On June 03, 2022 results were announced to the byelection held a couple of days earlier to the Thrikkakara assembly constituency of Kerala assembly. The byelection happened because of the death of sitting Congress party MLA, PT Thomas, passed away in December 2021. The byelection was won by Congress party candidate Ms. Uma Thomas, who is the widow of Mr. Thomas, by a margin of over 25,000 votes over the CPIM candidate Dr Jo Joseph.
If you have not followed Kerala politics lately, particularly in the run up to this byelection, you might wonder what’s so special about this election that I have come out of my blogging hibernation to write a post about it. After all, it is very common in our country that if a sitting MLA or MP or even a ward councilor dies, one of their closest kin (wife, son, daughter, etc.) is given the ticket to fight the byelection and almost always such candidate, benefitting from the sympathy wave, wins easily. You would be right in this line of thinking. This byelection is significant not because of the result, not because of which party or candidate won. It is because of what happened during the campaigning and to some extent what has been happening in Kerala since Pinarayi Vijayan was reelected as Chief Minister of the state in May 2021.
By all accounts, PT Thomas, whose death necessitated the byelection, was a much loved public representative and was generally considered an upright politician. He had won the Thrikkakara seat in 2021 for a 2nd time and that despite being opposed by Church factions in a constituency with a substantial Christian population. He had invited the wrath of the Idukki Bishop of Syro-Malabar Catholic Church because of this stand supporting the implementation of Gadgil Committee report for preservation of ecologically sensitive regions of Western Ghats. He was also a staunch liberal in both public and personal affairs, a real one and not a pretend the way Congress politicians usually are. So, you can see why he was quite popular among his voters and normally, the byelection where the widow of such a popular leader is the candidate, should have really been an unremarkable event, like many other byelections that happen in our country regularly, something that most people wouldn’t even remember about. This election, however, was made anything but unremarkable due to the political arrogance of Pinarayi and his CPIM henchmen who employed every dirty trick in the book (and invented some) to secure victory.
If you look at the current composition of the Kerala assembly, CPIM with its allies (LDF) has an unassailable majority and it would not change even after 10 byelection defeats. So, it was not as if the result of this election was going to decide the fate of Pinarayi government. But Mr. Vijayan’s arrogance is currently so high, especially since the 2021 victory, that he made winning this election and securing a “century of assembly seats” a prestige issue for the ruling dispensation. He haughtily declared that this election was a golden opportunity for the voters to correct the mistake they made in 2021, as if not voting for him and his party of thugs is something people should regret, if anything it is the opposite and people of Kerala have started realizing that ever since yellow survey stones started appearing in their kitchens and bedrooms. CPIM’s campaigning was so over-the-top that the entire political administration in the state came to a standstill for almost a month. The Chief Minister himself camped in the constituency for most of a fortnight immediately after he was out of the country for an extended duration to get medical attention in USA (an addendum here is, aren’t constantly reminded that Kerala model of governance has produced European level of HDI the state? Yet the CM can’t, or won’t, get treated in the state). In addition, the entire state cabinet, almost all the 60-odd ruling party MLA and hordes of party leaders and cadres flooded Thrikkakara, ensuring a spectacle of a campaign, the kind of which was never seen before in the state. The amount of money, alcohol and other incitements that would have been infused can only be imagined. None of this could, however, sway the insightful voters of Thrikkakara, something that would be heartening for everyone who appreciates the value of a robust democratic process in ensuring good governance outcome. In fact, it would be safe to say that such shameless display of power, money and muscle actively repelled them. This can be concluded from the fact that Ms. Thomas won with a record margin, despite a historically low voter turn-out, almost doubling what her late husband had secured only about a year ago.
Another aspect that could have contributed to the magnitude of Ms. Thomas’ victory margin, is the blatant communal politics employed by CPIM and LDF. There were widespread rumors in Malayalam media that a young comrade named Arunkumar might be nominated by the CPIM. He is an active party worker who is often seen defending the party, Pinarayi and state government on TV channels. However, he was eventually not nominated, if media reports are to be believed, because he was a Hindu. The supposed to be secular Communist party decided to nominate a Christian instead because, like most other political parties in India, they took the Hindu votes for granted and calculated that they could win over Christian votes by nominating someone from that community. They were so desperate to find a Christian candidate that they ended up having a candidate who was not an active CPIM worker but was very close, both politically and from family side, to PC George who is an active detractor of CPIM and Pinarayi. This resulted in a spectacle during the campaign period where the CPIM was trying to jail George for making “hate speech” while at the same time there were photos circulating of the party candidate posing with him. The CPIM was so desperate to project their candidate’s religious affiliation prominently that the announcement of his nomination happened not at the party office as is the custom but at a Church-run hospital where Jo Joseph was employed.
Every voter in the constituency was deconstructed to their bare communal identity and accordingly targeted for canvassing of votes. Like I have already mentioned, all the 20 cabinet ministers and tens of ruling party MLAs had flooded the constituency. And each one of them was mapped to visit the homes of the voters based on their religion and caste identities. So a Christian minister would go to the home of a Christian to canvass, a Muslim minister or MLA would go to a Muslim’s home, a Nair MLA would go to a Nair home, an Ezhava would go to a Ezhava home and so on. This is certainly not a new strategy in electioneering in India, but this open and blatant communal targeting of votes has perhaps never happened in Kerala.
Another aspect of CPIM’s communal electioneering was their bending over backwards to appease radical Islamist organizations like PFI/SDPI with an eye on the Muslim vote bank. If media reports are to be believed, it is with this intention that the state government gave permission for organization of the controversial rally in Alappuzha by PFI where a juvenile had raised slogans threatening Hindus and Christians with death, not something CPIM wanted in the middle of an election for a constituency where Hindus and Christians formed the majority. Even after the despicable event, the state police stayed quiet for a couple of days and acted only after the videos of the rally became controversial on social media and national mainstream media. According to media in Kerala, the entire drama around the arrest of PC George too was to appease the PFI extremists. For context, during the last assembly election, George had openly condemned Islamic extremisms during his canvassing in a Muslim-dominated area in his Poonjar constituency called Erattupetta. This resulted in him becoming a primary hate figure for the PFI type Islamists and even caused him to lose the election.
In the end, more than the person or the party that won in Thrikkakara, what this election result represents is a hope that there is still place in Indian politics for a clean, positive message. By rejecting opportunistic social engineering and politics of arrogance, voters have delivered a victory for democracy and defeated communal politics.