Chengannur, Kerala: In one corner of Kerala, it may seem that the 2019 general elections have come early. The streets are lined up with eye-catchy posters with politicians smiling back at voters. The roads are jammed with the leaders rallying their voters up and down the town. Campaign vehicles mounted with loudspeakers zip past the town’s main corners every now and then, carrying a ripple of frenzy through the town.

The town is Chengannur in Alappuzha district, where a bypoll will be held on 28 May. The bypoll is seen as crucial as it comes at a time when both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, are struggling to resist the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state, and across India. The strategies they develop could indicate how the political winds will blow ahead of the Lok Sabha polls of 2019.

In his campaign rallies, CPM’s Kerala head Kodiyeri Balakrishnan insists that the bypoll is a tripolar contest, indirectly passing on the message that BJP has a fighting chance. The CPM thinks the minority votes will work in favour of them, especially among the constituency’s influential Orthodox Christian voters, who do not have a high opinion of the Hindutva politics of the BJP, according to a member of the Orthodox church’s management, who did not want to be named. Significantly, the CPM’s candidate, Saji Cherian, who has been an active party worker as its Alappuzha district secretary, is a minority candidate.

In public, local Orthodox priests have asked people to vote according to their conscience, instead of directly asking to support the Congress, which had their backing for a long time now. Indirectly, instructions have come from the top echelons to support “whoever Pinarayi Vijayan asks them to support", according to the member quoted above. In return, the CPM has offered to stand by them in their dispute with the Jacobite Syrian sect, over a disputed church, according to him.

Balakrishnan, however, refuted allegations of any understanding with the priests.

The Congress seems to have already sensed a threat. In his campaign trail, A.K. Antony, former Union minister and the star campaigner of the party, has been aggressively talking about Chengannur as a bipolar contest between the Congress and the CPM, indirectly undermining the BJP’s power to swing votes. It is part of a well-scripted attempt to block minority votes going to the CPM, according to a senior Congress leader who asked not to be named.

The leader also pointed out that Oommen Chandy, former chief minister and arguably the most favourite politician of the Orthodox church in Kerala, has been camping in Chengannur for the last one month, meeting with the priests.

While struggling not to alienate the minority voters, the Congress is also betting on a consolidation of Hindu votes, the mainstay of BJP’s candidate Sreedharan Pillai, he said. Pillai hit a rapport with Hindu voters in his previous attempt in Chengannur in 2016, when he came third with 42,282 votes, only 2,615 votes less than the Congress in second place.

Significantly, the Congress has picked a locally known person from the Nair community, D. Vijayakumar, as their candidate this time. Unlike P.C. Vishnunath, who was the choice of the Congress in 2016, Vijayakumar wears his religious devotion on the sleeve. He is a top member of boards populated with Hindus such as a society to facilitate devotees of Lord Ayyappa.

Clearly, both parties consider any advantages to the BJP in the poll fight as a major setback to them. It demonstrates why, despite trouncing the Left in Tripura and almost overtaking the Congress to take power in Karnataka, it would be tough for the BJP to make the lotus bloom in Kerala in 2019. “It’s a tough fight. BJP understand the difficulties," said Kerala party spokesperson J.R. Padmakumar.

“BJP’s polarization is changing Kerala’s election scenario. It is no more about issues. Both the CPM and the Congress are going for micromanaging caste and religious management, which is ironically BJP’s election strategy elsewhere in India," said J. Prabhash, a political analyst and professor of political science at Kerala University.

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