THENUR (Kerala): In April 2016, three Scheduled Caste colonies in rural Palakkad announced that they would boycott the Assembly election scheduled for May. The colonies—Kurunkaad, Vattappallam, and Pulleparambu—are caught between a double-line railway track and a river, and the residents’ key demand has been road connectivity.
In the local government election last year, frustrated with elected representatives reneging on the poll promise, some villagers in this CPI (M) stronghold had planned a boycott, or alternatively to put up an independent candidate, but they were persuaded by their patron party to change their minds.
Could (and would) the villagers unitedly stand up to the CPI (M) this time? In a milieu of patron-client politics, can non-party mobilisation at the grass roots succeed?
For three weeks, the boycott call did not provoke any active response from political parties. Then, five days before the election, at 7am on 11 May, the Congress candidate visited the village. He spoke with some of the boycott campaign leaders and pointed out that their demand had been included in his constituency manifesto. The following day, the BJP candidate too arrived and promised to fulfill the villagers’ demand. That day, the CPI (M) distributed an election notice in the village. But the party candidate and legislator representing Kongad constituency, who had once promised assistance for the road, kept away.
Over telephone, the CPI (M)’s local committee secretary told one of the boycott organisers that he was prepared to discuss the issue. But the back-channel manoeuvre irked village leaders, who wanted the party’s leaders (local committee secretary or someone higher) to openly face the villagers and account for their failure to deliver the poll promise of the past three elections. The CPI (M) did not play ball.
So, three days before the election, the boycott campaign leaders organised a public meeting to take a final decision. At six in the evening on 13 May, more than 90 villagers gathered near the rail track. About forty of them, mostly women, sat in plastic chairs, while others, including women holding children in their arms, stood and listened. In the front row, five youngsters sat holding placards. A local cable TV channel was present to cover the event.
Speakers included elder leaders Balan and Gopinathan, in their 50s, and youth leaders Sumesh and Subhash, in their late 20s. The speeches were brief, none lasting more than two minutes.
Balan, a retired local government employee, outlined the context of the meeting. Gopinathan, an ayurveda doctor, recounted some of the recent efforts to get road connectivity and said, ‘To make ourselves heard among officials, politicians, and the general public, we have decided to boycott the vote. If anybody has a different opinion, please express it. If not, this time we will boycott the vote, and next time, we shall vote for whoever acts in our favour.’
Nobody said anything for about ten seconds. One of the younger leaders, Sumesh, a construction worker and secretary of the Dr BR Ambedkar Memorial Reading Room in the village, observed that there were no two opinions on the matter. Gopinathan said, ‘In that case, kai adhichu pass aakkaam (approve the decision by clap of hands).’ The audience immediately obliged.
Three days before the election, the boycott campaign leaders organised a public meeting near the rail track. Political parties could openly discuss with the villagers.
Unanticipated by the organisers, a resident walked to the dais and stressed the need for unity. ‘What will we do if some betray us and vote?’, he wanted to know. Gopinathan replied, ‘If they can’t stick to a decision once it has been taken, they are not men. Let them do what they want.’ Subhash, one of the youths, took the stage and said, ‘If some [break ranks and] go [to vote], the youth here will not participate in that family’s events, such as marriage or death.’ His tactical shot triggered a murmur in the women’s section of the audience.
Gopinathan maintained that each individual was free to decide, but should remember that the road was everyone’s need. Sumesh elaborated that unity was necessary to convince the world outside. ‘Don’t bother about others. Each one must decide to boycott, for the road, and stick to the decision. By doing so, the boycott will succeed,’ he said. ‘This is not any particular party’s activity,’ he pointed out. ‘There are Congressmen, BJP, and Communists here. Think of the collective and co-operate to make this a success. Whoever brings us the road—whichever individual, party, or organisation—we will work for them forever. Because this [getting the road] is historic.’
The floor was then thrown open to political parties. Unnikrishnan, a local Congress functionary who had grown up in the village but now resided outside, reminded the villagers of his party candidate’s visit and promise. Sumesh stepped to the dais and responded, ‘We can consider [supporting the candidate]. But first let him win and bring us the road.’ CPI (M) members and sympathisers formed the majority in the crowd, but none that day spoke for the party or explained the party’s position. One local office-bearer of the BJP was present, but he too did not speak.
Balan then invited women to express their views. Women outnumbered men in the audience, and they seemed uncomfortable with the youngsters’ idea of social boycott. Yet no lady came forward or spoke publicly from where they stood. Balan said that if the CPI (M), especially the local committee, continued to drag its feet, the villagers would consider organising a strike, a human chain, or other means of protest. ‘We might have to endure more suffering. But for a good future, we must sacrifice some things now,’ he concluded to a round of applause.
The meeting finished in 18 minutes, the speeches seemingly extempore, and the proceedings tinged with spontaneity (bordering on the amateurish). Unwittingly, it lent the poll boycott campaign an air of genuineness—a public expression of the grievance of a village—and contrasted with the formal, well-ordered meetings organised by political parties, with their ritualistic welcome speech and vote of thanks.
After the meeting, I asked the boycott organisers why they were not using the NOTA option. ‘It won’t work here,’ one replied. ‘People here are used to voting for one party symbol. If they reach the polling booth, they will forget everything else.’ All laughed in agreement.
The next day, in the evening twilight, Balan and a dozen others toured the village, door-to-door, requesting each household to co-operate with the collective decision. At one house, a young campaigner asked a family to boycott the vote. His compatriots corrected him, ‘We should not ask them to boycott. We should simply say, “Sahakarikkuka” (Please co-operate).’
From election booth 116, at the Krishi Bhavan in Thenur, you can see the highway and hear the trains. On election days, Vattappallam residents, most of who are daily-wage labourers, vote early so that they can go for work, confirmed the booth-level officer Sunil Dath. He is an assistant teacher in the upper primary school at Thenur, and has officiated here more than once.
On 16 May, polling began at 7am. Despite a drizzle, 20 per cent of the booth’s 1,403 voters cast their vote by 10am. This was in line with the state polling average. In the next three hours, however, only 18% more voted. The boycott was a near-total success in the forenoon, as only a handful from Kurunkaad and Vattappallam had voted. But the boycott had failed in the third colony (Pulleparambu); more than a hundred voted from there. (‘We did not raise awareness in Pulleparambu as much as we did here,’ Balan told me later.)
Meanwhile from the village, there were two pathways to the election booth. On one route, via the highway, boycott organisers stood at two points, casually chatting with friends. They denied monitoring passers by, but it was obvious that they were. I pointed out that a few women were on their way to the highway. ‘They are going for a wedding,’ assured Chandran, a behind-the-scene organiser.
Leela, a 59-year-old construction worker, was walking towards the village, carrying vegetables in a white, polythene bag. Will she vote? ‘I haven’t decided. I will not vote alone,’ she replied. She said that she was a CPI (M) member, attended party meetings every month, and trusted the party. She was also the president of a Kudumbashree unit in the village. In her view, the protesters had not met the right people who could get them funds for the road. Yet, she also felt that it was only fair that someone from the party should have come to the village when the boycott was announced.
At the entrance to the villages, near the rail track, no other soul was in sight. In Kurunkaad and Vattappallam, the main streets were deserted. Once word spread of my arrival, a few pro-boycott residents began to accompany me. I had gone to check whether villagers were being physically blocked (they were not) and to meet Usha.
Two days earlier, when Balan and friends were canvassing support in the evening, Usha had responded unlike others: she had said that she might vote. I wanted to know who she was, why she was unwilling to boycott, and whether she had changed her mind.
Usha, 38 years old, is chairperson of Kudumbashree’s panchayat-level community development society in Parali panchayat. When I reached her house at noon, she was out rounding up women to vote (all of them part of the Kudumbashree network) and fuelling rumours (of physical threats by pro-boycott youths and of boycott leaders having voted early morning, neither of which was true). She preferred to be interviewed publicly.
Usha too wanted the road; it was a collective need, she said. But there was also an individual need that she had to address. ‘Kudumbashree funds come through the gram and block panchayats, via the district panchayat. So, it will be very difficult for me to deal with matters there [if I boycott the election],’ she said. Will they block funds or other approvals? ‘We will get it. But shouldn’t we get the things in time? What we need today, there is no point getting it only tomorrow, right?,’ she explained. When I probed who would make her run around or deny funds in time, she shied away from specifying.
Usha is a CPI (M) member and owed her Kudumbashree appointment to the party, a job that fetches her Rs 4,000 a month. She has to listen to them, she said, if she had to perform well in her job of overseeing the 300 Kudumbashree self-help groups in the panchayat. Similarly, the party had helped women in the village set up a Kudumbashree canteen near the panchayat office. Choosing between the village and the party was not easy.
At 3pm, about 10 women, including Usha, set out to vote from Vattapallam. They crossed the rail track, and boarded an auto-taxi, which took them to the booth. (A few walked the entire distance.) On their return, near the track, they saw me filming and hesitated. It was drizzling. I was at a distance from the crossing, but could hear one of the ladies suggesting that they shield their faces with umbrellas. A goods train chugged by. As the women began to cross, one shouted to me, ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.’
Until then, their voting had seemed an act of courage. But now it appeared an act of submission. Voting, like many a thing in life, was not about free will; it was about fear, and feeding the bigger beast.
By the time polling ended at 6pm, only 53.7 per cent had voted in Booth 116. The boycott organisers claimed that just 26 residents (8 men, 18 women) out of the 250+ from Kurunkaad and Vattappallam had voted; a local CPI (M) office-bearer put the figure at 41.
But there was no difference of opinion on what had really happened. As dusk set in, CPI (M) leaders and cadres in Thenur were sullen.