News APP

NewsApp (Free)

Read news as it happens
Download NewsApp

Available on  gplay  » News » Vadakara: The Most Important Contest In Kerala

Vadakara: The Most Important Contest In Kerala

Last updated on: April 16, 2024 19:48 IST
Get Rediff News in your Inbox:

Shailaja Teacher, arguably the most famous Covid warrior in India, versus former student leader Shafi Parambil who defeated 'Metro Man' E Sreedharan in the last assembly election.
Shyam G Menon reports from the Vadakara Lok Sabha constituency, which some feel is the most politically important contest in Kerala this election.

IMAGE: Shafi Parambil, the Congress candidate from Vadakara, speaks at a rally by women in support of his candidature in Vadakara, April 4, 2024. All Photographs: Shyam G Menon

It is hard not to sense the infectious bonhomie when 41-year-old Shafi Parambil engages with a crowd.

Roughly half an hour after reaching Vadakara on April 4, my friend and I were about to have a late breakfast when the road outside the restaurant came alive with the sounds of a political rally.

We had been told the day before that there would be a rally of women in Shafi's support.

The sounds turned out to be just that. It was a narrow road and the rally needed to do some delicate manoeuvring.

A man, clad in a mundu (dhoti) and shirt, clambered on top of a vehicle, mic in hand. Everyone cheered.

It was Shafi. As he gave directions and requested the crowd to comply, it was evident from the cheering all around that his public relations, was spot on.

The rally, impressive for its numbers, went by smoothly.


Shafi is not from Vadakara. He is from Pattambi in Palakkad district.

Having come up through student politics (he was president of the Congress-backed Kerala Students Union (KSU) and later general secretary of the Indian Youth Congress), in the 2021 assembly elections, Shafi gained prominence for defeating E Sreedharan, who was projected as the Bharatiya Janata Party's chief minister candidate.

Shafi was brought in from Palakkad to contest in Vadakara, after its sitting member of Parliament, K Muraleedharan of the Congress, was moved out to Thrissur.

Asked how the shift to Vadakara felt, Shafi told me, "the support has been overwhelming."

Back in the restaurant, the manager echoed something we had been hearing in the run-up to visiting Vadakara.

Shafi has "personality" and that is an attribute hard to sense in the candidates of more cadre-based parties, wherein personality typically stays deferred to party diktat.

In Kozhikode, a relative upon hearing that I was headed for Vadakara had even quipped, "They say Shafi has already won there!" Indeed, that April 4, if there was a danger Shafi faced, it was of public support for him peaking too early and risking fatigue before the polls on April 26.

That could be costly in what was being seen as a tight fight.

His principal opponent in Vadakara, during her tenure as Kerala's health minister, had been called a rock star by the media for the way she handled the state's first Nipah virus outbreak and later, its rendezvous with COVID-19.

Although she too is not from Vadakara, K K Shailaja (aka Shailaja Teacher and Teacher Amma) is from the neighbourhood.

Following her celebrated term as health minister (the performance of its health ministry played a role in securing a second innings for the Pinarayi Vijayan government), when she won the 2021 assembly election from Mattannur (part of the Kannur Lok Sabha constituency), Shailaja was widely expected to be included in the state cabinet. Strangely, she was not.

In some quarters therefore, her subsequent compliance with party decree (she even turned down the Magsasay Award as per her party's wish) has only served to bolster the belief that personality and spontaneity find no place in parties of doctrine and foot soldiers.

IMAGE: People wait for Shailaja Teacher at the venue of a public meeting in Kakkuni near Vadakara, April 4, 2024.

Afternoon of April 4, amidst her campaign, Shailaja spared time at Poolakkool to speak to a small group of journalists arrived to witness her canvasing for votes in Vadakara parliamentary constituency.

About her election campaign, she said it rested on two pillars.

First, there was the issue of secularism in deep danger in the country, in times dominated by the BJP.

Rectifying it required the involvement of the political Left as there are few forces around as committed to secularism as the Left is.

Second, the Congress has been peddling soft Hindutva and the flaw in such an approach is evident in the number of Congress leaders who have shifted loyalty to the BJP.

It also proves how essential the political Left is, to keep secularism alive.

According to her, if Kerala elected Left candidates to serve in Parliament, then the state may be assured of representatives who will speak up for secularism and the state's interests, unlike Congress MPs, who she felt, often stayed quiet or acquiesced with contentious policies.

She also spoke of the prevailing equation between the Centre and the states, as regards sharing of revenue.

Even a just sharing of tax revenue in line with the ratio mandated by established policy, demanded that the Centre support Kerala more, she said.

IMAGE: Shailaja Teacher being escorted by supporters to the venue of an election meeting in Kakkuni.

Much of what Shailaja said could be heard mentioned by CPI-M leaders at large, betraying an admirable preparedness and consistency in intra-party communication.

However, the same -- that uniformity -- was used by critics to highlight the dominance of party over individual, in the CPI-M set up.

At least one political commentator I spoke to, picked on this point to place Vadakara in perspective and argue how the battle there was likely this election's most important contest in Kerala.

According to him, Vadakara has been one of the centres of political violence in north Malabar; particularly when viewed in its Lok Sabha constituency avatar, which includes erstwhile hot spots like Nadapuram.

The violence on show, genuinely shocked in May 2012, when T P Chandrasekharan was brutally murdered at Vallikkadu (about seven kilometres from Vadakara town) by assailants that included CPI-M cadres.

Chandrasekharan was a CPI-M leader who was expelled from the party over differences with the state leadership on party ideology.

He had then started his own party in 2008 -- the Revolutionary Marxist Party, currently known as Revolutionary Marxist Party of India (RMP-I).

Chandrasekharan's widow, K K Rema, contested the 2014 general election with United Democratic Front support. She didn't win, but that year the Left Democratic Front lost the Vadakara seat.

In the 2019 elections, RMP-I supported the UDF candidate K Muraleedharan. Rema is at present a legislator in the state assembly.

With the RMP-I backing the UDF and Shafi in 2024, the earlier mentioned political commentator saw the current contest in Vadakara as a referendum on the CPI-M's penchant for violence.

Closer to the elections, this had manifested in controversy over how Opposition party workers were treated by the ruling LDF government for protesting during Nava Kerala Sadas, an outreach programme of the state government.

IMAGE: Posters of candidates near the venue of a public meeting in Meppayil.

Shailaja gets unwittingly caught in this web for although she is widely respected as a person and for the minister she was, by complying with the party line, she failed to openly condemn north Malabar's violent politics.

Viewed so, of all CPI-M candidates currently contesting in Kerala, Shailaja and the contest she is engaged in at Vadakara, has become a serious test of acceptance for the party's way of functioning, the commentator averred.

Still, the sentiment at ground level was that even as Chandrasekharan's murder remains remembered by Vadakara's public, Shailaja's image is unsullied by the incident and therefore a close contest with Shafi is in the offing.

Unlike Shafi's interactions, Shailaja's public engagements seemed more sedate and structured.

Following a welcome by local cadres, at a public meeting in Kakkuni, she spoke of secularism, the fascist nature of the Narendra Modi government and the development work done by the LDF.

Unlike Shafi, she had commenced her campaign work soon after the declaration of elections.

That longer time on the campaign trail had also taken a toll -- the heat and dust had temporarily robbed the 67 year old of her usual public speaking-voice.

But the candidate soldiers on, loved and respected by her supporters.

At her campaign committee office, I asked a senior party official what he made of Shafi's charisma and his popularity on social media.

"Social media matters to us also. Shafi maybe a phenomenon on social media, but Shailaja Teacher is there in every household here," he said pointing to the patient, systematic groundwork being done by Left cadres in Vadakara.

IMAGE: The memorial for T P Chandrasekharan being built at Vallikkadu near Vadakara.

Unlike in Thiruvananthapuram, where a development agenda for the constituency has acquired prominence on the campaign trail, the election discourse in Vadakara, in the true tradition of a Parliament election, seemed deeply political.

Vadakara became a much-tracked constituency with the string of victories (six in all) that K P Unnikrishnan of the Congress (S) notched up years ago. The Congress (S) was aligned with the Left bloc.

Besides this history of being close to the Left camp, Vadakara has a sizable Muslim population and thereby the capacity to support UDF candidates (the Muslim League is part of the UDF).

As with many LDF candidates, a perceptible risk for Shailaja too was discontent with the current LDF government influencing how voters behave.

At her office in Vadakara, Rema said that even as the main thrust in Shafi's campaign was checking the "fascist" forces represented by the BJP and Hindutva, even without the campaigners asking for it, voters met on the campaign trail opened up about problems faced in the state.

"There are people who are really suffering," she said.

Since 2014, the RMP and its stance has been an additional variable in Vadakara's political mix.

Right next to the spot where Chandrasekhar was assaulted and killed in Vallikkadu, there is a memorial taking shape.

Stored at his house in Nellacheri was the motorcycle he was riding when ambushed by assailants.

In the intervening night of April 4-5, 2024, a blast while making a bomb resulted in one person dead and another grievously injured in Panoor, part of the Vadakara parliamentary constituency but in Kannur district.

At public functions in Karukayil and Meppayil on the morning of April 5, Shafi spoke of the need for peace in the region and called for an end to the practice of young people losing their life as part of violent politics.

The Panoor mishap was a day before he was due to visit the place for campaigning.

"It is a tight fight. If one person plays cricket, so will the other. If one goes to a temple, so will the other..." the driver of our car said in jest about the candidates spending their days on the edge in the run-up to the polls.

The next couple of weeks will decide who wins the 2024 parliamentary election from Vadakara.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Get Rediff News in your Inbox:
India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024