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September 5, 1999

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Chacko or Kurup: Whom will India's first 100% literate town choose?

D Jose in Kottayam

P C Chacko, who has been on the run because of the whims of some state Congress leaders, has the Kottayam seat this time to ensure his place in the Lok Sabha.

Chacko, who defeated his opponents in Idukki, Mukundapuram and Thrissur in the last three general elections, is without a powerful leader to back him after Sharad Pawar formed the Nationalist Congress Party.

Chacko -- whom Pawar helped in 1998 when senior Congress leader K Karunakaran tried to deny him a ticket -- refused to walk out of the party with his mentor in May.

A Catholic, he feels at home in Kottayam, where Christians constitute nearly 46 per cent of the million-strong electorate. His victory depends much on how he concedes the bishops's demands. The Vishala Catholic conference in Kottayam on July 27 had been highly critical of the Congress for its failure to protect the interests of the community despite receiving its support.

Chacko is close to Church leaders, but he has a formidable rival in Suresh Kurup, the only CPI-M candidate in Kerala to win against the Indira Gandhi assassination sympathy wave of 1984. When all the United Democratic Front candidates won, Kottayam returned Kurup by over 5,000 votes. This lends an air of unpredictability to the current contest in Kottayam, the first town in India to become cent per cent literate.

The literate voters in Kottayam look beyond caste, communal and political affiliations. This perhaps explains Ramesh Chennithala's defeat after a hat-trick in the last election. Chennithala, who increased his lead from 53,533 in 1989 to 62,622 in 1991 and 67,048 votes in 1996, has chosen to contest this election from Mavelikkara following his 1998 defeat.

Though the fall in cash crop prices -- especially rubber, as Kottayam is India's rubber capital -- will be a major issue, the electorate is concerned over national politics. The Hindus, who form 49 per cent of the voters, have withstood the Hindutva forces even after the National Democratic Party, the Nair community's political arm, severed its links with the Congress-led UDF.

The Nair Service Society, which holds sway over Nair votes, has adopted an equidistance policy with both the UDF and the Left Front. Its support was candidate specific in the last election.

The confusion in the CPI-M over supporting the Congress to form a government after the election could have changed equations in the constituency, where minorities constitute nearly 51 per cent of the electorate.

Kurup may have lost his early advantage after CPI-M Politburo member V S Achutanandan categorically stated that his party would not support the Congress bid to form the next government. Though the CPI-M claims the election will throw up a Third Front to provide an alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, many voters do not seem convinced considering the disarray in the Left and centrist parties, especially the Janata Dal.

The BJP, which polled 42,830 votes in the last election, has allotted the seat to its ally the Bharatiya Labour Party, not a major force in the constituency.

Kurup, whom Chennithala defeated in 1989, did not contest an election till 1998 when he was called back to end the Congressman's victory trail. Chennitala lost by a little over 5,000 votes.

Congress election committee chairman E J Augusthy told rediff.com that the anti-BJP sentiment in the constituency would benefit Chacko. Moreover, he added, that party infighting had been largely responsible for Chennithala's defeat in the last election. "We have made sure our candidate will not be defeated because of disunity this time," he said.

K S Suresh, Kurup's election manager, on the other hand, says the Marxist nominee has intervened in the rubber crisis as well as vehemently opposed the persecution of minorities in the country. Kurup, he said, was one of the first leaders to reach Jhabua, where the nuns were raped last year. Many Congress leaders, including Chacko and Chennithala, had failed to react to the incident, he claimed.

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