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February 19, 1998


Constituency Profile/ Ponnani

Candidates belonging to other parties need not apply!

This north Kerala constituency flies the Indian Union Muslim League flag -- candidates belonging to other parties need not apply!

Ponnani, in fact, has returned IUML's national president, Ghulam Mohammad Banatwala, with impressive winning margins, in every single general election since 1977 (with the exception of 1991) -- and Elections '98 seems set to continue the trend.

In 1991, Banatwala shifted to Maharashtra in order to facilitate then IUML president Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait to shift from neighbouring Manjeri, to the Ponnani constituency. The 1996 election, however, saw Banatwala returning to the constituency he has made his own, and securing a winning margin of 79,925 votes against his CPI rival.

This time round, the battle -- if you can call it that -- presents a striking contrast of personalities. Thus, while Banatwala is a 65-year-old veteran, his rival Minu Mumtaz of the CPI (a partner in the ruling Left Democratic Front coalition) is all of 31.

If Banatwala is a poll-scarred greybeard whose measured mode of speech-making is familiar to habitues of Parliament House, then Mumtaz is a total novice who is yet to set foot outside the boundaries of the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district, wherein Ponnani is situated.

By all indications, then, it's a no contest. The CPI, however, is looking not so much for a win, but for a further erosion of the IUML support base in the constituency.

That the years have brought with it a steady decline in IUML's vote bank is very evident -- thus Banatwala, who won by a margin of 117,546 in 1977, has seen it whittled down to 79,295 by 1996. And the CPI believes that the trend will continue.

Thus, while the Left coalition realises the impossibility of cutting down the gnarled old political oak with one swing of the electoral axe, it apparently believes that by chipping away steadily at the trunk, it will cause the tree to fall, sooner than later.

To speed up the process, the CPI this time is playing two cards -- one being the use of a local candidate, the other being the fact that this candidate is a woman and, hopes the CPI, will be able to garner support from the voters of her own sex.

Interestingly, as per the electoral roster, the 47,465 women voters in Ponnani far outnumber their male counterparts.

Mumtaz, who hails from a Leftist Muslim family of Tirur, took to active politics in her mid-twenties and rose to become a vice-president of the CPI's Malappuram district committee one-and-a-half years ago. No career politician, Mumtaz's livelihood stems from the nursery school her family owns and operates at Kalattu in Tirur.

Banatwala, who is a non-Keralite -- he, in fact, cannot speak more than the odd word in Malayalam -- is settled in Maharashtra.

The contest, thus, is being billed as the clash between the local and the rank outsider.

For its part, the IUML believes that not only will the decline of support be halted, but that in fact Banatwala will improve on his 1996 winning margin this time round. The argument in support of this being that here, the Indian National League, which in 1996 had thrown its weight behind the LDF, has this time round shifted its support to the People's Democratic Party led by Abdul Nasser Madani, founder-chairman of the now outlawed Islamic Sevak Sangh.

The INL's shift in support to the PDP means precious little to the latter party, as it figures low down in the list of political also rans. Thus, what the INL has effectively done is chipped away at the LDF's support, which -- or so the IUML reasoning goes -- will benefit Banatwala.

An even more important factor in Banatwala's favour is the new-found unity between the various factions of the state Congress -- or, to name names, the cosying up of the A K Antony and K Karunakaran groups in the state.

This, plus the enthusiasm resulting from Sonia Gandhi's entry onto the political proscenium, has given a cutting edge to the Congress workers -- and this is expected to benefit the IUML candidate, given that the Congress and the IUML are partners in the opposition United Democratic Front in the state.

Meanwhile, spare a thought for the PDP. Spawned in militancy, it is now realising that stoking while stoking the fires of discontent earns support, letting those same fires die out is tantamount to political suicide.

Thus, Madani had started his ISS as a militant counter to the aggressive Hindu nationalism of the Sangh Parivar. The banning of the ISS following incidents of armed violence induced Madani to seek a political cover, which in turn led to the creation of the PDP.

However, while the militant ISS managed to attract the support of the large numbers of unemployed, restless youth, the PDP, its political arm, has failed to cash in on the youth factor.

The reason is simple -- while the disaffected youth favoured the aggressive militancy of Madani's early days, they have tended to shun his more moderate stance of recent times.

Thus, in the 1998 election, the PDP is fielding just one candidate, in Ponnani. Following Sonia Gandhi's apology for the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the PDP withdrew its candidates from 12 constituencies in favour of the Congress.

For its part, the CPI is pinning its hopes -- and its campaign -- on what it terms the "excellent" performance of the 22-month-old E K Nayanar-led LDF government in the state.

Muslim voters -- or so the CPI holds -- are now convinced that the Left parties alone can safeguard the interests of the minorities, at a time when the Hindu-centric BJP is poised to make a bid for power at the Centre.

Ponnani, with a total electorate of 1.1 million -- an increase of 13,257 voters over 1996 -- boasts five candidates including the BJP's Ahalya Shankar. One of the BJP's state secretaries, Shankar had earlier contested the assembly election from Manjeri in 1982 and 1987, both times with a singular lack of success.

Between 1957 and 1977, when Ponnani was a reserved constituency, it was held by the Marxists. Once it was re-labelled a general constituency in 1977, the balance of power shifted to the IUML, and has remained with the latter party ever since.

The constituency is rural in character, with agriculture and fishing being the main forms of livelihood. The area boasts a few NRI pockets, wherein foreign remittances have created an aura of prosperity.

The Ponnani constituency comprises the assembly segments of Tirurangadi, Tanur, Tirur, Ponnani, Mankada, Kuttipuram and Perinthalmanna.

In 1996, when the assembly elections were held concurrently with Parliamentary polls, the IUML took six of the seven segments with CPI(M) leader Paloli Mohammedkutty causin the sole upset, in Ponnani proper. Mohammadkutty now holds the local administration portfolio in LDF council of ministers.

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