Thiruvananthapuram, Sept. 29: The Congress has lost Ernakulam, Kerala’s commercial capital that has stuck with the party through thick and thin, to the Left, giving a fresh lease of life to dissidents led by wounded warhorse K. Karunakaran and casting a cloud on chief minister A.K. Antony’s reforms programme.
A.K. Antony’s blue-eyed boy M.. John polled 3.13 lakh votes as against the Left-backed Sebastian Paul’s 3.35 lakh votes in the bypoll.
Slinging a barb at the Congress high command, which had readily endorsed the candidature of Antony’s nominee, former chief minister Karunakaran said: “This should open the eyes of all concerned.”
Karunakaran, who nurses a grudge against Antony for ousting him from power in 1995, is now expected to go for the kill. Having failed in two earlier attempts to dislodge the chief minister, Karunakaran will give it another try with the tacit support of the CPM-led Left Democratic Front.
The poll result casts a shadow over the reforms package mooted by Antony — Ernakulam was the venue for the global investor meet in January. The chief minister will now find it increasingly difficult to go ahead with the reforms as the Left and the Karunakaran faction will cite the plight of traditional industries and sick PSUs to snipe at him.
A minority backlash against Antony and the revolt spearheaded by Karunakaran are believed to have sealed the fate of the Congress candidate.
Indian Union Muslim League leader and industry minister P.K. Kunhalikutty said the verdict should be an eye-opener and demanded urgent damage control. For the first time in several years, League chief Panakkad Mohammed Ali Shihab Thangal did not attend a single poll meet.
“My calculations have gone wrong. There were several undercurrents. UDF’s (the ruling United Democratic Front) sure votes were frozen in the polls,” Antony said in Kochi.
Karunakaran pulled no punches. “Antony is solely responsible for the drubbing. But I don’t think he will learn lessons from this,” he said.
Karunakaran’s son and Congress state chief K. Muraleedharan echoed his sentiment, saying “the man who put up the candidate was alone to blame”.
The Left alleged that the BJP, which had collected only 51,000 votes as against 77,000 in the last Lok Sabha polls, had transferred their votes to the UDF. The BJP, which bagged 10 per cent votes last time, was able to garner only a little over 7 per cent.
Paul was forthright, saying that among other factors he owed his victory to the Congress infighting.
John alleged that it was sabotage. “I was defeated by my own people,” he said.
Karunakaran’s supporters burst into a song when they heard the news of John’s plunging lead. The first visuals of jubilation came from Karunakaran’s residence at the posh Jawahar Nagar.
At the Lenin centre in Kochi, Paul was huddled with his cadre.
A khadi-clad youth, wearing a helmet, was seen burning crackers even as counting was on, while Paul’s supporters in Kochi kept their celebrations on hold till the lead picked up.
Paul has proved yet again that he is a sure bet for byelections. He had also won the 1998 bypolls, though with a margin of just 8,000 votes. This time, it was more convincing as he levelled off the 1.11-lakh lead of Congress candidate, the late George Eden, in 1999.
The result has belied predictions that the high voter turnout of 67.05 per cent, surpassing last time’s 65.5 per cent, would favour the Congress in Ernakulam, which had returned Congress candidates in 11 out of the 14 Parliament elections. CPI senior leader P.K. Vasudevan Nair admitted that he was beginning to doubt Paul’s prospects when the polling percentage shot up.
V. Viswanatha Menon, put by the BJP and erstwhile CPM workers, collected 51,420 votes and Poonthura Siraj of the People’s Democratic Party of jailed Islamic leader Abdul Nasser Madhany got 17,426 votes.
A constituency-wise analysis shows that Paul commanded a lead in all but two of the seven segments, where the Latin Catholics forming 35 per cent of the total voters are the single largest block.
The Karunakaran impact was not clear since the Congress candidate was able to maintain a lead in Ernakulam and Palluruthy.
In Paravoor and Aluva, where John has been the municipal chairman, Paul upstaged him. RSP leader T.J. Chandrachoodan believes that it has been a labour backlash following the closure or privatisation of several industrial units.
The Muslim resentment was felt most in Mattancherry and Aluva where the extremist National Development Front has been active. The Jama-ath Federation and Jama-at Islami had openly favoured the Left candidate.
Friday prayers in some placeswere converted into platforms of anti-government protests over the delay in rehabilitating 400-odd Muslim families which were forced to flee Marad after the May 2 massacre.
A message was read out at the Sunday Mass in Catholic churches exhorting people to go out and vote does not seem to have paid off.
As against the 10 per cent votes polled by the BJP last time, Viswanatha Menon got only 7.05 per cent, despite being propped up by anti-CPM groups led by Citu leader V.B.Cheriyan. BJP state president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai has said he will probe the cause of the erosion in party votes.