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|September 10, 1999||
An 'actor with attitude' vs an incorruptible Congressman
George Iype in Alappuzha
For a change, voters in Alappuzha in southern Kerala are experiencing a touch of glamour, which relieves them from the boredom that frequent elections generally bring.
Every morning, hordes of film stars, artists, poets and intellectuals descend on the narrow roads and bylanes of Alappuzha constituency with just one request: "Vote for Murali, the cultural hero of Malayalam cinema."
For the first time in Kerala, a popular film star has plunged into electoral politics. But, for a change and unlike in the neighbouring states where cinema and politics combine to make a heady cocktail, Murali is not seeking votes on any right wing slogans or platform. He is the Left Democratic Front candidate, more precisely that of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, the main LDF partner.
His fans call Murali an "actor with an attitude." His friends and well-wishers who include poetess Madhavikutty, poet Balachandran Chullikkad, actor Bharat Gopi and directors Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Venu Nagavally and Sreekumar among others have formed Open Forum, a cultural body to campaign for Murali. Open Forum's theme is: "election is a cultural action."
Murali is a greenhorn in politics but when he tours the constituency in a cavalcade of cars and jeeps with red flags streaming, big crowds gather to have a close look at him and listen eagerly to what he says.
"I admit I have limited depth in hardcore politics. But I promise you I will stand solidly behind you in solving your problems," he says as preface to one of his street-corner speeches.
Murali does not hail from Alappuzha, but from Kottarakkara near Kollam. He was an active union leader when he was an employee of the Kerala University before he entered filmdom in 1979.
Alappuzha, surrounded by backwaters, coconut palms and rice fields, radiates sylvan calm, yet beneath the surface the political temperature is quite high. Not least because Murali's opponent is the formidable V M Sudheeran of the Congress.
For Murali, the political novice, it will be a Herculean task to defeat Sudheeran who enjoys immense popularity and extensive contacts cutting across party barriers. Sudheeran who served as assembly speaker and as minister in the state cabinet, has won all eight elections he has contested so far --- three to the Lok Sabha from Alappuzha and four to the assembly from his home constituency of Manaloor.
Other than Murali and Sudheeran there is hardly anybody else in the fray. National Democratic Alliance candidate Thiruvarppu Parameswaran Nair and the CPI-ML Red Flag candidate C K Sanjeev are marginal.
Sudheeran, one of the few honest Congress leaders in Kerala, has a strong claim to fame. He has always been uncompromising on ethics and moral values. "I bow my head only before the local people, not before anybody else," he says as he sets out for his "modest" election campaign.
He stills lives in a small rented house at Kythavana near Alappuzha town. No cavalcade of cars accompany him for the campaigning. Mostly he walks the town's busy streets alone and asks the vote of each and every individual. When he gets out of town, he gets into a Mahindra jeep along with three to four party workers.
"This is my secret of success. I am not here to prove any money and muscle power, both of which I do not have. I have been getting the support of the people unfailingly because I have been serving them all these years," Sudheeran points out. "I am the only MP in Kerala who has fully utilised the MP's constituency development fund," he adds.
It was in 1977 that a young Sudheeran was sent to Alappuzha by his mentor A K Antony to wrest the seat from the CPI-M's hands, which he did with alacrity. From them on he has never looked back.
His themes this time around is to launch a ''Clean Alappuzha Project" that will provide drinking water to Kuttanad, the rice bowl of Kerala, check the pollution of the backwaters and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
The CPI-M is scathing in its attack of Sudheeran, but the Congress leader desists from reacting in kind. "I am in fact a fan of Murali the actor. He is such a superb actor that many a time he has brought tears to my eyes. So why should I criticism him?" Sudheeran remarks with characteristic simplicity.
But there are two factors that worry Sudheeran. First, the Congress has been riven by rivalries between the Antony and Karunakaran factions in Alappuzha and he fears it would affect his chances. Secondly, all these years he and other Congress leaders have been taking on the liquor mafia in the constituency. But in the past one year, the Congress and Sudheeran have softened their stand on the mafia and how this is going to impact on the voters remains to be seen.
Alappuzha has 10,35,442 voters. Of these the 50,567 new voters will be decisive in terms of unaccounted shifting votes. Who will capture the imagination of these debutants: the movie star or the sterling politician? The verdict will be much awaited and not in Alappuzha alone.
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