In a byelection that became a mass-media spectacle, much like the extraordinary funeral procession of his recently deceased father and popular Congress veteran Oommen Chandy (OC), Congress candidate Chandy Oommen won South Kerala’s Puthuppally, a constituency OC held for 53 years, with a record margin of 37,719 votes on September 8.
He won by a larger margin than his late father did (33,255 votes) in the 2011 Kerala assembly polls, while his opponent, Jaick C. Thomas of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], managed to garner only 42,425 votes in an election that came at a crucial juncture in the tenure of Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by CPI-M stalwart Pinarayi Vijayan. Ligin Lal of the Bharatiya Janata Party clocked in just 6,558 votes. Chandy Oommen, a lawyer by profession, will take oath as an MLA on September 11.
In the 140-member Kerala Legislative Assembly, the Left holds 99 seats and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has 41. Puthuppally had fallen vacant after Oommen Chandy, the former Kerala Chief Minister, died on July 18. Oommen Chandy’s funeral on July 20 in Kottayam was an extraordinary event, drawing massive crowds and taking over a day to cover the 150-km journey from Thiruvananthapuram to his hometown in Kottayam district, highlighting the popular leader’s strong links with the masses, a factor political observers had anticipated would work in favour of his son, Chandy Oommen, in the byelection.
“When the byelection was declared, it was a foregone conclusion that the Congress would retain the seat with a significant majority,” said K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, Mahatma Gandhi University. “When OC’s son was chosen as the candidate, it became an emotional issue for the voters of Puthupally to pay tribute to their beloved leader.”
But the Congress leadership sees the Puthuppally win as a resounding statement in favour of the party’s rejuvenation, thanks to myriad factors, including the impact of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. “Kerala is changing,” V.D. Satheesan, Kerala’s Leader of the Opposition, told Frontline. “People want a change, and they have made it loud and clear.”
According to Satheesan, the verdict in Puthuppally is influenced by three key factors. First, this is indeed a reflection of the love and respect people have for the late Oommen Chandy and his brand of politics. Second, the Congress machinery has managed to perform systematically, coherently, and according to a meticulously laid-out political strategy. “But the most important factor here is anti-incumbency,” said Satheesan. “People have made a statement on the misrule of the LDF regime under Pinarayi Vijayan. The majority Chandy Oommen enjoys is clear and loud on this.”
The impact of this resounding victory will be reflected in the upcoming Lok Sabha election as well, he said. The Left front has only one MP out of the 20 MPs from Kerala. “The UDF will repeat its historic win in 2024 as well,” said Satheesan.
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Seethi pointed out that the election was influenced by a range of issues that mirrored the anti-incumbency sentiment in the State. “The Left front faced numerous challenges in managing the State’s economy, given its mounting debt,” said Seethi. The byelection came at a time when the Left government in Kerala was facing a barrage of corruption charges, including a bribery scandal that allegedly involved the Chief Minister’s daughter. The State’s economy is in tatters, according to economists tracking Kerala, a fact that Finance Minister K.N. Balagopal has highlighted time and again, blaming Central policies for the crisis.
Lessons for the Left
Squarely denying the hypothesis that the byelection verdict is an evaluation of the performance of the current Left dispensation, M.V. Govindan, State Secretary of CPI(M), said that evidently, a strong wave of sympathy has worked in favour of the UDF in Puthuppally. Despite that, the Left Front candidate was able to garner more than 42,000 votes, reaffirming the fact that the Left’s voter base has not eroded, reasoned Govindan, adding that the erosion in the votes polled in favour of the BJP suggests that the UDF has benefited from it.
“We accept the people’s verdict,” said Govindan. “The party will evaluate the reasons behind the defeat and will form a perspective accordingly.”