In Vadakara, KK Shailaja is the CPI(M)’s single stone for two birds

Many in Vadakara believe KK Shailaja’s popularity can overcome allegations of violence and corruption against the Pinarayi government. But it is also speculated that the CPI(M)’s move to front Shailaja is not without ulterior motives.
KK Shailaja, Shafi Parambil
KK Shailaja, Shafi ParambilDharini Praba
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If one were to pick a star Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala for the 2024 elections, it has to be Vadakara. “The competition here is definitely between the Left Democratic Front (LDF)’s KK Shailaja and the United Democratic Front (UDF)’s Shafi Parambil. Both are star candidates and this is a neck-to-neck battle,” Sajina, a medical store employee in the Vadakara bus stand, told TNM. Praful Krishna, youth leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seems to hardly be an intervening factor.

Sajina’s observations are thoroughly reflected in the landscape of Vadakara, where massive hoardings and cinematic cut-outs of Shailaja and Shafi stand tall against the sweltering heat, reminding every passerby that there is no ignoring the political battle unfolding in the constituency. For Praful, even campaign posters are scanty.

The Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency consists of assembly segments spanning the northern districts of Kannur (Thalassery, Kuthuparamba) and Kozhikode (Vadakara, Kuttiyadi, Nadapuram, Perambra, Koyilandy). A victory in Vadakara is crucial for both the Congress and the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India - Marxist), and they have both fielded their most established faces this time. 

The CPI(M)’s KK Shailaja, lovingly referred to as “Shailaja teacher”, is a sitting MLA from Mattanur and the party Chief Whip in the Assembly. During her tenure as Kerala’s Health Minister in the first Pinarayi Vijayan government, she earned public appeal and international recognition for leading the state through the Nipah outbreak and the coronavirus pandemic. In the subsequent 2021 Assembly elections, Shailaja emerged as the CPI(M) candidate with the largest margin of over 60,000 votes (a whopping 10,000 more than Pinarayi Vijayan), underlining her popularity among the people of Kerala. 

To tackle Shailaja, the Congress let go of its Vadakara sitting MP K Muraleedharan and brought in Shafi Parambil, incumbent MLA from Palakkad. In the 2021 Kerala Assembly polls, Shafi had famously led the party to a landslide victory against BJP’s “metro man” E Sreedharan.

A Communist bastion for several years, Vadakara shifted allegiance to the Congress in 2009, a year after the formation of the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), a rebel breakaway group of the CPI(M). The ex-CPI(M) leader who founded the RMP, TP Chandrasekharan, was murdered in 2012 with many of his killers found to be linked to the CPI(M) — an incident that triggered unprecedented rage against the Left party in Kerala. The CPI(M) has since been unable to reclaim Vadakara, its ideological battle with the RMP thus becoming a matter of prestige.

Political observers say that though the publicised goal in the CPI(M)’s election manifesto is ousting the BJP from the Union government, the party is bent on reclaiming Vadakara at any cost to nullify the Chandrasekharan factor and save its face. This, they say, explains why the party has fielded Shailaja – its supposed goodwill trump card.

Congress’ Shafi Parambil has caught on to this and anchored his election campaign on the CPI(M)’s intolerance and violence in the constituency, of which TP Chandrasekharan is a victim. Even recently, the police apprehended the Koothuparamba secretary of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and his aide after a country bomb exploded in Kannur’s Panoor. Though the party denied any connection with the blast, Shafi held a rally against the CPI(M)’s “bomb politics”, alleging that the party is in silent approval of it.

For Shailaja and the CPI(M), Chandrasekharan’s wife and RMP leader KK Rema's support to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) complicates things further. Rema is also the sitting MLA in Vadakara.

To further contextualise the Shailaja-Shafi face-off, it is important to look at the political history of Vadakara, which many in the state believe speaks volumes about the CPI(M)’s structural patriarchy and ideological fascism.

KK Shailaja's campaign hoarding in Vadakara
KK Shailaja's campaign hoarding in Vadakara

A history of violent political differences

It was in 1957 that the first general election took place in Vadakara, and since 1980, the constituency has seen the CPI(M) or its allies winning 11 out of all the 16 elections that followed.

The CPI(M) saw its last victory in Vadakara in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls when communist leader P Satheedevi rose to victory, propelled by the general left wave in the state. She was preceded by CPI(M)’s AK Premajam in 1999 and 1998, and O Bharathan in 1996. It was in 2009 that the party saw cracks in its walls in Vadakara when Congress’s Mullapally Ramachandran won the constituency.

One of the factors that altered the CPI(M)’s fate in Vadakara was the formation of the RMP in 2008. TP Chandrasekharan, an ex-CPI(M) leader who was formerly a central committee member of the Students Federation of India (SFI) and the Kozhikode District Secretary of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), openly criticised the CPI(M) and mobilised the RMP to victory in the local body elections in his hometown of Onchiyam, a party village, and other neighbouring villages. The presence of the RMP has since been a major impediment to the CPI(M) in Vadakara, as was evident from the 2009 general election result when the party’s vote share dropped to 42.31% from 51.81% in 2004. The constituency shifted allegiance to the Congress with the victory of Mullapally Ramachandran, and the RMP was a major vote-splitting factor for the CPI(M). Chandrasekharan, who contested as an independent candidate, gained a vote share of 2.53%. 

The scenario changed drastically in the constituency in 2012, when Chandrasekharan was murdered by assassins who hurled crude bombs at him and hacked him as many as 51 brutal times. The CPI(M) is said to have grown intolerant of its rogue ex-member and orchestrated his murder to do away with the electoral roadblocks Chandrasekharan posed. Though an ex-CPI(M) worker with notable people’s support, the party denied Chandrasekharan any acceptance even as a martyr of revolutionary politics. The then state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan called Chandrasekharan a “political renegade”, dismissing any links between the murder and the CPI(M).

In 2014, a Kerala court convicted 12 men for the murder, including three local CPI(M) leaders. Though the party has consistently denied any connection with this, Chandrasekharan's death and the presence of the RMP seminally affected the CPI(M) in Vadakara, and Mullapally Ramachandran rose to victory again in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, succeeded by INC’s K Muraleedharan in 2019. 

When asked whether the RMP is a crucial debilitating factor for the LDF, KK Shailaja told TNM that this is a local issue that has no significance in a Parliamentary election.

But KK Rema believes that the CPI(M) has always tried hard to write Chandrasekharan’s murder off as a regional issue by branding him as a political traitor. “Ever since the RMP was formed, the CPI(M) has lost in local body elections and Lok Sabha elections. Now, they don’t care if they lose all the other Lok Sabha constituencies in return for winning Vadakara,” KK Rema told TNM.

KK Rema
KK Rema

Santhosh Kumar, who works in a cooperative bank in Vadakara, questioned the ideological locus standi of the RMP by pointing out that the party – which broke away from the CPI(M) to upload real communist ideologies and maintain the internal democracy which it alleged the CPI(M) lacked – eventually ended up in the UDF’s fold. “What is the point of the RMP then? And now, the UDF is playing the faith card by fielding Shafi to capitalise on the Muslim votes in Vadakara. How does the RMP justify this?” he asked.

To this, KK Rema responded that it is the CPI(M) that has pushed the RMP to join the UDF’s fold. “The party’s tendency to paint Shafi as a Muslim man seeking Muslim votes is dangerous. The larger enemy here is the BJP, but Pinarayi Vijayan has constantly attacked Rahul Gandhi instead of seeing the bigger picture. The CPI(M)’s shallow politics only allows it to think of winning Vadakara to pull down the RMP. They have become extremely bourgeois, and I think that at this point, Rahul Gandhi appears more left than the CPI(M),” Rema said.

Nonetheless, many in Vadakara believe that KK Shailaja, owing to her professional track record and empathetic image, is capable of overcoming the allegations of violence and corruption against Pinarayi Vijayan’s incumbent government. 

Binila, a young woman from Vadakara, told TNM that even those with Congress leanings approve of Shailaja because of her capability. “Teacher’s approach towards the people and the way she brings everyone together with a sense of oneness is why we love her. The allegations against her party are separate from her in our minds. We don’t see her as a lobbying, corrupt politician. She is a people’s person and she should win,” she said.

However, it is also believed that the CPI(M)’s move to front Shailaja in Vadakara is not without ulterior motives.

KK Shailaja – two birds in one shot for the CPI(M)?

Academician, author, and former professor of political science Dr J Prabhash observed that Shailaja is the party’s single bullet for two birds. “If she wins, the party can easily negate the RMP and the Chandrasekharan factor, as well as dismiss the growing anti-incumbency vibe against the Pinarayi government as conjecture. They also get to pack her off to the Parliament, eliminating her from the run for chief ministership in the next Assembly polls or any kind of party leadership position. If she loses, the patriarchs of the CPI(M) get a solid reason to downwrite her popularity as a hoax,” he explained.

Pinarayi Vijayan and the CPI(M) had faced criticism after Shailaja was not given the health portfolio in the government’s second term in Kerala, despite all the appreciation she garnered for leading the state through the pandemic. There were allegations that the CM was irked by her popularity, leading to attempts from within the party to sideline her. Shailaja’s relegation to the position of the party Chief Whip gave way to controversies about the in-party chauvinism of the CPI(M). Parallels were drawn between Shailaja and the late communist leader KR Gouri, who was ousted from the party.

When asked if she sees her debut Lok Sabha candidature in the 2024 polls as a move to pack her off from Kerala, Shailaja said this was what her party has decided and that she was happy with the decision. “I see this as an opportunity to raise the people’s problems in our supreme legislature, as well as to raise my voice against the BJP’s divisive rule and protect secularism,” she said.

But Shailaja cannot say otherwise, Prabhash observed. “Pinarayi Vijayan may not be contesting the election next time, but the party may have other senior male leaders it wants to front. Shailaja is the only woman leader in Kerala who has in recent times come close to being called a potential CM candidate. So by all means, it suits the CPI(M) to have Shailaja contest in Vadakara,” he said.

Senior journalist Leena Reghunath told TNM that this tendency is not specific to the CPI(M). “Across parties, there is a lot of resistance to giving women their due. I was once covering a CPI(M) human chain in Thalassery, and there was not one woman among the 30-odd people on stage. I, in fact, asked the party MLA AN Shamseer if they were unable to find a single deserving woman among their cadres,” she recalled.

Leena also explained that most women leaders who have emerged successful, like Mayawati, Mamta Banerjee, or even Indira Gandhi, have all had to perform masculinity, negate their soft skills, and lobby their way in just like men to be taken seriously. 

“Party insiders say that KR Gouri was ousted from the CPI(M) because she lacked party discipline. KK Shailaja, on the other hand, always protects the party, holding it in high regard. Yet, after her immense success as a health minister, she was not even given a meaty portfolio in the second Pinarayi government. We should also understand here that power is often conceptualised in masculine terms, and when everything comes together, even capable women like Shailaja don’t get their due. Most women cannot even express their discontent without facing severe consequences,” Leena said.

KK Shailaja during campaign at a hospital in Vadakara constituency
KK Shailaja during campaign at a hospital in Vadakara constituency

Supporters of Shafi Parambil in Vadakara, however, feel that Shailaja only did what any health minister would do if they were faced with a crisis like the coronavirus pandemic. “Shailaja teacher has a very admirable personality, but Shafi’s track record is great and we cannot negate his chances just because Shailaja has a more towering image,” said Jayashree, who runs a provision store in Vadakara.

Prabhash is of the opinion that this election is Shailaja’s chance to prove whether or not she really is the CPI(M)’s trump card in Kerala. On the other hand, KK Rema said that if a party or an alliance hopes to overcome allegations against it by capitalising on the personality of one candidate, that indicates how fed up people are of the party. 

“Shailaja is a representative of the CPI(M) and the LDF. If people see her as separate from the front she represents, that's a clear indicator that people have lost faith in the party she comes from. There is a general disinterest among people because even parties like the CPI(M) which should stand with the marginalised have become autocratic and corporatised,” said Rema.

Shafi Parambil in Vadakara
Shafi Parambil in Vadakara

Voters disappointed by incumbent MPs

While both Shailaja and Shafi promise in their respective election manifestos to be the people’s voice in the Parliament, they also say that the main aim of this election is to be the voice of secularism, federalism, and inclusivity against the BJP. This, they say, is also why the Congress and the CPI(M), both allies of the INDIA bloc, are fighting each other in Kerala. “The BJP has no electoral presence in Kerala, so the Congress is fighting the left because ideologically we are, of course, different. But nationally, our goal is to oust the BJP,” Shafi told TNM.

But Khadeeja, an older woman with a disability who runs a pan shop in Vadakara, said she has no hope of her life changing no matter who wins. Sajeevan, who runs a vegetable store adjacent to Khadeeja, also said that as voters, they are more invested in the state Assembly elections, and that it is slightly jarring for him that national allies are contesting with each other in the state.

“This might be their politics or ideology or whatever. But for a common man, sustenance comes first. The incumbent MPs from Kerala have done nothing for us, and whichever party rules, nothing changes in the lives of common people. This time as well, both parties have promised to raise their concerns in Parliament, but the CPI(M) has no bargaining power in the Union, and the Congress MPs who were previously elected did not do anything significant. Then what change are they claiming to bring?” Sajeevan asked.

Vadakara, as mentioned earlier, is a politically alert constituency that has tended to lean towards the Left. But for the past few years, the situation has changed, and now, from what we gather, it is going to be a tough battle for Shafi and Shailaja. Shailaja may also have to bear the additional burden of the anti-incumbency sentiment in Kerala against the Pinarayi government, following the failure to disburse social welfare pensions and the CM’s rude responses in public functions. The BJP also claims to increase its vote share, and if true, it remains to be seen whether it is the Congress or the CPI(M) votes they will gain. 

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