Election heat in Kerala's Palakkad: Development and despair collide as parties battle for votes

While the battle hots up in sweltering Palakkad, discussions are centred around electoral tactics & infrastructure development.
Campaigning is subdued in the rural areas as people get on with their daily lives amid a scorching summer. A scene from Mankara junction.
Campaigning is subdued in the rural areas as people get on with their daily lives amid a scorching summer. A scene from Mankara junction.

Travelling in and around Palakkad town and the adjoining villages leaves one wondering whether the main contest this election is between Congress’ young turk Shafi Parambil and CPM’s A Vijayaraghavan. Such is Shafi’s larger-than-life political image among common people and Congressmen that it would appear the fate of the UDF candidate and incumbent MP V K Sreekandan is linked to Shafi’s influence in the constituency.

Five of the seven assembly segments in the Palakkad parliamentary constituency have LDF MLAs while the remaining two — Mannarkkad and Palakkad — are represented by UDF legislators. At the same time, in Kerala, Palakkad has a special place in the Sangh Parivar scheme of things. This is one constituency the BJP counts as its future dark horse, with C Krishna Kumar being the NDA candidate. In the 2016 and 2021 assembly elections, the BJP finished runner-up in Palakkad and Malampuzha. While the Left is holding on to its strongholds, the question is: ‘for how long?’ This Lok Sabha election will tell us more.

Aside from electoral politics, the lives of ordinary men and women in the villages are full of despair. And the small vendors and bakers across the constituency don’t have too happy a tale to tell. Despite the establishment of IIT and industrial units, infrastructure development is the main point of discussion among Palakkad residents. Neither the violation of the Parambikulam-Aliyar interstate water sharing agreement by Tamil Nadu nor the drought-affected Chittur farmers feature in the debates. There is no discussion on the plight of the Scheduled Tribes in Attappadi either.

With a scorching sun raising the temperature to above 40 degrees Celsius, people in general venture out only after 4pm. As people young and old assemble in groups at the Kotta Maidan, the discussions slowly turn to campaign tactics employed by the three main candidates.

“Under Shafi’s clout, Sreekandan has every chance of winning a second term,” says Ashkar, who runs a catering business. “As an MLA, Shafikka (brother Shafi) has done so much for Palakkad that it is a huge advantage for the UDF candidate,” says Shuhaib, a fitness trainer in New Delhi.

However, Ramachandran, a retired BSNL official, reckons it is a direct fight between the Congress and the BJP. “There is an anti-incumbency sentiment against the state government,” he says.

Meanwhile, Narayanan, a CPM supporter, questions the logic of his friend’s observation. “When a majority of the assembly constituencies are with the LDF, how is that possible?” he asks.

Crossing the Parali bridge on the Shoranur-Pattambi road reveals an almost dried up river Kalpathi — an indication of drought ahead. However, the intensity of campaigning is palpable with hoardings and buntings on display either side of the road. “There are chances for both CPM and Congress in Palakkad,’’ says Sabu, a fireworks merchant at Parali junction.

Meanwhile, Komalam, a homemaker awaiting a bus, has words of praise for Sreekandan. “He has initiated a number of development measures,” she says.

At the same time, she has a different opinion about the panchayat administration. “People got more employment opportunities during the LDF rule. Now, the state of the roads is pathetic. The supply of drinking water too is in disarray,” Komalam says.

Sitting amid empty shelves in a makeshift roadside stall, Saseendran, a booth committee secretary of the BJP, gives a glimpse into the lives of low-income villagers. “After the Covid pandemic, low-income people had reduced spending while the upper-class people were spending a lot in malls,” he points out.

Saseendran does not see a chance for his party’s candidate this election. “Funds haven’t been released for the campaigns yet at the booth level. We have only notices to distribute to the houses. I think the restriction on expenses was introduced as there were allegations of misappropriation of funds by leaders during the last election,” he says.

With Palakkad having been a CPM fortress, the growth of the BJP is seen as a threat by the former. And the rivalry often results in unpleasant situations, says Ratheesh who has been involved in the bakery business for the past 13 years. “If you are a BJP worker, then the panchayat would build a bus stop in front of your shop, blocking the view. And if you start selling crackers during Vishu, they would bring people next to your stall to sell crackers,” he says.

Campaigning is subdued in the villages as people are busy with their daily lives, with the collapse of the rural economy having affected the lives of the poor and the small vendors.

“With the arrival of migrant labourers, the economy has come to a standstill,” says Satheesh, a vendor. “These labourers spend money only on essential items and send the rest to their families. Hence, we have little business. The small vendors are falling into a debt trap.”

Mundoor resident Santhosh, who has been running a bakery for over a decade, says: “This was once a red fort. But it is slowly changing.” Moving along the interior roads on the Ottapalam-Palakkad route, lamp posts booked by the RSS-VHP on one side and the CPM on the other come into view. But the underlying motive should remain democratic, right?

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