When Sabarimala turns focus of campaigning in two segments in Kerala's Assembly polls

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Thiruvananthapuram, Apr 1 (PTI): One is a rural segment bordering the Western Ghats in central Travancore (south Kerala) and the other home to the country's pioneer IT hub here but there is a common factor between these two constituencies in Kerala, where Assembly election is just days away.

Though not located nearby, Konni, an Assembly constituency in Pathanamthitta district and Kazhakuttam in the state capital are two segments where the Sabarimala temple women entry issue and the protection of faith have taken the centrestage during the campaign.

A fierce three-cornered fight is expected in both these segments, where the BJP is pinning high hopes on its steadily increasing vote share while the traditional rival fronts-the CPI(M)-led LDF and Congress-headed UDF are determined to retain their supremacy.

The ruling LDF and opposition UDF and NDA are raising several other issues including development also among the voters but the Sabarimala temple issue seems to be a major topic of discussion in these two constituencies.

In Kazhakuttam, senior CPI(M) leader and Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who had faced severe criticism over the women's entry issue as the minister of temple affairs, is seeking another term as LDF nominee.

To beat him, the BJP is fielding its firebrand leader and an arch critic of women's entry at Sabarimala, Sobha Surendran while UDF has opted for well-known health expert S S Lal eyeing the neutral votes ofthe educated and techies in the segment.

Though the ruling LDF wanted to put the Sabarimala issue on the back-burner and tried all means not to make it a topic of discussion during the campaign, Surendran's recent expression of regret has turned things upside down.

Putting the CPI(M) in a fix, Surendran, early this month, virtually expressed regret over the incidents that took place in Sabarimala over the entry of women of the traditionally barred age group issue in 2018 and described it as something which 'should never have happened' at the Lord Ayyappa Temple.

However, the party general secretary Sitaram Yechury was quick to reject the 'regret' and said the Left party's stand on the issue of women's entry remains the same and reiterated that the state government was bound to implement the apex court verdict.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also had to react on the matter and said the government would implement the final verdict only after consulting with all sections in society.

The opposition Congress and BJP have raised the regret of Kadakampally and the rejection of the party chief and have used it as a major campaign tool in Kazhakuttam, where it was expected earlier that development and infrastructure issues would find a prominent place.

The BJP candidate Shobha Surendran even said that it was her destiny to take on the Devaswom Minister in the constituency and expressed hope that the devotee community would stand by her in her fight.

In every corner meeting and public speech, she is raising the 'protection of faith' a major theme to criticise the Devaswom minister and the Left government.

However, an unfazed Kadakampally Surendran said that people would vote for the over Rs 2,000 crore-worth development programmes implemented by the Vijayan government in the segment during the last five years.

Surendran had defeated senior BJP leader and present union minister V Muraleedharan by 7,347 votes in the 2016 assembly polls.

While Surendran garnered 50,079 votes in 2016, Muraleedharan polled 42,732 votes and the Congress's M A Vaheed 38,602 votes.

But, the most striking thing is the remarkable increase in the vote share of the saffron party.

If the BJP candidate gained just 6.87 per cent of the total votes polled in 2011 assembly polls in Kazhakuttam, it had scaled up to 31.90 per cent in 2016 elections, according to figures.

Meanwhile, Konni is a segment where the Sabarimala issue would naturally resonate during the elections as it falls in Pathanamthitta district where the Lord Ayyappa temple is located.

And, its prominence increased with the candidature of BJP state president K Surendran, who had spearheaded many intense agitations against the state government's decision toimplement the apex court order permitting entry of young women into the hillock shrine.

LDF's sitting legislator K U Janeesh Kumar is focussed on retaining the seat projecting various development programmes launched by the left government including the government medical college, a long pending demand of the people there and the Punalur-Muvattupuzha state highway.

However, the UDF's Robin Peter is trying to cash in on the alleged anti-incumbency wave in the constituency.

The segment had been a bastion of the Congress-led UDF since 1966.

Congress strongman and MP, Adoor Prakash had won the constituency five consecutive times between 1996-2016.

When he decided to contest from Attingal during the 2019 Parliamentary elections as per the party's directive, a byelection was necessitated in which Janeesh Kumar won by a margin of 9,953 votes.

K Surendran, who contested in 2019 Lok Sabha polls, had garnered 46,506 votes and 39,786 votes in the following byelection.

Though he could finish only third in both the elections, there had been a tremendous increase in the saffron party's vote share on which the BJP is pinning hopes this time.

Surendran had garned 28.65 per cent of the total votes polled in the 2019 by-election if the saffron party candidate could win only 11.66 per cent during 2016 assembly polls, as per figures.

The Sabarimala issue had been BJP-NDA's focus in Konni during the campaigns since the beginning but they are also trying to cash in on various welfare programmes implemented by the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.

Kerala had witnessed high drama during the nearly three-month long annual pilgrimage season in 2018 with around a dozen women in the 10-50 age group being prevented from entering the Sabarimala temple by protesting devotees after the doors were opened for women following the apex court verdict,permitting women of all age groups into the shrine.PTI LGKSS PTI PTI