In a fiercely fought by poll, the Congress retained the Thrikkakara Assembly seat in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, where the counting of votes was held on Friday. Congress candidate Uma Thomas, the widow of late legislator PT Thomas, defeated her nearest rival Dr Jo Joseph of the CPI(M) by a margin of over 25,000 votes as counting came to a close.
Right from the beginning of counting, Uma maintained a clear lead and kept her margin increasing with each passing round. The bypoll was held in the wake of the death of PT Thomas, who had represented the Congress citadel since 2016. Thomas had a margin of 14,300 votes in 2021, but his wife Uma is poised to win by a much higher margin.
The bypoll outcome has dashed the hopes of the ruling LDF which had strived to raise its tally in the 140-member Legislative Assembly to 100. It is also likely to be considered as a setback for the CPI(M)-led state government as the polls are seen as a referendum on the Left front’s rule. The government is currently in its second consecutive tenure in the state.
The campaign was led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his team of ministers. A long array of Left leaders visited the constitution as part of its door-to-door campaign. Vijayan had camped in the constituency and monitored the campaign machinery at the micro-level. As proposed semi high-speed rail corridor passes through the urban constituency of Thrikkakara, Vijayan and his government had looked at the verdict as a mandate for development.
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Thrikkakara is a Congress stronghold where the party has won all elections since the formation of the constitution in 2011. When a pro-Left wave swept Kerala in the 2016 and 2021 elections Assembly, Ernakulam district had stood firm with the Congress. Out of the 14 seats in Ernakulam, nine were bagged by the party in 2021.
The big win in Thrikkakara will provide a morale booster for the Congress, which has been struggling to stay afloat in Kerala after the rout in the 2021 Assembly elections. The bypoll has been an electoral test for its new state leadership led by K Sudhakaran, the current state unit president, and Opposition leader VD Satheesan. The win would help the duo further consolidate their positions in the state unit.
After Sudhakaran and Satheesan came to the helm, the CPI(M) and BJP have alleged that the Congress neglected minority communities in the party leadership. Satheesan was tagged “anti-Christian”. The late PT Thomas had been critical of the Catholic Church on several issues, but that did not impact the poll outcome and the party could retain the seat.
The Congress can also take solace that minority voters, particularly the Christian segment, have not abandoned the party in the bypoll despite the success of several Christian faces from the party.
The poll outcome proves that the exit of veteran leader and former Union minister KV Thomas could not spoil the party’s electoral prospects. The former AICC member was dismissed from the party after he shared the stage with LDF leaders at an election convention.
Another factor that seems to have worked in favor of the Congress is the exit of Twenty20 from the bypoll. In the 2021 election, Twenty20 – an outfit floated by garment major KITEX Group – had pocketed 13,800 votes. This time, it announced a tie-up with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) under the name People’s Welfare Alliance which called for a “conscience vote” in the polls.
The CPI(M) had fielded cardiologist Dr Jo Joseph, who works with a Catholic Church-run hospital in Kochi, in a bid to win over Christian votes. In several elections held in the past, the CPI(M) had clinched minority-dominated seats in Kerala from the Congress by fielding Christian professionals. However, the tactic did not work in Thrikkakara, with the CPI(M) even facing ire for having announced the party candidate on the premises of a Church-run hospital in the presence of Catholic priests. The move led many to construct that the cardiologist was a nominee of the Catholic Church.
The bypoll also saw the BJP playing the religion card. In an unprecedented manner, the saffron party tried all means to woo Christian votes. The campaign period also saw alleged hate speeches by senior politician PC George, even as the BJP was expected to win over a section of Christian votes by focusing on Islamic fundamentalism. While the CPI(M) and Congress maintained a distance from the hate speech controversy, the BJP openly supported George and cited his arrest of him as an example of the CPI(M)’s approach towards Christians.
For the first time in Kerala, the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Action, a BJP-backed Christian outfit, openly campaigned for the BJP candidate. George’s speeches and subsequent controversies had been a major poll plank of the BJP. In the last leg of the campaign, the BJP even deputed George for door-to-door campaigning in Christian households, but it did not help the party increase its vote share in the constitution.