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|September 6, 1999||
CPI-M tries a new trick in Ernakulam
D Jose in Ernakulam
The Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency in central Kerala, where 42 per cent voters are Christians, is known for its affiliation to Latin Catholic candidates, be they from whatever political formation. The Congress-led United Democratic Front had respected this preference. And so had the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist -- till now.
The CPI-M, which has had Latin Catholic candidates elected from here in 1996 and 1997, is supporting a Syrian Catholic. The party is perhaps emboldened by the fact that its candidate, Mani Vithayathil, is a close relative of apostolic administrator, Archbishop Mar Varkey Vithaythil of the Syrian Catholic denomination.
Earlier, the Catholic bishops had lamented the poor representation to its members in elections.
Archbishop Vithaythil, however, has disassociated himself from his relative's campaign. He made it clear the voters need not consider the relationship.
"I would consider it wrong for any Christian to vote for a candidate because he bears the same family name as mine," he says.
The Congress, to which the Catholics mainly appealed for more representation, had chosen to ignore them. In fact, the party was highly critical of the bishops' intervention in political matters, and several senior Congress leaders came down heavily against "open lobbying".
Incidentally, the CPI-M settled for Latin Catholic candidates in 1996 and 1997 after its attempt to get nominees from other communities elected failed in Ernakulam nine out of 12 times since 1957. The Latin community is the key to victory as they outnumber other communities.
Vithayathil, a bank executive, has a formidable rival in the Congress's Latin Catholic nominee George Eden. While Vithaythil is new to politics, the Congressman is a veteran of several electoral battles. Eden was a member of the Kerala assembly when his party asked him to contest the 1998 Lok Sabha poll against the CPI-M-supported independent, Sebastian Paul.
Paul was the choice in the 1997 by-election. Eden had convincingly beaten him, by 74,508 votes.
The Sonia factor, which helped Eden to a great extent in 1998, is not present now. The Congress hope is that the change in religious equations -- Latin Catholic versus Syrian -- could work to its nominee's advantage.
To add to the CPI-M nominee's woes, the Centre for Indian Trade Unions, which is at loggerheads with the party leadership, is not actively campaigning for him. The leadership is also vary of giving important assignments to the CITU, as they hold it responsible for the defeat of the party nominee in 1998.
The CITU has been at loggerheads with the leadership following disciplinary action against several top leaders, including central committee member M M Lawrence.
However, Vithayathil does not think that infighting would affect his prospects. He claimed that he had been getting full co-operation from all the wings of the CPI-M and its allies.
Though the Church has departed from its practice of direct intervention in elections, it is narrowing down to Mani Vithaythil. Not because he is the apostolic administrator's relative, but because his opponent 'has not been protecting the interests of the community'.
Sources said the bishops have not been happy with the reaction of top Congress leaders about its demand for more representation. The Church, they added, would issue guidelines regarding the qualities required in a people's representative.
Eden is not worried about his rival's contacts in the Church. His campaign managers feel that the vast network of personal relations he has built up as an MLA and MP would help him. His easy accessibility to people, they claim, would be a major factor in his favour.
However, the dissatisfaction in the K Karunakaran camp over denying ticket to former MP K V Thomas is a source of worry for the Congress. The Karunakaran group had striven hard to call back Thomas, who was kept out of the 1996 fray following his alleged involvement in the ocean survey espionage case.
Eden's followers say 'unity in the party' would take care of the problem.
The campaign has gained momentum after the Onam holidays. The Congress camp, which lost precious time due to the delay in clearing Eden's candidature, is now trying to catch up with the LDF.
Ernakulam is more or less a UDF bastion. It has returned Congress nominees nine times to date. The CPI-M could win the seat only in the 1967 and 1996 general elections and the 1997 by-election. In 1996, the party got the seat by fielding a former Congress leader.
The outcome here, thus, largely depends on whether the electorate is prepared to forget their traditional preference. Indications are that they aren't.
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