ANTONY WAVE SWEEPS ISLE OF FRIENDS 

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By FROM VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN
  • Published 6.05.01
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Chertalla, May 6 :    Chertalla, May 6:  It is hardly eight in the morning but the island village of Kuttanchal in Kerala's coastal Alappuzha district is already bustling. By 8.30, a small boat cuts across the backwaters that surround Kuttanchal. As the boat touches the village edge and a short man in white khadi shirt and mundu (dhoti) alights, a small crowd rushes forward with one resounding cry: "A.K. Antony zindabad". A crowd of only 100 people is a small show for a leader of Antony's stature. But Kuttanchal has a population of only around 600, including children, and the fact that one-sixth of the population came to receive the Congress leader points to Antony's popularity. There is a personal dimension to the affection shown by the people. Many had known Antony since he was an infant. Those senior to him looked after him and some grew up with him. Antony was born at Chertalla town, the headquarters of his constituency about 10 km from Kuttanchal. The personal touch is evident from the moment he starts walking through the village. He addresses almost everybody in the crowd by name. Antony asks one woman how much milk her goat gives and another young man how much toddy he is able to tap and what price he gets for it. But once he reaches the venue of the public meeting, the old neighbour transforms into a political animal. Antony lambasts the CPM-led Left Democratic Front, saying Kerala had lost its peace under its five-year misrule. He promises a better future if the United Democratic Front is voted to power. Assurances about new industry, employment and fair price for the farmers are made one by one. He glosses over the faction fight between his camp and that of K. Karunakaran, which touched menacing proportions at the start of the election process. But there is not a word about the BJP, the Congress' principal opponent at the Centre. The BJP is not politically important enough in Kerala to deserve mention, he says later. He refutes the Left allegation that the UDF has struck a deal with the BJP. Antony's stay at Kuttanchal was brief but the island village is happy. Kurien, a fish vendor, says: "The very fact that he found time to come and meet us on a day Sonia Gandhi is coming to Chertalla highlights how important we are to him. We will go around campaigning in other villages, too, and see to it that he gets a bigger majority this time." Antony points out from time to time that, along with the political initiatives, his personal equation in and around Chertalla has played a role in transforming this communist bastion into a constituency where the Congress and the UDF can win. Of the 11 elections held here, the Congress and its allies as well as the Left have won five times each. Once, in 1965, the seat went to the Kerala Congress, which was not part of either front. Antony was the first Congress leader to win from here in 1970, with a 360- vote margin. This is not a sure seat for the UDF. But Antony has steadfastly refused to migrate to a "safe seat", holding on to what many in the Congress say is an irrational, emotional attachment. This time, however, Antony and his supporters are more confident. They believe there is a virtual wave in favour of the UDF all over the district and say the Chertalla people realise their MLA will become chief minister. That Antony's majority in the 1996 polls (8385 votes) was the highest-ever for the UDF is a confidence booster. His opponent is the CPI's C.K. Chandrappan, who won the seat in 1991. Moving out of Kuttanchal, Antony repeats almost the same drill in villages on the other side of the lake. His campaign in Chertalla ends with a huge meeting addressed by Sonia Gandhi. Antony will not come back to Chertalla before polling day. His campaign for his own seat is over five days before the poll. The prospective chief minister has more important tasks ahead, one of them being his mission to other parts of the state to help colleagues who do not have much rapport with the voters.