Kerala’s ruling CPI(M) has fielded its State Committee member Jaick C Thomas for the third consecutive time in the Puthuppally Assembly constituency, hoping to wrest back the seat it had lost to the Congress heavyweight and two-time Chief Minister Oommen Chandy way back in 1970.
A young face of Kerala’s mainstream Left and former state president of the Students Federation of India (SFI), Thomas had, in 2021, brought down Oommen Chandy’s victory margin to 9,044 from 27,092 votes in 2016.
This happened despite the towering presence of the then chief minister and the constituency’s long-heralded status as a traditional Congress citadel.
Oommen Chandy, who represented the constituency for 53 years, is no more. And this time, Thomas will take on Chandy Oommen, son of the popular Congress leader, in the byelection scheduled for 5 September.
Chairman of the National Outreach Cell of the Indian Youth Congress Chandy Oommen, who walked the whole stretch of the Bharat Jodo Yatra with Rahul Gandhi, has a strong electoral opponent in Thomas, who hails from Manarkad in the same constituency.
The CPI(M) candidate, who identifies himself as a “development champion”, is highlighting the lack of development in the constituency in the past more than half a century that Oommen Chandy was undisputed leader of Puthuppally.
South First met Thomas for a freewheeling conversation at his campaign committee office in Pampadi. Edited excerpts of the interview:
Q. With electioneering in the final phase, how do you view the political situation in Puthuppally?
A. We could puncture their calculations. They were looking to win the election simply by exploiting the emotional outpouring after the demise of Oommen Chandy. Now, they are forced to address the real and pressing issues of the constituency. They have started accepting the fact that it’s not going to be a walkover.
I have great regard for Oommen Chandy, who held important political and administrative positions. But if you move around in Puthuppally constituency now, you will see it lags far behind in infrastructure, living standards, and overall development.
Just visit the four bordering constituencies, and you will see the development they have achieved. Different political parties with different ideologies represent them. But they have all have achieved more than Puthuppally has in 53 years. My mission is to bring Puthuppally into the developmental mainstream. I am getting positive responses even from traditional Congress families. People are coming out to hear my concerns.
Q. As the CPI (M) candidate, what major electoral issues are you pushing this time in Puthuppally?
A. Let me reiterate: In Puthuppally, the major electoral issue is lack of development. You move around the constituency and conclude. The reality is all around. Puthuppally deserves all that was denied to it in the last 53 years because of a lack of insight. The major electoral issue here is development. Our roads are congested and narrow. We lack proper higher education institutions. We need more employment opportunities.
Despite its financial woes, the Pinarayi Vijayan government is now initiating large-scale development in the whole state. Puthuppally must get an adequate share of it. I must prevent the developmental degradation of a constituency that twice elected a chief minister.
Q. Your campaign focuses on drinking water scarcity. That is something impacting the whole of Kerala…
A. Drinking water is a huge concern here during the summers. Now, the problem has reached alarming proportions. Why has the community lacked a mega drinking water project? Why was no forward-looking initiative been taken in that respect? Water scarcity may be general across Kerala. But it’s alarming in Puthuppally.
Many socially and economically backward people live on top of hillocks. Those who live on difficult terrain have no access to drinking water. In the entire Kottayam district, water shortages are not severe, except for Puthuppally. It’s the outcome of negligence.
We need to address the drinking water problem as a top priority. It has persisted for a long time, and the MLA took no steps to resolve it. Every time, it remained a false promise.
Q. Has Puthuppally benefitted nothing from the 53 years under Oommen Chandy?
A. No. Even the school where he studied was renovated during the rule of current Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The LDF governments have done more for Puthuppally, compared to the Congress governments. Unlike the neighbouring constituencies, we have no place to accommodate major government offices under one roof.
Q. Which factors do you feel are favourable for the LDF in Puthuppally this time?
A. Six of the eight grama panchayats constituting the constituency are ruled by the LDF. The LDF governs all three block panchayats. We have a good organisational machinery here. The Congress’ organisational machinery here is weak, as the party relied largely on the personality cult of Oommen Chandy. Several cooperative banks in the constituency have been ruled by the CPI (M) for quite a long time. These are all positive factors for us.
Also, the large crowds I am attracting in our campaign meetings shows that Puthuppally is now accepting reality. It wants a change.
Q. There are many attempts to raise the late Oommen Chandy to the level of a saint. Will such tactics bring electoral gains to the UDF?
A. Puthuppally has no official saint except St George, who presides over the major church of the constituency. As I told you, I respect Oommen Chandy. But using his name for emotional outpourings is bad. It is bad for democracy. Let’s talk about democracy and politics. Let the people elect the right one based on their wisdom.
Q. Your followers conducted cyber-attacks on the family of Oommen Chandy, and you had to disapprove of them openly. Was it a failure?
A. I’m afraid I have to disagree with character assassination and cyberattacks. But such attacks are happening offline and online. Cadres of different parties are engaging in it.
I am against such campaigns. In the case of people who are targeting me, their accounts are offline. Even the Opposition leader insulted me by calling me a “fourth-rate leader” for challenging the Congress candidate to a development debate. What is wrong with a debate on development? The people will get clarity. For saying that, he humiliated me publicly.
Q. You talk only about development. Do issues other than development not matter to the people of Puthuppally?
A. The major issue here is development. People are craving it. We need better infrastructure. We need a better life. We see the issue of development as the key issue here.