Shadow of Manipur violence hangs over BJP’s prospects in Thrissur | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Shadow of Manipur violence hangs over BJP’s prospects in Thrissur

ByVishnu Varma I Edited by Shilpa Ambardar, Thrissur
Apr 24, 2024 04:49 AM IST

In Thrissur, a fiercely-fought triangular contest is on between the Congress-led UDF, CPI-led LDF and the BJP-led NDA.

The road to Kanjoor cuts away from National Highway 544 at Puthukkad junction and meanders along rows of two-storey homes with manicured lawns and past paddy fields to arrive at a small intersection. It is a little after 3 pm on a hot afternoon and there are about two dozen men and women milling around, some holding national flags and others wearing loose tricolour hats. Accompanied by a band of young men with drums, they are all eagerly awaiting the arrival of K Muraleedharan, the Congress candidate from Thrissur.

A 17% jump in the BJP’s vote-share in 2019 through its candidate Suresh Gopi, a national award winning actor, here has elevated the party’s hopes in a state that has been largely politically bipolar and where it has never won a Lok Sabha seat (HT)
A 17% jump in the BJP’s vote-share in 2019 through its candidate Suresh Gopi, a national award winning actor, here has elevated the party’s hopes in a state that has been largely politically bipolar and where it has never won a Lok Sabha seat (HT)

Half an hour later, the sudden burst of chain crackers signals the entry of Muralee, as he is known among followers, in a white Innova. Stepping out of the car, a beaming Muralee is welcomed with flowers and tricolour shawls by children and adults alike. He waves at those around him before being handed the microphone for a brief speech. Follow full coverage of the Lok Sabha elections here.

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Muralee, the son of late four-time chief minister and Congress veteran K Karunakaran, does not need an introduction in these parts. He starts with the usual line, “I want to request you to bless me by pressing the ‘hand’ symbol on the EVM and electing me as your MP.”

Standing in a neighbourhood dominated by Christians, he quickly comes to the point. “This is an election which is as much a talking-point outside India as it is in the country. That’s because several important events in the last 10 years have been talked about outside India as well. This includes the happenings in Manipur. For the last one year, Manipur has been burning. Several Christian churches have been destroyed and many belonging to the community killed. Homes have been razed.”

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He points out that despite the tragedies in Manipur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not visited the state even once. “But he has come to Thrissur thrice already this year,” he jogs the memory of peopl.

Wrapping up his speech within two minutes, he climbs aboard an open campaign vehicle before taking off into interior areas of Puthukkad with the same message that he hopes would sway the influential 35% Christian electorate in his favour in what all observers say would be a tight contest.

‘Mishandling of riots’

In Thrissur, located in central Kerala and referred to as the cultural capital of the state, a fiercely-fought triangular contest is on between the Congress-led UDF, CPI-led LDF and the BJP-led NDA. A 17% jump in the BJP’s vote-share in 2019 through its candidate Suresh Gopi, a national award winning actor, here has elevated the party’s hopes in a state that has been largely politically bipolar and where it has never won a Lok Sabha seat.

Deterring the BJP’s inroads into the Christian community in Thrissur, many say, is the party’s alleged “mishandling of the ethnic riots in Manipur between the Meitis and the Kuki-Zo tribes both at the central and state level”. The 2023 riots, that left over 220 dead, thousands displaced and dozens of religious places including churches ravaged, had elicited strong reactions from various Church denominations in Kerala questioning the silence and alleged inaction of the PM and the BJP.

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On June 29, 2023, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, which counts around four million adherents in the state, called the violence in Manipur a “genocide” with concerted efforts behind it.

“Both the Centre and the state governments have failed in quenching the violence. The tension in Manipur has turned into a genocide which is unheard of in the history of the country. It has developed into another version of the riots in Gujarat,” Archbishop Joseph Pamplany had said.

And in November, 2023, Catholica Sabha, the mouthpiece of Thrissur archdiocese of the Church, under a headline that read ‘Marakkilla Manipur’ (Will not forget Manipur) directly lashed out at Gopi.

“With elections approaching, there is a big attempt in Kerala to cover up the Manipur riots. The party wanting to return to power at the Centre again is taking special interest in this. An example of that is a cinema dialogue-like statement of a party leader who wishes to ‘take’ Thrissur,” the newspaper said.

“Those who believe in democracy will not forget that. Therefore, people are vigilant against those who are trying to seek votes by covering up Manipur,” it said.

‘Vote for change’

When HT caught up with Gopi during his campaign at a jewellery store in Thrissur town, the reluctance to talk about the party’s outreach to Christians in the backdrop of Manipur riots was evident. He replied, “Please don’t ask me that. I am only looking at voters as citizens of Thrissur and of the country.”

Gopi, who has starred in over 250 Malayalam films and is known for his cop roles, claimed he has no challenges in his campaign. “The excellence of governance by the Centre for the past 10 years is our backbone. It is very stiff. The people are experiencing benevolence of governance and that’s our support. Give us a chance and we will prove. The people of Thrissur will vote for a change,” he said. Ten kilometres away, CPI candidate and former state agriculture minister VS Sunil Kumar is making quick rounds of multiple departments at the Vaidyaratnam Ayurveda College to meet voters. Kumar is a familiar face in Thrissur district, having been a two-time MLA, and enjoys the image of an affable leader who is readily available to those who need his help.

“We are talking to the voters about many issues including the recently notified rules of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the bogus claims of governance of the NDA government, the ill-treatment of the Centre towards Kerala as well as the BJP’s handling of the situation in Manipur and the RSS agenda behind it,” Kumar explains.

While he admits the BJP “has a support base of its own”, Kumar is quick to dismiss its chances of winning. “Primarily here, the fight is between LDF and UDF. The BJP has some support here, but it’s not a winnable base. They will remain in third position like 2019.”

Paul Mathew, Thrissur bureau chief of Deepika daily which has close ties to the Catholic Church, said Gopi’s campaign began well but is seen to be fast losing steam in the final lap.

“The Thrissur archdiocese of the Church has strongly taken up the issue of the Manipur violence and there is visible resentment against the BJP. At a conference at the St Thomas College, the Church leadership had indirectly targeted the BJP. So unless a large section of the Christian community here votes for the party, it doesn’t have much prospects of winning,” said Mathew.

“The fight really is between Muraleedharan and Sunil Kumar. Both are good, popular candidates who know the constituency well. It looks like a photo finish with the UDF having a slight edge,” he said.

But, there’s no denying that Gopi, with his film star background and history of charitable activities, is able to attract support, especially from those on the fence.

Sojan, a cargo auto driver in Mannuthy neighbourhood who uses one name, was one such voter.

“I don’t like the BJP because they are communal in nature. But I like Gopi because he is a good man. We can easily go to him with our problems. We need change here and I believe he can bring some progress,” he said.

Vipin Chacko, a block committee vice-president of the Congress, said that if the Manipur issue had been handled well by the BJP, the party would have easily got a substantial section of the Christian vote.

“They (BJP) would have run away with a win here because a large section of the electorate are actually tired of voting for the LDF and UDF. They say that there is no change here and they have faith in Suresh Gopi. I am a Christian and even the members of my family want to vote for Gopi. But keeping the Manipur issue in mind, I hope they don’t,” said Chacko.

“It’s true that a section of the Christians in Kerala, particularly those with a right-wing mindset, have a growing sentiment favouring the BJP. We in the Congress are trying to prevent it,” he said.

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