By Ayoob Rahman
In a bitterly contested by-election necessitated by the death of E Ahamed, India’s former junior foreign minister, PK Kunhalikutty retained Malappuram constituency by a stunning margin for Indian Union Muslim League. Malappuram falls in the most populous district by the same name in Kerala, the southernmost provincial state in India.
IUML has been part of the United Democratic Front which is led by Indian National Congress for many a year. In a very traditional political setup, UDF pitted itself against Left Democratic Front or LDF which is led by Communist Party of India (Marxist).
But behind the veneer of this civilised political contest, the election reflected India’s communally polarised voting behavior as ever, though the winner, Kunhalikkutty, gracefully sought to downplay the suggestion. During his post-winning interaction with the media, he emphasized the role of ‘secular’, ‘political’ votes.
“Literate Kerala has voted for secular politics. Kerala’s vote has never been on communal lines,” the IUML leader told the journalists waiting outside as he was being lifted on shoulders of jubilant supporters who were shouting slogans and hailing him.
“This is because the electorate has placed faith in me as I spoke about the need for a secular outlook. Also, the unity (in the Congress-led) UDF helped us,” he said.
The IUML politician won by 171,023 votes. He got 515,330 votes, the highest anyone has secured in the constituency in northern Kerala.
M.B. Faisal of the CPI-M got 344,307 votes. The Bharatiya Janata Party candidate N. Sreeprakash finished far behind with 65,675 votes.
The BJP was the biggest loser in the contest while the IUML bounced back strongly in the assembly segments Perinthalmanna and Mankada where it had performed poorly in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Kunhalikutty remained far ahead of his nearest rival — the young Faisal — throughout the counting process. Faisal of LDF, a lawyer, is relatively a political nobody, compared to PKK’ outsized role in Kerala politics.
Malappuram has been a traditional IUML winning seat where Ahamed won in 2014 with a record margin of 1.94 lakh votes.
Kunhalikutty secured 55.04 per cent of all votes, compared to Ahamed’s 51.28 per cent.
LDF vote went up from 28.47 per cent in 2014 to 36.77 per cent while BJP’s share dipped from 7.59 per cent to 7.01 per cent.
The IUML is the second biggest partner in the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which was ousted from power in provincial elections held in Kerala last year.
This is the maiden entry of Kunhalikkutty, a six-time Kerala legislator and five-time minister in various Kerala governments, to the Indian parliament’s lower house. Presently IUML’s national general secretary, Kunhalikkutty is considered to be one of the shrewd political strategists in contemporary Kerala politics.
He has to resign from his provincial legislative assembly seat in the next six months if he is to remain in Loksabha beyond that point. He represents Vengara legislative constituency in Kerala Assembly.
The Rise of Kunhalikutty
Born in 1951 in Malappuram, Kunhalikutty started his political career through Muslim Students Federation, the IUML student wing.
Himself from a well-off landed gentry, he grew up watching how at least three generation of his neighboring Panakkad Kodappanakkal family solved problems of people by offering spiritual guidance, mediating between warring families and businesses, and very often just soothing minds. One elderly man after another from the family has led IUML for the past half a century.
By way of education he holds an undergraduate degree in commerce and a postgraduate diploma in management.
He became a minister first in a government headed by K Karunakaran, an INC stalwart. He held ministries of industries and social welfare from 1991 to 1995 and in most of the successive UDF governments. He held the portfolios of commerce, social welfare, information technology, Hajj, Waqf, mining and geology, municipalities and local self-government departments as a minister in various stints.
Kunhalikutty’s ride has always not been smooth: He has had his share of political setbacks and an unforgettable electoral defeat during a season of anti- UDF wave, but he withstood. Those hurdles made him sit back and think; and seasoned him to be a mature politician.
Unlike many political leaders in Kerala who crave media attention and are guided by their prospective image emerge out of the coverage, he hardly care. At number of times he said he hardly read or trust newspapers.
But that doesn’t make him uprooted from the world of reality. He has his grips firmly placed on his constituency’s pulse. And he cares what he speaks; he’s all polite and measured during those rare interactions with media.
He’s not an orator, nevertheless a crowd puller. He’s never been a king or its various democratic variants, but he’s called a kingmaker.
He passionately started, proposed or continued various developmental initiative for the state which include Tecnopark in the city of Thiruvananthapuram and erstwhile annual Global Investors Meet. Some of them were success, while others lost in Kerala’s divisive politics which is marked by LDF’s investor-unfriendly, pseudo-socialist ways and UDF’s perceived corruption.
A Muslim League 0.2
The IUML response after the victory was sharp and clear. They want to expand its base from Kerala to other provinces; especially in Delhi. But the challenge is big. The party has often been pigeonholed into a lesser role. The judgment traditionally went like this: It’s a party of Muslims with no capacity to expand beyond its comfortable Malabar base. But a section within wants to change that. Recently the party constituted national committees for its student and youth wings. Its own ‘National Executive’ got a facelift.
Party’s role in supporting various student agitations across India, triggered by the death of Hyderabad university research scholar Rohit Vemula who belonged to the oppressed Dalit community, has been impressive given its past hands-off approach steeped in a crass realpolitik considerations that had never imagined a political landscape beyond Malappuram, though it sent leaders and charities to the areas troubled by violent anti-Muslim massacres.
But during the ‘Justice for Rohit’ struggle, things were a bit different. Muslim league was one of the first mainstream political parties to declare solidarity to the family of Rohit Vemula. Kunhalikutty, the then party state general secretary himself invited Vemula’s family and friends to a party event. Later, the party offered to build a house for Vemula family as part of its housing charity project called Baith-ur- rahma.
An ambitious Muslim League think the party could capitalize on all these in the long run and help make inroads to the other marginalized sections in the Indian society. The choice of Kunhalikutty as a successor to E Ahamed is ample proof that it means business in Delhi.
Observers and party workers now will look forward to see how IUML’s MP-duo will chalk out its strategies. ET Muhammed Basheer, the studious current MP has brought forth a lot of changes the way party MP functions.
While Basheer lacked the extempore oratory that was the hallmark of Ebrahim Sulaiman Sait and GM Banatwala, the two past IUML MPs, the first-time parliamentarian was quick to grasp things and work closely with young intellectuals in the party and raise issues.
Kunhalikkutty also lacks the charisma of, say, leaders such as Asaduddin Owaisi, another minority rights champion in the parliament representing Hyderabad’s Majlis-e-Ithehadul Muslimeen.
During the Malappuram campaign and the aftermath, IUML trained its gun at Narendra Modi-led central government and the divisive communal politics of BJP, in major shift from IUML’s past record in which it fought usual enemies such as Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Hindutva ploy to divide people on communal lines through beef-ban and cow-protection-terrorism were given prominence in IUML campaigns.
What does PKK’s victory mean to the expats?
Malappuram represents one of the Indian districts where a vast majority of men are working abroad. Scores of Muslim league activists are in the Arabian Gulf. Asked about expats, PKK told Albilad: “Expats, especially in the Middle East countries like Saudi and UAE are the backbone of our economy. As the Industrial and IT minister of Kerala I’ve experienced and realized this on several occasions. The Central as well as State government should safeguard their rights and create a favourable atmosphere for them” “I would ensure that the voice of expatriates is heard in the parliament”, He added.
The Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre, KMCC, also expects a paradigm shift through Kunhalikutty who is more accessible to the common man than any of IUML’s past MPs, as expressed in social media posts of its various leaders in the GCC countries.