NAGERCOIL: With the Congress’ national footprint shrinking and the BJP’s appeal growing, the clash between the two parties in the bypoll for the Kanniyakumari Lok Sabha constituency will be keenly watched. The by-election sees Congress’ Vijay Vasanth, a 37-year-old fresher take on 69-year-old veteran Pon Radhakrishnan, in what promises to be a tantalising contest.
The by-election, necessitated by the demise of Vijay’s father and businessman H Vasanthakumar of the iconic Vasanth & Co brand, will be the ninth parliamentary election for Radhakrishnan, a former Union minister. While Radhakrishnan has only been elected twice, in 1999 and 2014, the BJP has been working for decades to capitalise on the demographic profile of the region. Around 60 per cent of voters in the constituency hail from the Nadar community and both candidates belong to the community as well.
Another 19 per cent are fishers, most of them Christians. The district itself is unique that minority religions are the majority here – 48.65% are Hindus, 46.85% Christians and 4.2% Muslims (2011 Census). Polarisation on communal lines can be traced back to religious riots in the 1980s. Accordingly, minorities are expected to back the Congress candidate. However, Radhakrishnan’s personal popularity among voters along with Vijay’s newcomer status could work in the BJP’s favour.
Although he lost in 2019 to Vasanthakumar by a whopping 2,59,933 votes, Radhakrishnan still garnered a significant vote share of 35 percent. Voters recall his five-year stint as MP and Union minister fondly, mentioning the developmental works he facilitated. The BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK is also in his favour. Vijay, an MBA graduate who has been a businessman while dabbling in films, is no stranger to politics. He was a Congress member. The general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee will be buoyed by the widespread goodwill enjoyed by his late father.
Of the six Assembly segments that fall under the Parliamentary constituency, three (Killiyoor, Vilavancode and Colachel) have largely voted for the Grand Old Party, while a fourth (Padmanabhapuram) has voted for DMK, in the last three Assembly polls. Only Kanniyakumari and Nagercoil segments have alternated between the Dravidian majors.
The key issues here include lack of job opportunities for youth and below-par industrial development, but it is the trans-shipment port project near Kanniyakumari that has become the focus of the DMK alliance’s attack on the BJP. The Centre in 2016 proposed an International Container Transhipment Terminal near Enayam, but facing opposition from the fishing community, scrapped the project. In February 2021, it floated an Expression of Interest for a similar hub at another site in the district. After local fishers again warned of an agitation, and with elections looming, the Centre cancelled the plan.
The BJP has since gone out of its way to woo fishers, with Modi touting a three-pillared coastal development plan, a separate ministry for fisheries and the Centre’s success in rescuing local fishers from the custody of the Sri Lankan Navy. In 2019, an anti-BJP sentiment was credited for Kanniyakumari voting for the DMK alliance. Whether such a sentiment still prevails here remains to be seen.
Speaking to Express, Vijay Vasanth said: “We will establish an airport in Kanniyakumari district and a helipad with helicopter facility for rescuing fishers (during inclement weather). We will also generate employment opportunities for youth and establish a rubber park. I will also work to bring Kanniyakumari railways under the Madurai division and make efforts to shift control of the Padhmanabapuram palace from Kerala to Tamil Nadu.”
Meanwhile Pon Radhakrishnan assured, “I plan to make the Kanniyakumari the No 1 district, generate employment opportunities for the youth, implement the pending four-way road project and doubling of rail lines. The Kanniyakumari government medical college hospital will be made a multispecialty hospital and rubber park projects will be implemented. Only projects desired by the people will be implemented.”