The muscle power in Kerala election campaigns: how party workers use force to keep voters away

Alternative political groups are finding it difficult to spread their ideas of development when the traditional party workers rely on threats and attacks to keep scare them away
The muscle power in Kerala election campaigns: how party workers use force to keep voters away

No polling is ever complete without a few hassles in and around one or two polling stations, as it is a familiar sight around the country. However, the situation at a booth in Kochi’s Kizhakkambalam yesterday was not your usual “hassle” nor was it a good sign for democracy. The situation is as complicated as it is divisive. Take for example the recent local election polls, where things have taken a different route since 2015. New political ideas have entered the race, trying to replace or repair the “broken system of promise-and-forget”.

The latest entrant in the race is the Thiruvananthapuram Vikasana Munnettam (TVM), floated by the Awake Trivandrum movement, and supported by members of the various trade bodies, Trivandrum Chamber of Commerce and Industry (TCCI), and members of society. The party campaigns on a “development-first” platform and “promises not to forget it once in power”. Despite being new and relatively unknown, the party president SN Raghuchandran Nair reported facing trouble from other parties.

The LDF has no need to threaten us. They believe that their votes are safe thanks to their confidence in their cadre system and they believe that we could be helpful since we might take away the votes that would go to their opposition. Meanwhile, the UDF called us up and asked us if we could form an alliance. Since we are an apolitical group, we declined
Raghuchandran Nair, President of TVM

“At first, they thought we were not serious about it, and when we came up with our candidate list, they understood that we are going forward with it. Different political parties called our candidates and asked them to stay away from elections,” said Raghuchandran Nair, who added that it was not easy task moving forward. The TVM was strict about choosing determined people to be their candidates, those who wouldn’t withdraw from the elections even if they face trouble.

The fact that important people consisted of TVM’s top spots helped keep threats to a minimum. Raghuchandran is himself an established individual in the city: he is the President of Awake Trivandrum as well as the President of TCCI. Most of the threatening remained at minimal for the election. “The LDF has no need to threaten us. They believe that their votes are safe thanks to their confidence in their cadre system and they believe that we could be helpful since we might take away the votes that would go to their opposition. Meanwhile, the UDF called us up and asked us if we could form an alliance. Since we are an apolitical group, we declined,” says Raghuchandran.

The muscle power in Kerala election campaigns: how party workers use force to keep voters away
TVM: A new local political start up in Kerala to lock horns with major political parties

The BJP, on the other hand, had a different problem with them. The District President VV Rajesh had called them up and asked why they were using development as a platform, and the organisation replied that it was because the politicians "promise and forget". The second issue they faced was when the Rajesh had to go against one of TVM’s candidates at Poojappura. The BJP District President asked TVM to withdraw their candidate, and since that was not happening, they decided to put pressure via Raghuchandran’s contacts and close associates. The plan didn’t work and the campaigning continued without any withdrawal.

However, the situation was different in Kizhakkambalam. A group of men had manhandled a husband in front of his wife, for the crime of trying to exercise his franchise. He, however, returned with police protection to the polling booth. This is not how democracy is supposed to function. To understand the crux of the problem one must look into the political circumstances that separate Kizhakkambalam from the rest of the places in Kerala.

Twenty20 Kizhakkambalam is a non-profit organisation that dived into elections citing misappropriation, corruption, and ineffectiveness of the political parties to provide for the people. Twenty20 won the panchayat with a thumping majority and they have proved effective in dealing with the people’s problems. “They have marked their presence in their panchayat as well as nearby areas. The party pushed developmental projects, marked optimum expenses, and still saved a considerable amount at the end of their term. It helped establish them further, and the nearby localities were floating towards the idea that Twenty20 was pushing,” says Raghuchandran Nair.

The State and the Election Commission ensured full security at the event and yet two people were attacked. The incident has forced many groups, including Twenty20 and Better Kochi Response Group (BKRG), to vehemently demand a repolling

The party wasn’t free of criticism, as many had claimed that Twenty20 handling a panchayat was akin to a corporate takeover of a governmental institution. This arises from the fact that Kizhakkambalam was promoted by the Kitex Group and its Managing Director Sabu M Jacob. According to him, they won because the traditional system failed and they gained power via the mandate of the people.

The political parties realised a threat and joined forces. In a rare sight in Kerala, Kizhakkambalam features an LDF independent candidate contesting with the support of the UDF. Yet, they felt the need to address the issue via violence. According to eyewitnesses, a group of people manhandled at least two people at the booths alleging that the victims were not voters from the area. However, official sources confirm that they were indeed in the rolls, and had arrived with legitimate and officially approved identity cards. The local leaders of both parties had claimed that they were unaware of the incident and had put the blame on Sabu for “for fabricating the attacks”.

Sabu, on the other hand, had informed that many had approached the High Court for protection. Many reported that the workers of other parties had threatened them from voting. The State and the Election Commission ensured full security at the event and yet two people were attacked. The incident has forced many groups, including Twenty20 and Better Kochi Response Group (BKRG), to vehemently demand a repolling. S Gopakumar, the founder of BKRG, claims that even if counting reveals that Twenty20 won, there must be a repolling since everyone has a right to vote since some 250 people were reportedly unable to vote due to threatening.

“It isn’t about whether the attackers are punished or not, nor is it about whether Twenty20 wins or not. Twenty20 might win, but we still need repolling, because such violence against voters cannot be repeated in Kerala. The violence people witnessed in the area is abhorrent and ridiculous for Kerala,” says Gopakumar. He added that they are moving ahead with the demand for repolling and anything short of it is unacceptable.

Coming back to TVM and Raghuchandran Nair, the latter feels that they might experience the same in Thiruvananthapuram. With plans to contest in the upcoming assembly elections, the party feels that they have to prepare for any threats. “We think it will happen to us as well, especially if we win or pick up second or third. The people who lose because of us will not be happy with us,” he adds.

The TVM President emphasise on the need to develop a proper cadre system just like the LDF and BJP’s. “Even for this election we didn’t have a proper booth and ward level committees and because of that we never had enough people for the election and there were political threats at many locations. We had to hire people from outside since the locals are afraid of attacks from other parties — directly or indirectly,” he says, adding that it is important seeing as how their performance in the local polls will determine their threat at the assembly elections.

At the end of it, he says and emphasises that he doesn’t condone violence but adds that the Gandhian philosophy doesn’t always work here. “While developing the cadres, we need tough nuts for the party, especially if we are expecting threats and attacks from every corner. This is not to attack others, but to protect ourselves,” Raghuchandran adds.

It is indeed a sad sight when democratic processes are hindered by violence and that new alternatives to traditional parties need to think about muscle before campaigning. While we can calmly say that things are good compared to other places, we must occasionally think about reality without having it compared to apples and oranges. The reality is that two people were attacked while they were trying to exercise their rights, hundreds were scared away from doing it, and one person had to get the police involved to do something as simple as voting.

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