It was quarter past eight on a Monday morning and the city was reluctantly waking up to the week ahead. But Bennet Abraham, the CPI candidate from Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, had already begun his campaign in Vattiyoorkavu Assembly segment with oodles of energy and a high-voltage smile.
At Pangode from where Bennet began the day’s campaign, some of the red plastic chairs for the audience were empty. Instead, supporters preferred to stand and watch impassively from adjacent shops. Former minister and CPM leader M Vijayakumar, who inaugurated the day’s campaign, soon went all guns blazing. Predictably, at the receiving end were Bennet’s rival candidates Shashi Tharoor and O Rajagopal. After heating up the campaign scene, Vijayakumar handed over the mike to Bennet. “Brothers and sisters. I was born in Thiruvananthapuram and I grew up here. Over the past 28 years, I have done a lot of humanitarian work and the people of Thiruvananthapuram know that very well. Since I struggled a lot during my younger days, I can understand the problems of the poor and the underprivileged,” said 55-year-old Bennet, a medical doctor who is now the Director of a self-financing medical college under the Church of South India. Though his words evoked an instant applause from the audience, a few smirks from autorickshaw drivers and shopkeepers nearby did not go unnoticed.
“My rival candidate, the sitting MP, boasts of development. But we are not blind, are we? All the development that he boasts of exists only on paper. I don’t want to be an MP whose work remains only on paper. Also, I will never cause ignominy to society or the LDF which has fielded me,” Bennet said indirectly targeting Tharoor but carefully avoiding any ‘below-the-belt’ remarks. Red shirt-clad headload workers were seen distributing red ribbons and white ‘thorthu’ (cotton towel) among the audience. These were soon used by the supporters to garland the candidate. With his face barely visible in the bunch of red garlands, Bennet set out on the campaign trail.
“We don’t want womanisers... We don’t want religious fanatics... We want Bennet, our own Bennet...” a song in typical folk style blared out from the loudspeaker of the campaign vehicle - an old Mahindra jeep poorly re-modelled into a chariot. The jeep crawled through narrow lanes, steep inclines and potholed roads with a beaming Bennet firmly atop. Supporters followed the jeep on bikes bearing red flags and festoons.
Whenever the vehicle’s elevated roof touched overhead telephone cables, Bennet himself was seen lifting the wires using a pole, much to the surprise of onlookers. Six days of continuous campaigning seemed to have made him an expert in the act. Being a working day, there was hardly any movement in most of the houses on the roadside. But the candidate continued to wave energetically at all the houses assuming that at least the womenfolk may be watching him through the windows in between their daily chores.
It was a blank look that Bennet’s appeal for votes evoked from most of the voters in the urban pockets of Nair-dominated Vattiyoorkavu Assembly segment. However, he got a rousing response from ‘lakshamveedu’ colonies and poor households. Women gave him reassuring looks, nodding their heads in agreement but the men were a bit sombre in their response.
Speaking to Express on the sidelines of his campaign, Bennet claimed that he was a “hardcore LDF worker”. Asked why he is often referred to as a candidate who was thrust upon the voters, Bennet said: “See, I am the only candidate who hails from Thiruvananthapuram. It is not me but the other two candidates who are imported to this constituency,” he said. In between throwing ‘thorthu’ and red ribbons to people standing on the roadside, Bennet said: “Just look at the rousing response to my campaign. The entire LDF cadre is firmly behind me.” However, his speeches at over a dozen venues were nothing but staccato. “Brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, when you go to the polling booths on April 10, vote for the ‘sickle and ears of corn’ symbol, for an India that is free of corruption, price rise and communalism,” Bennet said. His words sounded as if the speech was being played out from a tape, evoking little enthusiasm among the listeners. However, even after touching over 90 venues during the day, Bennet was still game for more. Departing from the prepared itinerary, the CPI candidate continued campaigning even late into the night. With his trademark smile and enthusiasm still intact, Bennet firmly believes that there will be a ‘red upsurge’ this time around at the hustings.