TRIKARIPUR (Kasaragod): A lone brand new Marazzo with KL-07 registration is climbing the winding road from Bheemanady to Kattamkavala in West Eleri panchayat. The white MPV is packed with men in white khadi.
The vehicle crosses the Chattamala waterfalls, then the Chattamala valley, and after around 30 minutes and travelling for 12km, the car pulls up at Kattamkavala bus stop, an old world 1,175 ft above sea level.
A group of UDF workers has been waiting for their candidate for a long time. So are two tractors, the election symbol of the UDF candidate. The Mahila Morcha district president Shanthamma Philip killed time by speaking on the Congress manifesto and the party's flagship Nyay Scheme, which promises to give Rs 6,000 to poor families every month.
The UDF's candidate M P Joseph -- a former UN diplomat and native of Thrippunithura in Ernakulam -- is a Congressman but is contesting as a nominee of Kerala Congress Joseph faction. He does not waste time and straight away begins his stump speech. "This place reminds me of Switzerland. I was there for years when I worked for the International Labour Organisation," he says. But unlike Switzerland, there is no tourist here nor any tourism infrastructure, he says. "Forget foreign tourists, not even people from Kasaragod are coming here," he says.
He trains his guns on the CPM, which has been winning the Trikaripur constituency since its inception. "Trikaripur is untouched by the light of development because the CPM converted Trikaripur to a slave colony. As Gandhi fought for freedom, you should also fight back to free yourself from the mindset of slavery," he says.
"Elect me and I will produce an IAS officer from this constituency in five to eight years," Joseph says and adds he will start a civil services training academy in the constituency.
Joseph says in several panchayats in coastal areas there is an acute drinking water crisis. "Denial of clean drinking water is a human rights violation," he says, not forgetting to add that this constituency was represented by chief ministers E M S Namboodiripad and E K Nayanar. Biju Varkey, who runs a shop at Kattamkavala and a member of the Kerala Congress Joseph faction, says the candidate makes sense. "But he is a tad late to come. People will not know him," he says.
'Cheemeni reminds me of Pol Pot's Cambodia'
The candidate moves to Paramba, where he speaks to TNIE. He says he was reminded of Pol Pot's Cambodia when he passed through Kayyur-Cheemeni gram panchayat. "People have no political freedom in Cheemeni. Party leaders rule these villages," he says, losing his temper.
He shot off a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind calling these 'party villages' as 'Nano Chinese Republics', where booth agents of other parties cannot even sit in polling booths. Polling in such booths -- he has identified 73 of them -- crosses 90%, and almost all of the votes are for the CPM's candidate, Joseph alleges. On Tuesday, his campaign posters were torn at Thimiri in Cheemeni.
Prince Thomas, a young Congress worker in Paramba, says the UDF candidate is not exaggerating. In 2005, Thomas says, he got admission to E K Nayanar Memorial Government College at Elerithattu, 8km from Paramba. "That is the same college where our MLA and CPM candidate M Rajagopalan studied. But I could go to the college for only two days and both the days, the SFI activists slapped me for my political work in Paramba," he says. Thomas dropped out and now works as a welder.
Prasanth Kumar T K, another Congress grassroots worker, says his elder brother Prashob won a students' union seat in the same college in 2007. "He was brought home by the police lest they would have attacked him that day," says Kumar. Prashob is now with the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and is deployed in Chhattisgarh.
Now, for elections, the CPM will talk of roads they built in the past five years. "But don't forget this constituency was with the CPM forever," he says
Revival of a dying school
A low-lying coconut grove is all decked up with red buntings and red flags at Cheriyakkara in Kayyur village, on the banks of the Kariyankode river. Women -- young and old -- have started trickling in by 11 am. By 11.30 am, the crowd swells to around 60 women.
LDF candidate and MLA Rajagopalan is running late. It is his last day of public meetings. CPM leader and Nileshwar block panchayat president Madhavan Maniyara takes the stage. "I am told the Opposition candidate is alleging there is no political freedom in Kayyur, a land where there are no walls. He does not even know the way to reach here," says Maniyara.
Just 200m from the site of the election meeting is the Government Lower Primary School. "The governments of A K Antony and Oommen Chandy tried to close it down saying the school is not financially viable. We took out protest marches to protect it," he says.
In June 2016, when the school reopened, there was only one student in Class I. "The teachers and the residents revived the school. This academic year, already 14 students have joined Class I, and the total students in the LP school have crossed 70," he said.
M Mahesh Kumar, the teacher and the brain behind the turnaround, won the National Award for Teachers last year. Rajagopalan gave Rs 1 crore from the MLA fund for further development, Maniyara says. "Across the state, when 5 lakh students dropped out from government schools in the five years of UDF rule, nearly 6 lakh students joined government schools in the five years of LDF rule. You have experienced it," he says.
Why Kayyur is a communist bastion
In the crowd was a 70-year-old Balan Paniyil. He was born in Kayyur and now lives in Cherupuzha in Kannur district. Every year, he comes to his homeland on March 29 to observe Kayyur Martyrs' Day.
On March 29, 1943, the British had hanged four young men of Kayyur for taking part in a peasant rebellion. The uprising against exploitation of the peasantry is considered the first communist peasant rebellion. The martyrs' memorial at Cheriyakkara has become a site of communist pilgrimage.
"Here there is no other political party," says Balan. "Even if there are some people who believe in another ideology, they won't come forward to work. So you will see only red here," he says. To be sure, the LDF wins all the 16 wards in Kayyur-Cheemeni panchayat.
Balan was an arecanut plucker but had to retire early because he suffered a cardiac arrest. "The party gave me money for my bypass surgery," he says.
Another in the crowd was T Narayanan (67), who retired as a school assistant. His father K P Vellunga had taken part in the uprising and later became the first president of Kayyur-Cheemeni panchayat. "Cheriyakkara is still an agrarian society. But young people find jobs in the construction industry or the military," he says.
At 12.20 pm, Rajagopalan is ushered in by young boys and girls riding cycles. Till then, the crowd did not fidget once. They were served tea and upma and the promise that the LDF government will give pension to all homemakers if elected.
"There is not a family or voter who has not benefited from the government rule in Kerala," the MLA says. "The government kept its word. And now big industries will soon come here," he says. In 2016, he defeated Congress's K P Kunhikannan by 16,959 votes, cornering nearly 51% votes. "This time, there is no hand or ladder symbol (on EVM machines). So UDF voters need not have any guilt in voting for development this time," he says.
He says he helped bring in projects for Rs 1,436 crore in the constituency in the past five years. Around 53% of the fund was used to better the roads. "When I became MLA, only 5% of the PWD roads were Macadam roads. Today, 95% of the roads in the constituency are Macadam roads," he said.
Speaking to TNIE, Rajagopalan dismisses allegations of lack of political freedom. "His allegations stem from blind hatred for communism. But I am opposed to the usage of the term 'party village'. Here, most of the people are supporters of LDF. That's all," he says.
When asked what would be his priority in the next term, he says: "Drinking water. Five panchayats in the coastal belt need a sustainable solution to drinking water shortage," he says.
On jobs, he says the government shelved the proposal to set up an IT park in Cheemeni because it is a rural area and may not be viable. "So, now the 100-acre land has been given to the department of industries to bring in industries," he says.
On his rival, Rajagopalan says: "In Trikaripur constituency, the majority of the votes are political. Individuals do not matter". And Joseph has this to say about Rajagopalan: "One day he will free himself and join us".