At the time of writing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala has not released its candidate list officially.
However, informally, the names of candidates in many constituencies have been leaked. ‘Metro man’ E Sreedharan is expected to be the candidate from the Palakkad.
In fact, he is ‘unofficially’ starting his campaign from today (12 March) and Manorama News in Kerala even aired a brief interview of his.
Of all the things he said in the interview, the highlights included that:
-Though he has been living in Malappuram district for the last 10 years, he was born in Palakkad.
-He believes his vast experience will help in serving the district.
-Development is his key aim. He hopes to bring about industrial development to generate jobs for Kerala’s youth.
-He is confident that he will win, especially with the support of strong party volunteers in the constituency.
How Good Are His Chances Really?
In the last two assembly elections — that is 2011 and 2016 — the Palakkad constituency elected a Congress MLA.
Congress is part of the United Democratic Front (UDF) whose allies include the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML)
Perhaps, it is the near 30 per cent Muslim votes in the constituency that led Congress to field Shafi Parambil in 2011 and 2016, when he won with comfortable margins.
Though the Congress party has not yet released its candidate list, Shafi is expected to contest this time as well.
Communist Party of India (CPI-M) as part of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has fielded C P Pramod, a novice to assembly elections.
Below is a quick look at how the votes got split over the years:
From being a distant third in 2011, BJP has come a long way in being second in 2016.
However, its vote share has since stayed nearly the same and this has been a general trend across Kerala for the BJP as analysed in a previous article .
The big question will be, can E Sreedharan attract people beyond that core voter-base?
Is There A Challenge Of Muslim Vote Consolidation Towards UDF?
In 2016, the BJP candidate was a relatively 'strong' Sobha Surendran — this seems to have led to some vote transfer from LDF to UDF — presumably minority votes.
While Sreedharan has always emphasised that his focus for the election campaign will be on development, he has not shied away from saying that he takes inspiration from Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
His comments that ‘love jihad’ does exist in Kerala, where Hindu and Christian girls are 'love-trapped' by Muslims for conversions, is another factor to consider.
It can be assumed that the Muslim votes are likely to consolidate towards UDF this time as well and if the Hindu and Christian votes going to UDF remain same, it is likely to poll nearly 65,000 votes.
If we take the approximate sum of the December 2020 local body election votes as the base, it implies that Sreedharan needs to increase his votes by nearly 60 per cent to stand a chance.
It is unlikely that all of those 25,000 additional votes needed can come from the LDF's kitty, a big chunk of that will have to come from Hindu or perhaps even Christian UDF voters.
Though a Congress rebel, A V Gopinath, is likely to cause some damage to UDF votes this time — that will not be enough.
Clearly, BJP will have to go beyond its traditional vote base and think out of the box — and the candidature of someone like E Sreedharan is a golden chance.
A Closer Look At The Municipalities And Gram Panchayats
Here is a closer look at the areas that constitute the Palakkad assembly constituency and the approximate votes polled in each front in the 2020 local body elections.
While the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had the lead in Palakkad Municipality, it was a distant third in the three gram panchayats surrounding it, which are part of the Palakkad assembly constituency.
However, it may be some relief to it that the UDF does not lead all the four segments. LDF has the lead in Mathur and Kannadi.
The hitherto poor base in the gram panchayats can be taken as an opportunity.
Sreedharan and his campaign team should not focus just on the municipality-centric development. Developmental activities which are long pending in each of those gram panchayats should be included in the manifesto and campaign.
The aim should be to swing at least 5,000 votes in Pirayiri and 2,500 each in Kannadi and Mathur.
The rest 15,000 votes — assuming an overall target of additional 25,000 votes — will have to be from the municipality area. Indeed, every vote swung from UDF towards NDA, will be equivalent to closing the gap by two.
Role Of The ‘NRPs’ And The National Focus
This is perhaps the first time — across all parties — that a person of Sreedharan's stature is contesting in Kerala in its election history of more than six decades.
News of his joining BJP had already made it big in the national media. There is every reason to believe that the eventual Palakkad contest will be keenly watched at the national level.
In some sense, Kerala's reputation vis-a-vis development friendliness is also at stake.
If a man with so many successful projects, including two key recent ones in Kerala — the Kochi Metro and the before-schedule reconstruction of Palarivattom Bridge — and with absolutely no tint of corruption, cannot win an election in Kerala, that will only cement the belief that the claims of progressiveness in Kerala are hollow — and that many still vote along religious and party lines.
It is here that the role of the ‘non-resident Palakkadian’ (NRP) becomes key.
There are many families, especially in the municipality area of Palakkad where elderly parents live.
Their well-educated children work outside Kerala. Lack of industries and thereby lack of skilled jobs have been Kerala's bane and it is more than evident in places like Palakkad.
It is not just about engineering jobs — even super speciality medical facilities in Palakkad are minimal, with many critical patients having to be taken outside the area for speciality treatment.
If one travels the length and breadth of Palakkad district, you will not miss the many vacant cultivable land holdings — issues with labour cost and strikes discourage land owners from attempting agriculture and related efforts.
Many small scale industries in the district are struggling as well, either due to lack of skilled labour, or due to issues related to them.
For example, many of the equipment used in the metal industries are brought from outside Kerala, and if they run into maintenance issues, they end up waiting for skilled technicians from outside.
There is scope for starting companies that can make these equipment in Kerala or bring in more automation. However, the non-friendly attitude towards industries has made this difficult to achieve.
The NRPs should talk to their parents in Palakkad area on the need to support someone like Sreedharan, who at the age of 88, is trying to do his best to change the scenario.
Impact On Nearby Constituencies And Kerala Politics In General
If appropriately presented, Sreedharan's candidature can have a ripple effect in some nearby constituencies too where BJP already has a non-trivial base.
Some opinion poll results predict NDA vote share to be 28.5 per cent in Malampuzha, 25 per cent in Ottapalam and 24.5 per cent in Shoranur, and this was much before Sreedharan's candidature was announced.
Remember, in a three-cornered contest, something like 36 per cent vote share may get one close to victory depending on how votes of the other fronts are split.
These are constituencies which will be part of the greater plan of making Palakkad an industrialised district. If properly attended to, together they can form a “Gujarat like belt of Kerala".
However, the big challenge will be, who will take this message to the voter?
The ‘traditional’ BJP campaign is likely to focus only on the corruption, nepotism and minority appeasement charges against both the UDF and the LDF.
It is unfortunate that the focus on "development that we can deliver in five years" has taken a back seat.
In a previous article, it was argued that the BJP will need to field strong candidates, who have an appeal beyond their traditional vote base, in key constituencies. At least for Palakkad, they could field the best they have.
The onus is now on the Malayali, the Palakkadian, who has to rise beyond narrow political and religious considerations and give a chance to the metroman in his efforts to change the face of Kerala, with Palakkad as the likely starting point.
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