakkad MLA Shafi Parambil to contest.  In 2019, Muraleedharan trounced CPI(M)s EP Jayarajan in Vadakara and was considered a strong candidate against  KK Shailaja.

Political analysts viewed Muraleedharan's candidacy in Thrissur as a strategic move by the Congress. Suresh Gopi, an actor-turned-politician, has been actively grooming the Thrissur constituency for the past five years, and has turned it a crucial battleground for the BJP. However, Muraleedharan's entry into the fray may alter the political dynamics.

In the 2019 elections, TN Prathapan, the sitting MP of Congress, secured a resounding victory over Suresh Gopi by a margin of more than 1.2 lakh votes, with Suresh Gopi finishing third. Political analyst and former Kerala University Pro Vice Chancellor J Prabhash feels Gopi's fame as an actor largely contributed to his votes in 2019, ¨Any gains he makes this time would be attributed to his efforts over the past five years,¨ he said. 

There's been a setback for the BJP in the form of dissent from the Thrissur diocese, particularly due to concerns over violence in Manipur. This could impact the party's prospects in the constituency,¨ he added.

According to him, Congress has strategically placed a Nair candidate to counter BJP´s Suresh Gopi, who is also Nair.

Moreover, Muraleedharan's roots in Thrissur, a stronghold of his father K Karunakaran, coupled with his proximity to the Christian communities in the region, might pose a challenge for BJP's attempts to secure Christian votes. Observers also note that Muraleedharan's image as a more relatable candidate, particularly among voters with strong religious affiliations, could work in his favor. Late K Karunakaran, one of the tallest leaders of the Congress had won Assembly elections seven times from Mala constituency of Thrissur. Critics have however used the defection of Padmaja to cast a shadow on Muraleedharan, who has a history of having left Congress before to be part of Democratic Indira Congress.

On the other hand, TN Prathapan is recognized as a secular figure. He had been observing Ramzan fasting regularly for over 25 years and had portrayed himself as a devotee of both Sree Krishna of Guruvayur and Mother Mary of Velankanni.

A Congress leader seeking anonymity told TNM, "Initially TN Prathapan was decided in Thrissur. When suddenly this decision was taken, both Prathapan and Muraleedharan were not happy. But later they understood the necessity of this strategic move. Also it also hit at the right spot with BJP losing its hope in Thrissur,” he said.

Thrissur however had not been kind to Muraleedharan in the past. In 1998, he suffered a defeat in the Lok Sabha elections to CPI's VV Raghavan. Additionally, he faced another setback in the 2004 bypoll assembly election in the Wadakkanchery assembly constituency.

Congress also wanted a more powerful candidate who is close to Hindu and Christian voters. ¨K Karunakaran, an intensely religious leader and a devotee of Guruvayoorappan, the presiding deity of Guruvayoor temple, has a stable voter base here. Also he is popular among Christian voters too, all these will benefit Muraleedharan,” said the Congress leader.

Thrissur remains a stronghold of the CPI though the Left ally along with the CPI(M) recently suffered loss of face over the multi-crore Karuvannur cooperative bank scam. The Left has the upper hand in all the Assembly constituencies which are part of Thrissur. Some analysts think K Muraleedharan's candidacy could potentially split the votes, increasing the likelihood of victory for the CPI candidate, VS Sunil Kumar.

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