If money could swing an election, then Sreeprakash, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate from Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala, where a bye-election is scheduled on Wednesday, might yet dream of pulling off an unexpected victory.

The election was necessitated by the death of Indian Union Muslim League leader and former Union minister E Ahamed in February. PK Kunhalikkutty, from the same party and a former state industries minister, is the candidate for the Congress-led United Democratic Front. And though it is his first time contesting from a Parliament seat, he is the overwhelming favourite. His nearest rival is the inexperienced BM Faisal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), candidate for the ruling Left Democratic Front.

Despite the odds against him, the BJP’s Sreeprakash has gone all out as far as electioneering goes. Thousands of hoardings with photographs of himself and Prime Minister Narendra Modi dot all the major roads of the constituency. Vehicles sporting the BJP’s saffron flags zoom past the roads at regular intervals, their public address systems blaring campaign songs in the Mappilappattu genre (traditional Muslim folk songs).

Yet, the BJP does not harbour any hope of a win here. All its effort, it seems, is aimed at consolidating Hindu votes in this Muslim-majority constituency.

According to the 2011 census, Muslims account for 70.2% of Malappuram district’s population while Hindus constitute 27.6% and Christians 1.9%.

Malappuram constituency was created after the re-drawing of Manjeri constituency in 2009. Indian Union Muslim League candidates have won 11 of the 13 elections held in Manjeri between 1957 and 2004. And Malappuram remains a stronghold of the United Democratic Front. Ahamed represented it for two consecutive terms from 2009 till his death. He won a second term in 2014 with a record victory margin of 194,739 votes – which was the highest in the state. In that election, he garnered 437,723 of the votes while his nearest rival, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s PK Sainaba, received 242,984 votes. The BJP’s Sreeprakash came a distant third with 64,705 votes.

Hindu consolidation

Three years on, BJP leaders felt there was still much to gain from the by-election in Malappuram, that Hindu votes could be consolidated easily with a coordinated effort. So, it deployed cadre from various Sangh Parivar organisations to achieve this target.

Suresh Babu is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker in Puzhakkattiry panchayat, 10 km south of the district headquarters of Malappuram. He has been coordinating the campaign in Mankada, one of seven Assembly seats under the Malappuram parliamentary constituency.

Babu said all Hindu votes would go to the BJP candidate this time. “IUML and CPI(M) fielded Muslim candidates, so Hindu voters would definitely vote for BJP,” he said.

The BJP’s district president, K Ramachandran, echoed his sentiment. “CPI(M)’s decision to field a Muslim candidate would help us,” he said. “Hindu votes would have split had the LDF fielded a Hindu candidate.”

Big threat

The threat from such a consolidation of Hindu votes has the Indian Union Muslim League worried, even though it is confident its candidate, Kunhalikkutty, will emerge victorious.

And it seems that Kunhalikkutty, who is known for his political acumen, has himself apprised United Democratic Front leaders of the impending danger and sought their help to plug the potential loss of votes. The Congress, too, has been swift to depute prominent leaders to reinvigorate alliance members and to quell the BJP threat.

Indian Union Muslim League candidate PK Kunhalikkutty has warned the United Democratic Front leadership of the threat from the BJP's poll strategy.

Kunhalikkutty has also managed to garner the support of Kerala Congress (M) leader KM Mani – who had quit the United Democratic Front after its loss in the Assembly elections last year, his decision driven largely by the fact that he had been forced to resign as finance minister in the previous Congress-led government over a bar bribery case. Mani’s support might help Kunhalikkutty get the votes of the Christian community.

In the face of the BJP’s campaign, the Indian Union Muslim League has also instructed its workers to concentrate on house visits and neighbourhood meetings to increase Kunhalikkutty’s chances of winning and his victory margin.

The party workers have taken this appeal seriously, and Rafiq is one of them. The 30-year-old has been absent from work at his family-run restaurant in Koottilangadi, 7 km south of Malappuram, for a week now. “It is my duty to work for IUML,” said Rafiq, who manages the cash counter at the restaurant. “My siblings can manage the restaurant.”

Left’s dilemma

Meanwhile, the election has driven a wedge in the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) over its secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s assessment that the bypoll result would be a referendum on the government’s performance. Many party leaders have refused to endorse this view, leading to a war of words between senior leaders and giving their political opponents an opportunity to criticise the ruling party.

Last week, G Sudhakaran, minister for public works and registration, asserted that the poll was not a referendum on the government. A few days later, former chief minister and veteran leader VS Achuthanandan countered him, saying the result would be an assessment of the government.

Party sympathiser Basheer, an autorikshaw driver in Malappuram, believes the Communist Party of India (Marxist) made a mistake in announcing that the election would be a referendum on the state government. “I don’t understand why CPI(M) leaders make contradictory public statements,” he said. “We all know that we will not win here. Then why did the party secretary say it would be a referendum?”

The ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) is a divided house over its leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s remark that the bypoll is a referendum on the government's performance.

National issues creep in

The BJP’s poll tactics have had an impact on the campaigns of both the Left party and the Indian Union Muslim League. At public meetings, their speakers have been taking up national issues – the assault of Muslims transporting cows by cow vigilantes in Rajasthan’s Alwar on April 1, the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shamshan-qabrstan (crematorium-graveyard) remark during the February-March elections in that state, and even the Babri Masjid demolition. All of this aimed at garnering Muslim votes and cornering the BJP.

As for the BJP candidate, at one point, he even made an attempt to woo Muslim voters by promising to ensure the supply of quality beef if voted to power. But he had to eat his words soon after. “My statement was distorted, I am against cow slaughter,” Sreeprakash quickly clarified.

Missing parties

Another issue that has been hotly discussed in this campaign is the absence of two Muslim political outfits, the Social Democratic Party of India and the Welfare Party of India, from the election fray. They had together collected 77,069 votes in the 2014 polls – with the former getting 47,853 votes to finish fourth and the latter coming fifth with 29,216 votes.

The ruling party alleged that the Social Democratic Party of India’s decision to not field a candidate was because it has entered into a tacit agreement with Kunhalikkuty.

Social Democratic Party of India district committee member and lawyer Raheem refuted the allegation. “Our party has asked its followers to do conscience voting,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that we will sell our votes.” Explaining his party’s decision not to contest, he added, “We are a small party and it is very difficult to get funds.”

The Welfare Party of India, on its part, said it was not supporting any party in the election. “The election result won’t make any difference in Kerala or at the Centre, so we are not supporting any party in the election,” said its state president Hameed Vaniyambalam.

The absence of the two parties may boost Kunhalikkutty’s chances to cross Ahamed’s victory margin. “Don’t be surprised if he wins by over two lakh votes,” said Indian Union Muslim League worker Rafiq. “That is our aim, and we are working hard for it.”

All images courtesy TA Ameerudheen.