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Warhorse rears, CM stumbles

Thiruvananthapuram, April 21: A Congress chief minister on crutches is battling a Marxist warhorse making a now-or-never bid for power at 82, in the Kerala Assembly elections that get off the ground on Saturday.

It’s bad news for Oommen Chandy, the workaholic, accessible and straight-talking mass leader who has been hobbling since his fall at Davos in February, with pollsters predicting a comfortable win for the CPM-led Opposition.

Chandy, who took over as chief minister from A.K. Antony on August 31, had turned the United Democratic Front’s slog overs into an eventful phase.

Work started on the Rs 2,100-crore international trans-shipment container terminal at Vallarpadom in the port city of Kochi. Chandy put development in focus, forcing CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan to march from north to south with the slogan of comprehensive development a few months ago.

But this may not change the pattern of alternating governance between the Congress and Left coalitions in the state every five years, if the pollsters are to be believed.

Who will head the government if the Left Democratic Front comes to power, is the resounding question in the campaign, and one that the CPM is refusing to answer just yet.

“We’ll settle the question after the elections, taking into account all factors, including opinion poll results,” says politburo member S. Ramachandran Pillai. His colleague Sitaram Yechury writes in People’s Democracy that “the people are supreme”, hinting that the party might heed the popular mood in favour of Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan.

Unless the politburo throws its weight behind the 82-year-old, the party is sure to witness a repeat of the turmoil that was seen when the state committee debated the politburo’s initial decision to keep both Achuthanandan and his rival, state secretary Vijayan, out of the contest.

The politburo later reversed its decision and fielded Achuthanandan, without whom the CPM would have lost the support of the Hindu backward community of Ezhavas.

Ezhavas ' Achuthanandan is one ' are numerically the strongest among the state’s 56 per cent Hindu population. Christians, constituting 19 per cent, and Muslims, who make up 24.6 per cent, have traditionally been pro-UDF. The upper-caste Nair leadership swears equidistance from both fronts but its sympathies are with the UDF.

The doctrinaire Achuthanandan is drawing crowds everywhere, riding a sympathy wave sparked by the initial decision to deny him a ticket.

The 59 constituencies that will vote in the first phase are spread over the six southern districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam and Idukki, falling under the erstwhile Travancore principality.

This part of the state is crucial to the poll outcome since it reflects electoral swings more clearly than the northern districts that maintain traditional seat equations between the rival fronts.

Chandy is seeking a ninth term from Puthupally in rubber-rich Kottayam, a seat he has held for 36 years. His main rival, the SFI state president Sindhu Joy, is also on crutches following a leg injury sustained in police action. In his seat, unlike his chair, the chief minister is sitting pretty.

That is more than can be said for 86-year-old K.R. Gowri, the agriculture minister and the oldest candidate in the fray, who is fighting from Aroor in Alappuzha. Elders who voted for her in the past now feel it is time she retired.

The BJP, barely a presence in the state, has not fielded its stalwarts in the south. If veteran K. Karunakaran’s Hindu face enhanced Congress’s appeal in the past, this time it is the other way round. His excursions with son K. Muraleedharan into the Opposition camp and return on poll-eve, after he was dumped by the Left, have sullied his image and hurt the UDF.

The UDF has also failed to cash in on the war within the CPM, between the Vijayan and Achuthanandan camps.

But Chandy is plodding on, pitching for development and turning the election into a referendum on the Smart City project that the Left is opposing in a last-ditch effort to snatch victory from what is seen as sure defeat.

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