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Battle for ‘Kerala’s Gujarat’ seen as verdict on BJP’s southern push

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The electoral contest in Nemom, a little known constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, is being seen as a possible verdict on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) bid to expand its influence in the southern state. The fight for the only assembly seat won by the saffron party in the last assembly elections has become a battle of prestige, as the party candidate describes Nemom as “Kerala’s Gujarat”, suggesting it was BJP’s impregnable fortress. The Congress and the Left are desperate to prove him wrong.

“I came here to win. I will stop the BJP run not in Nemom alone, but also in the whole state,” said Congress candidate K Muraleedharan, who is also son of former chief minister K Karunakaran and a sitting MP from Vadakara. Karunakaran represented Nemom in 1982.

The Congress fielded Muraleedharan (64) from this seat overlooking its principle of not fielding any sitting MP in the assembly election. At one point, it even considered fielding former CM Oommen Chandy from this seat. The ruling CPI(M) has fielded party strongman V Sivankutty (66), who represented the seat in 2011 before losing it to BJP veteran O Rajagopal, a former minister in Vajpayee government in 2016 elections.

With nearly two lakh voters, the urban constituency has a sizable upper caste Hindu population, followed by a good presence of Nadar community and 20% minority voters. Some say the BJP considers Nemom to be its laboratory for expansion plans in Kerala, which could explain why the BJP candidate and former Mizoram governor, Kummanam Rajasekharan (68), said “it was the party’s Gujarat and battle for Kerala will begin here”, posing a challenge to his opponents.

Congress and CPI (M), predictably, want the saffron challenge to be nipped in the bud.

“Kerala is not fertile for divisive forces. Nemom will remain the BJP’s first and the last seat,” said former defence minister A K Antony, who played a key role in fielding Muraleedharan from the seat.

“Both parties, the Congress and the CPM have teamed up against me. They have just one-point agenda to beat the BJP. But the party will emerge a decisive force in the state and Nemom will mark the beginning,” said Rajasekharan after having a quick ‘sadya’ (traditional Kerala meal served on plantain leaves) at a party worker’s house. He quit the governor’s post in 2019 to contest against Congress candidate Shashi Tharoor in the Lok Sabha polls, but lost.

The former RSS prachark (full time worker) said Muraleedharan’s candidature was much hyped yet it won’t impact his chances. The party is planning to parade some of its tallest leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah by the month- end to bolster Rajasekharan’s campaign. “Nemom is our fort. Even Rahul Gandhi can’t win here,” said party state president K Surendran. To create the Gujarat connect, the party is showing slides of developmental works carried out in Gujarat under BJP’s two-decade rule.

The LDF candidate Sivankutty was also confident of his victory. He claimed the entire state was set to rewrite its poll history of the last four decades by giving a second term to Pinarayi Vijauan government, which he claimed, set a new benchmark in development. “The BJP is pumping in money, but Kerala is not suitable for its communal agenda,” he said.

In the 2016 polls, Rajagopal had defeated Sivankutty with a margin of over 800 votes and UDF’s Surendran Pillai was a distant third. This time, the main fight is said to be between the Congress and the BJP on the seat.

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