Puthuppally bypoll: BJP has limited ambitions; LDF does a balancing act as it takes on the ‘divine aura’ of Oommen Chandy

The BJP candidate, district-level leader Lijin Lal, should be happy if the party even partially recovers its 'lost' votes in Puthuppally.

ByK A Shaji

Published Aug 16, 2023 | 1:00 PM Updated Aug 16, 2023 | 1:28 PM

Chandy Oommen Puthuppally bypoll

With top leaders like Anil Antony, Kummanam Rajasekharan and K Surendran refraining from contesting, the BJP goes into the Puthuppally by-election contest with the limited ambition that its candidate — young district-level leader Lijin Lal — will recover some of its “lost votes” in the constituency.

The BJP is also harping on the “Lord Ganesha is a myth” controversy sparked by state Assembly speaker AN Shamseer in a bid to polarise the Hindu vote in Christian-dominated Puthuppally.

However, whichever way one looks at it, the BJP will remain a sideshow in a contest between the UDF’s Chandy Oommen — son of the late Congress stalwart Oommen Chandy who was undefeated in Puthuppally for 53 long years — and the CPI(M)’s Jaick C Thomas, who was snapping at the heels of the late ex-chief minister, having reduced his winning margin to under 10,000 votes in the 2021 Assembly election.

Related: All about the growing clamour to canonise the late Oommen Chandy

BJP’s goals in Puthuppally

For the BJP, the best case scenario for 40-year-old Kottayam district president Lijin Lal would be to retain or somewhat improve upon the 11,694 votes the party polled in the 2021 election.

It will be an uphill task as the BJP has to contend with the recent disenchantment of the Christians — whom it has been ardently wooing — over the violence targeting the community in distant Manipur, as also the purported move to bring in a Uniform Civil Code (UCC).

In 2021, the BJP candidate N Hari came in third, but the number of votes he polled represented a significant decline from the 20,911 votes PC Thomas had bagged in the Puthuppally Assembly segment in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Moreover, in the 2016 Assembly election, George Kurien, as BJP candidate, had garnered 15,993 votes for the party.

Lijin Lal’s first responsibility will be to restore the “lost votes” to the BJP’s kitty.

“With the party central leadership naming its district president, a clear message has been passed to the rank and file to work hard in the campaign,” said a BJP leader.

The party also expects to benefit from the acrimony between the powerful Nair Service Society (NSS) and the CPI(M)-led ruling LDF government over Speaker Shamseer’s remarks about “saffronising” education and passing off religious myths as scientific fact.

Little wonder that the BJP has fielded a Nair as its candidate.

Also read: Why NSS put ‘faith above science’ while CPI(M) sees ‘myth as myth’

Neutralising the Nair factor

To minimise the impact of the myth controversy in which many Hindus feel their sentiments were hurt, both the LDF and UDF candidates have already visited NSS general secretary Sukumaran Nair and praised him as the epitome of secularism.

Sukumaran Nair, who earlier described himself as a former disciplined Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre devoted to the cause of a Hindu Rashtra, was at the forefront of the agitation demanding the resignation of Shamseer, who, according to him, insulted Lord Ganesha through his science over myth statement.

LDF candidate Jaick Thomas and CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan have described Sukumaran Nair as a man of inclusive and secular values who never subscribed to aggressive Hindutva.

Apart from the NSS leadership, both the LDF and UDF candidates are visiting leaders of almost all Christian denominations with units and followers in Puthupally.

In the process, they seem to have forgotten their old statements against religious leaders meddling in political affairs and electioneering.

Related: Popular politician who strode God’s Own Country like a colossus

Battling Oommen Chandy’s ‘divine aura’

The ruling CPI(M) has directed its campaign managers to avoid personal allegations targeting Chandy Oommen, as the aura around his father and two-time state chief minister Ooommen Chandy has only grown after his death last month.

The CPI(M) also seems cautious about avoiding the mistake it made in the Thrikkakara bypoll in June last year. In the by-election for Thrikkakara, a Congress citadel, the chief minister, almost his entire Cabinet, and top state leaders of the the CPI(M) and other constituents of the LDF had camped in the constituency.

They visited each household and pleaded for votes. But the result, when declared, was a humiliating defeat for the LDF candidate, a political novice.

In Puthuppally, which has been synonymous with Oommen Chandy for over half a century, the chief minister will campaign only for two days in the initial phase.

The rest of the campaign will be guided by the advice of the party’s local leadership. Cabinet members will refrain from going en masse to Puthupally.

Both UDF and LDF camps seem to believe the election will be an easy walkover for Chandy Oommen as he benefits from the immense outpouring of affection witnessed after the death of his father and the emotional bond Puthuppally has with the late leader.

The senior Chandy’s has attained an almost saint-like aura after his death, with literally hundreds visiting his tomb for prayers and blessings.

Related: After Oommen Chandy: His legacy, and political possibilities in Kerala

CPI(M) focus on development

Meanwhile, UDF candidate Chandy Oommen has rejected the LDF camp’s allegations that there has been a lack of development in the Puthuppally constituency represented by his father for over five decades.

He also questioned the LDF claims that it has pushed development in the state during its seven-year rule.

“There is no reply to my query on whether they are ready for an assessment of the governance of the ruling front,” Chandy Oommen told the media.

Responding to that, LDF candidate Jaick Thomas said he was ready to debate the issue of development carried out in the state by the Left government in the last seven years vis-a-vis the development in the constituency over the years.

“We can assess everything. We can assess the development carried out in the state in the last seven years and the development that happened in Puthuppally during the same time,” he said.

“When we dared the UDF to a debate on development, their unfortunate reply was whether there is a village office, krishi bhavan, or an SBI branch in the village. We should be ready for a debate on development,” he said.

Thomas confidently said he was ready to debate and discuss everything, and the UDF candidate could decide the date, time and venue.

(With PTI inputs)