Mudslinging, false propaganda, hyperfocus on development mark Puthuppally bypoll campaign in Kerala

The public canvassing for the 5 September by-election ended on Sunday, while the candidates continued silent campaigns.

ByK A Shaji

Published Sep 04, 2023 | 12:05 AMUpdatedSep 04, 2023 | 3:47 AM

Chandy Oommen

An old picture, in which late Congress heavyweight Oommen Chandy crossed a canal by walking over a metal pipe, went viral in the social media circles of Kerala soon after the byelection was declared for the Puthupally constituency in Kerala, which the two-time chief minister represented for 53 years without a break.

CPI(M) activists who circulated the picture, cited the metal pipe over the canal as the best example of the developmental deficiency that the constituency in central Kerala faced despite electing Chandy for 12 consecutive terms.

Oommen Chandy walks over the `bridge' at Ettumanur.

Oommen Chandy walks over the `bridge’ at Ettumanur.

The picture prompted many, including former UN official and popular social media influencer Muralee Thummarukudy, who has nearly 2.5 lakh Facebook followers, to share it.

They said infrastructure development in the constituency mattered as much as participation in lawmaking as a responsible Assembly member.

By that time, the Congress had fielded Chandy’s son and Youth Congress leader Chandy Oommen as its candidate in the by-poll with an eye on the sympathy wave favouring Chandy senior, one of the most popular leaders Kerala has ever seen.

On its part, the CPI(M) chose Jaick C Thomas, a central committee member of its youth wing, the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), to wrest back the seat held by Chandy senior for more than half a century.

Related: ‘After 53 years of Oommen Chandy, Puthuppally lags in development’


In the beginning, the cyber wings of CPI(M) effectively used the metal-pipe photograph by asking why Chandy senior had not ensured a concrete bridge to cross the canal, putting Chandy Oommen on the defensive.

But things turned unfavourable for Thomas soon when Congress worker Kunju Illampully started producing evidence to prove that the “metal pipe bridge” existed not in Puthuppally but in the neighbouring Ettumanoor constituency, which is currently represented in the Assembly by CPI(M) leader and Kerala’s Cooperation Minister VN Vasavan.

Chandy Oommen

Women voters of Puthupally clicking pictures with Chandy Oommen. Photo: K A Shaji

According to him, the photograph was taken in November 2016, when Chandy senior arrived to attend the wedding of the daughter of Congress worker MV Velu.

Long a CPI(M) bastion, the locality named Malarikkal still lacks a concrete bridge, and people continue to depend on the metal pipe to cross the canal.

Though Thummarukudy offered a public apology for propagating unverified propaganda material, the CPI(M) cyber wing expressed no regret over its actions.

While the high-voltage election campaign in Puthuppally came to an end at 6 pm on Sunday, the two major candidates, along with the BJP’s G Lijin Lal, have started their 48-hour-long silent campaign for the byelection, which will be held on 5 September.

During interactions with South First, which toured the whole constituency, leaders of all the fronts concurred that the byelection campaign was largely apolitical, with repeated attempts to spread false information, besides engaging in character assassination of leaders and their close relatives.

But each targeted their rivals and refused to accept any moral responsibility.

Despite CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan’s public announcement that his party would not engage in any mudslinging on Oommen Chandy and his family during the campaigning, the party’s campaign managers at the grassroots level failed to honour his words.

The family was targeted both online and offline. In focus was the late chief minister’s youngest daughter Achu Oommen, who has been settled in Dubai for a long time and engages in modelling and advertisement promotions as a means of living.

Allegations targeting Oommen Chandy and Chandy Oommen were aplenty on social media, with the CPI(M) preferring “lack of development” as the core electoral subject in Puthuppally.

Oommen Chandy was portrayed as a leader who did nothing for the constituency.

At the same time, Chandy Oommen was described as a man of no proven skill who banked solely on the manipulated image of his late father.


Jaick Thomas campaigns in Puthuppally

The Congress’ social media handles countered the attacks by dragging Jaick, his late father, and his pregnant wife into unnecessary controversy.

Even Jaick’s properties inherited from his father were subjected to unhealthy public scrutiny.

For onlookers, the only respite was the readiness of both Chandy Oommen and Thomas to disapprove of these cyber-shenanigans, even as there seemed to be no respite from them from cadres of both parties.

Related: Puthuppally candidates’ women relatives face vile cyber attacks

Confidence on both sides

While poll pundits are predicting a tight contest between Jaick and Chandy Oommen at the constituency, pushing the BJP candidate to a distant third place, the Congress hopes to significantly improve the victory margin of Chandy Oommen.


Former Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy walks along with Rahul Gandhi in Bharat Jodo Yatra. Photo: K B Jayachandran

An opinion poll commissioned by prominent Malayalam news portal The Fourth increased the party’s confidence, as the survey showed voters expressing emotional outpourings favouring Chandy senior and strong anti-incumbency sentiments against the second term of the Pinarayi Vijayan government.

The survey predicted Chandy Oommen would win the election by a minimum margin of 50,000 votes. If the voting percentage increased, that would further hike his margin, the survey said.

Meanwhile, a magistrate court in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday accepted the CBI’s clean chit to Oommen Chandy in the sexual abuse case registered against him based on a complaint by the prime accused in the infamous solar scam.

The Congress found the court decision a booster for the campaigning that targeted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for the character assassination of Chandy using the solar scam.

Achu Oommen’s filing of a police complaint against a CPI(M) worker who retired from the state secretariat for attempting her character assassination also created a situation favourable to the Congress.

On the other hand, the CPI(M) was confident it could put up a tight fight in the constituency, spoiling the chances of an easy walkover for Chandy junior riding the sympathy wave.

Govindan has told reporters that the electoral outcome in Puthuppally would be a referendum on the performance of the second Vijayan government.

The CPI(M) has also tried to evoke public sentiments by pointing out that the campaigners for the Congress included Nikhil Paily, a Youth Congress leader from Idukki who was accused of murdering SFI leader Dheeraj last year. When the issue caught attention, the Congress told Paily to refrain from campaigning.

For the CPI(M), Puthuppaly is no longer a traditional citadel of the Congress, as six of the eight village panchayats constituting the constituency are ruled by the Left.

Related: Puthuppally is dress rehearsal for Lok Sabha, says Chandy Oommen

Issues ignored

The rival fronts, however, appear to have forgotten larger issues like the Manipur genocide and the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Even state-level civic issues were conveniently forgotten.

The lone state-level issue that became the subject of electoral debate in Puthuppally was the challenge to Vijayan by Congress MLA Mathew Kuzhalnadan to explain why his daughter Veena Vijayan received “sizeable retainers” from a Kochi-based mining firm between 2016-20 “without rendering any tangible IT or consultancy services”.

Kuzhalnadan looked like a crowd-puller in Congress campaign meetings where the allegations against Veena were dissected.

But in the two campaign rallies he attended, Vijayan preferred to ignore all the allegations he and his family faced.

Chandy Oommen

Chandy Oommen with his late father and family members. (Supplied)

The star campaigners in the constituency included Shashi Tharoor, who was recently inducted into the Congress Working Committee, and most ministers in the Vijayan Cabinet.

Veteran Congress leader AK Antony campaigned for Chandy Oommen- the son of his “close friend” and colleague.

His son Anil Antony, meanwhile, was seen attending a few campaign meetings of the BJP candidate.

This is the first election in which Anil Antony is campaigning after joining the BJP and becoming one of its official spokespersons at the national level.