Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was at his exuberant best as he campaigned for his Left Democratic Front’s PP Suneer in Wayanad constituency on April 11. Suneer is up against Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

Taking a potshot at Amit Shah for comparing Wayanad to Pakistan, Vijayan told a rally in Kalpetta that the Bharatiya Janata Party president lacked even a basic understanding of history. “He must understand that Wayanad is the land of Kerala Varma Pazhassiraja who fought valiantly against the British until his last breath,” the chief minister said, drawing thunderous applause.

The previous day, in an apparent reference to the large number of green Indian Union Muslim League flags visible during Gandhi’s roadshow in Wayanad on April 4, Shah had said it was difficult to make out if the constituency was in India or Pakistan. The Muslim League is an old ally of the Congress in Kerala.

Green flags fluttered at Vijayan’s Kalpetta rally as well. But they were mostly of the Indian National League, which broke from the Muslim League in 1994 and is a partner in the Left Democratic Front. “Amit Shah’s remarks are a blot on Wayanad,” Vijayan concluded.

Ganesh Kumar, a government employee, was visibly impressed by the speech. He did not have any political affiliation, Kumar said, but he admired Vijayan because “no other leader in Kerala has the courage to take on the BJP”.

“Congress leaders have not replied to Amit Shah’s jibe so far,” he explained. “Only Pinarayi gave him a fitting reply. His speech will impact the election outcome across Kerala. He can win this battle for the Left Front.”

The chief minister is spearheading the Left Front’s campaign in all 20 constituencies of Kerala, which votes on April 23. He has little choice because an electoral reverse will reflect badly on his government – and him personally.

Vijayan came to power in Kerala in May 2016 after the Left Front alliance won 91 of the 140 Assembly seats. If that performance is matched in the Lok Sabha elections, it would yield up to seats for the Left Front. But that is a tall order. This is because voters are expected to make their decision based on national issues as well as on the state government’s performance, particularly its handling of last August’s devastating floods and the Sabarimala agitation.

This story has been reported from seven parliamentary constituencies.

The floods, the worst in a century, affected nearly 55 lakh people in 981 villages, leaving at least 483 dead. The state is yet to fully recover from the destruction.

Vijayan is widely acknowledged for handling the rescue and relief work exceptionally well. But public opinion is split on his handling of the Sabarimala agitation, which erupted after the Supreme Court, in September, permitted women of menstruating age to pray at the hill shrine. The agitation, which frequently turned violent, was organised by the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates after the Left Front government declared that it was duty-bound to implement the court ruling.

‘An exemplary job’

Many people hit hard by the floods were appreciative of Vijayan’s efficient monitoring of the rescue and relief operations, which they contended saved many lives. “His leadership skills were on display during the floods, ” said TK Babu, 40, a carpenter who was rescued from his marooned house by helicopter. “Many people were saved after he directed the rescue teams to focus on Chalakkudy in Thrissur. Memories are still fresh in the minds of survivors and I think that will reflect in the election.”

Vishnu, an autorickshaw driver whose home in Ernakulam’s Chalakka was fully submerged, said the government did “an exemplary job”.

But a report by the amicus curiae assisting the Kerala High Court with floods-related matters has put the government in a spot. The report, released early this month, asks for an expert committee led by a Supreme Court judge to ascertain why the floods occurred, specifically whether sudden release of water from the state’s reservoirs exacerbated the problem.

Pinarayi Vijayan addresses a campaign rally in Wayanad. Photo credit: Ratheesh

The chief minister responded to the report at a campaign rally in Ernakulam on April 8. “Some people are blaming the government for the floods,” he said. “The allegations are completely wrong. Our rivers could not hold water because of excess rainfall and water discharge. That resulted in the floods.”

Not everybody is convinced. In Idukki, many people argued the sudden release of water from the Periyar river dam in the hilly district worsened the flooding.

Saju Joseph, a farmer at Vazhathope village, felt the water should have been released in a controlled manner. “Idukki, Ernakulam and Alappuzha were affected badly after the Idukki dam’s shutters were suddenly opened,” he said. “It was a big government failure.”

‘Acting against Hindus’

In Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta, however, several people affected by the floods said they were more concerned about the sanctity of the Sabarimala shrine than their own circumstances.

“Pinarayi has cheated the Hindus,” declared Shanthatmma, 73, from Ayiroor in Pathanamthitta. “We will pay him back in this election.”

Her home on the banks of the Pampa river was inundated on August 15 and rescue workers shifted her to a relief camp by boat. “The government did provide us shelter and food when we were in trouble,” she said. “But we are pained more by it letting women into Sabarimala. Pinarayi is responsible for the trouble that caused.”

Vishnu, the autorickshaw driver in Chalakka, was also unhappy with the Left Front’s handling of the Sabarimala controversy. “Pinarayi should have considered the religious sentiments of the people,” he said. “I do not know whether people will vote for him for his flood management or vote against him for his stance on Sabarimala.”

In Thiruvananthapuram, Ravi Nair, a pan shop owner, accused Vijayan of “defiling Sabarimala” by enabling several women to pray at the temple. “Left Front is acting against the Hindus,” he alleged. “We will teach them a lesson through the ballot.”

Vijayan’s position on Sabarimala has especially angered the upper caste Nairs, who form 12% of Kerala’s population. Despite the Supreme Court verdict, the Nair Service Society vehemently opposes women entering the temple. In fact, the influential community organisation organised the first demonstrations against the judgement before the Sangh Parivar took control of the protests.

Though the group maintains it will not openly support any political party in this election, it is learnt to have directed the community to vote against the Left Front.

A protest march organised by the Nair Service Society against the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala judgement in Pala, Kottayam, last October. Photo credit: Vineeth

To this religious anxiety the BJP has added a dose of casteism. The Hindutva party’s Malayalam mouthpiece, Janmabhumi, published a cartoon on December 25 mocking the chief minister by alluding to his caste. Vijayan comes from the Ezhava community. The Ezhavas, classified among the Other Backward Classes, have traditionally been employed as toddy tappers. They constitute about 28% of Kerala’s population.

The chief minister reacted to the slur saying that some people were preoccupied with always reminding him of his caste. “I’m the son of a toddy tapper,” he said. “And they believe I should be a toddy tapper as well.”

Cultivating an image

Vijayan, who is serving his first term as chief minister, has projected himself as a leader who wants to develop Kerala. He has launched mega infrastructure projects, such as construction of a gas pipeline from Kochi to Bengaluru and a highway expansion plan. Both the projects had been proposed by the previous Congress-led government but were stalled because of opposition by the Left Front. Vijayan’s decision to revive them led to protests, which turned violent in many places before being put down with police force.

He also went ahead with the Kudankulam-Kochi power transmission line despite protests against land being acquired for the project.

The initiatives have earned the chief minister the support of some voters. “It is high time we got a wider national highway,” said K Satheesh, who lives in Kannur. “These narrow roads are causing a lot of accidents.”

In Malappuram, however, one of the protestors against the gas pipeline insisted that they have not forgotten the “police’s atrocities”. “Pinarayi’s government used force to silence us,” said Abdul Raheem, who saw the pipeline laid close to his home. “Voters will not forget their ordeal. We will protest through the ballot.”

Unending political violence

Another factor that could harm the Left Front’s prospects is the seemingly unending political violence, especially in North Kerala. The violence has claimed over a dozen lives since May 2016, despite Vijayan declaring that ending the killings would be among his government’s top priorities and starting talks with the Sangh Parivar to find a solution.

Most recently in February, the Congress workers Kripesh and Sharathlal were hacked to death in Kasargod, allegedly by members of the chief minister’s own party.

Vijayan promptly condemned the murders. “We should never tolerate such heinous crimes,” he said, adding the police had been instructed “to take appropriate action”.

Krishnakumar, who lives in Kasargod, was not satisfied. The “twin killings proved”, he said, that the chief minister “cannot control the violence”.

Manoj Kumar says Pinarayi Vijayan is Kerala's best chief minister ever. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Best chief minister ever’

Three opinion polls from the past few weeks have predicted heavy losses for the Left Front. The Mathrubhumi-AC Neilson survey gave the Congress-led United Democratic Front 14 seats, the Left Front five and the BJP one.

A Karvy survey for Manorama News predicted 15 seats for the Congress alliance, four for the ruling coalition, and one for the BJP. The Times Now-VMR poll gave a landslide of 17 seats to the United Democratic Front and one to the BJP, leaving just two to the ruling alliance.

Vijayan, however, dismissed the surveys as “big bluffs”. “The Left Front will win 18 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats,” he said.

Manoj Kumar, a fruit vendor in Kochi, said he was rooting for the chief minister’s prediction to come true. “I hope the Left Front gets the most number of seats,” he said. “I am not associated with any party but I love Vijayan. He is not corrupt. He is the best chief minister ever to rule Kerala.”

Also read: In Kerala’s regions worst hit by floods, angry survivors contemplate election boycott

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