Mara, 45, has been waiting to welcome Rahul Gandhi since her friend told her a few weeks ago that the Congress chief may visit her Varinilam Adivasi colony to canvass for votes.

Varinilam is one of hundreds of Adivasi colonies in Kerala’s Wayanad parliamentary constituency, where Gandhi is contesting for the United Democratic Front, led by the Congress. He is primarily up against the Left Democratic Front’s PP Suneer. Though Thushar Vellappaly of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, an ally of the Bharatiya Janata Party, is also in the fray, he is considered a marginal player.

“I want to draw his attention to our livelihood issues,” Mara said. “We have to walk miles to fetch drinking water. Many people in our colony are landless and homeless. He is a big politician and I hope he can do what our gram panchayat members have been promising for years.”

Mara is illiterate and, like many fellow Adivasi villagers, she doesn’t know much about politics or politicians. But she knows the significance of elections. “We see candidates or their representatives only during elections,” she added. “So, I want to use this opportunity.”

Not only Gandhi, Mara is keen to meet the other candidates as well. “No one has visited our colony so far,” she said. “When they do, I want to tell them about our difficulties.”

This story has been reported from one parliamentary constituency.

Wayanad is considered a Congress stronghold. The party has won the constituency in both parliamentary elections since it was carved out in 2009. The constituency covers three Assembly segments each in Wayanad and Malappuram districts, and one in Kozhikode. Wayanad has the highest concentration of Adivasis in Kerala, forming 18.5% of the population.

In 2009, MI Shanavas won the seat for the Congress by a whopping 1,53,439 votes, comfortably leading in all seven Assembly segments. His victory margin, however, was reduced to 20,870 in 2014, leading in only five segments. The seat fell vacant after Shanavas died in November 2018.

The Left Front made major inroads in Wayanad in the 2016 Assembly polls, winning four of the seven seats. The BJP has barely any presence in the constituency.

Kerala votes for all its 20 parliamentary seats on April 23.

Mara, a resident of Varinilam colony, wants to meet Rahul Gandhi and tell him about the livelihood issues of the Adivasis in Wayanad. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘They ignore us’

Most of the Adivasis spoke with in Wayanad were not even aware when the election was or who was seeking their votes. In Thacharkolly colony, Geetha, 45, and Rama, 47, both daily wage labourers, did not know who the candidates were. Kamala, 60, who rears goats and chicken for a living, named Radhakrishnan, who is the local gram panchayat member.

Her neighbour Devi, 41, said someone had told her Rajiv Gandhi was contesting from Wayanad. When told Rahul Gandhi and not Rajiv Gandhi was the candidate, she asked, “Please tell us who Rahul Gandhi is.”

The Adivasis live in colonies – clusters of tiny homes – each with 150 to 200 voters. In spite of forming a substantial vote bank, they see little campaigning during Assembly and parliamentary polls. “They ignore us during big elections,” complained Rajamma in Thacharakolly, referring to politicians. “You cannot see even a single poster here.”

It is only during panchayat elections that political parties actively woo the Adivasi community.

Rajamma in Thacharakolly colony says political parties have been ignoring the Adivasis. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

A local politician who would only speak anonymously said his party does not distribute campaign material among the Adivasis “because they are illiterate”. However, he claimed, his party’s workers will visit the colonies on the eve of polling this time. “We spent much time in the colonies during the local election in 2015,” he said.

Suneer, though, claimed he has “completed two rounds of visits in the constituency”. “We are into the third round now,” he added, without going into detail.

AP Anil Kumar, a Congress legislator who is helping manage Gandhi’s campaign, said they were “in the second round of campaigning”.

But Radha, 35, who lives in Convent Kunnu colony near Mananthavady town, said no politician has visited her hutment yet. “This shows the attitude of parties towards the Adivasis,” she said. “They are ignoring us.”

Radha walks to fetch water in Convent Kunnu colony in Mananthavady. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘We get tea and snacks’

In Varinilam, a woman named Leela, 46, said local politicians visit the Adivasi colonies on the eve of polling and promise to send vehicles to take them to the booths. “We just get into one of the vehicles and the party workers tell us whom to vote for enroute,” she added.

Sindhu Raju, who lives next door to Leela, said the polling day is a fun day for them. “Parties provide us free jeep rides,” she said. “And they give us tea and snacks after voting.”

Asked whether they are paid for their votes, she said, “I haven’t got any money so far. But I don’t know about men.”

Sreedevi, 45, whose hut is across the road from Raju’s, said she just does what local politicians tell her to. “I am illiterate,” she explained. “Politicians show me a symbol and I just obey them. I am afraid they would exclude me from social security schemes if I don’t do what they say.”

The pond that supplies water to the Adivasis of Varinilam colony. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘No place to bury our dead’

People across Wayanad complained that political parties have ignored their livelihood concerns such as the lack of drinking water, damaged roads, and distribution of land to the landless.

There is acute water shortage in many Adivasi colonies in Wayanad, and women and children walk long distance to fetch water. “I have to walk more than two kilometres up the hill to get water,” said Geetha, who lives in Kaithavally colony.

In EMS and Ambalkkolly colonies, the people complained the Pozhuthana gram panchayat officials have not rebuilt their road which was damaged in last year’s floods. “The officials are ignoring our pleas,” said Raju in Ambalakkolly colony. “We can’t take the sick and elderly people to hospital as autorickshaws and taxis refuse to ply on the damaged road.”

PP Suneer campaigns in Wayanad. Photo by special arrangement

Many landless Adivasis threatened to launch another agitation if they are not given the land promised to them. After a series of agitations over the last decade, the state government had assured poor landless Adivasis that they would be given one to five acres of cultivable land.

But Sarasu, 41, who lives in Kaithavally colony, said they have waiting to get the land for nine years. “Eight of us are living in a tiny hut,” she added. “We do not even have a place to bury our dead. I hope political leaders consider our legitimate demand for land in this election.”

A hoarding seeking votes for the Left Front's PP Suneer's in Areekode, Malappuram. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

The minority vote

Wayanad’s Muslim vote became a talking point after Prime Minister Narendra Modi controversially claimed Gandhi chose the constituency because it was dominated by minority communities.

According to unofficial demographic data, Muslims account for 45% of the electorate in Wayanad, Hindus 41% and Christians 13%.

Then, last week, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath attacked the Congress’s ally Indian Union Muslim League, describing it as a virus which divided India during the independence movement. The Muslim League, which has a strong presence across Wayanad, has since moved the Election Commission seeking action against the BJP leader.

The remarks of Modi and Adityanath seem to have prompted neutral Muslim voters to go with Gandhi.

“Rahul Gandhi’s victory is a foregone conclusion now,” said Muhammed Sadique, an autorickshaw driver in Mukkam. “We are working to increase the Congress’s victory margin. I hope it will cross three lakh.”

He accused the BJP of trying to “create a false impression” that Islamist terrorism was on the rise in Kerala by targeting the Muslim League.

Muhammed Sadique predicts Rahul Gandhi will win by over three lakh votes. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

The Muslim League has been a partner in 13 of the 22 coalitions that have ruled Kerala so far. The party’s late leader CH Mohammed Koya briefly served as chief minister in the late 1970s, and many of its leaders have held key ministerial positions over the decades.

The party has 18 members in the Assembly, which has a strength of 140, two in the outgoing Lok Sabha and one in the Rajya Sabha.

‘Battle is already won’

On April 7, this correspondent witnessed five people engaged in a heated discussion at a tea shop in Areekode, Malappuram. They were talking about the election and all predicted a huge win for Gandhi.

Abdul Raheem, a labourer, argued that Wayanad’s Muslims will support the Congress chief en masse “for showing the courage to contest from a little known constituency”. “Besides, he is a brave leader who is fighting the BJP,” he added.

Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Gandhi during the road show in Wayanad on April 4. Photo credit: Satheesh

Gandhi’s candidature appears to have enthused some people who had quit active politics. Abdul Majeed, 50, who runs a footwear shop in Areekode, was a Congress worker but left years ago, disenchanted with its local leadership. He boycotted the last four elections, Majeed said. Not this time. “This election is a rare opportunity for me to vote for a member of the Gandhi family,” he explained.

Some Muslims, however, back the Left Front. Muhammed Sajid, 40, a businessman in Areekode, argued that Gandhi will anyway win in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. “I also want to strengthen secular forces,” he added. “They should have a strong presence in the Lok Sabha to counter the Sangh Parivar’s vicious propaganda. Hence my vote is for Gandhi’s opponent, Suneer.”

A few others said they will make their choice closer to the election day. “I will vote for Rahul Gandhi only if he keeps Wayanad seat since I don’t want to waste my vote,” said Muhammad Rizwan, 20, who will be voting for the first time. “I hope to have some clarity before polling day.”

Gandhi, if he wins both Amethi and Wayanad seats, would be required by law to keep one and resign the other.

Campaign hoardings of Rahul Gandhi and PP Suneer in Areekode, Malappuram. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

His rival, Suneer, said he is aiming to win “the maximum number of secular votes”. He accused Gandhi of sending out a wrong message by fighting against a Left Front candidate. “His star value will not help him in politically conscious Wayanad,” he added. “I hope to win, riding on the secular vote.”

Congress leaders, however, claimed Gandhi has “already won the battle”, thanks to his road show on April 4 after filing the nomination. “Voters of Wayanad showed their affection and care for Rahul Gandhi with their participation in the road show,” said a senior local party leader Anilkumar. “The battle is already won. We are now looking to increase the victory margin.”

Also read: For Wayanad voters, land issues and farm distress are key concerns – not Narendra Modi’s jibe

Congress hopes Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Kerala’s Wayanad will energise party across South India