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LDF puts up tough fight in IUML citadel

By J.S. Bablu

PONNANI, MAY 5. The Ponnani Lok Sabha constituency has the rare distinction of sending only Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidates to the lower house of Parliament in all the general elections held since 1977, when the constituency was de-reserved. No wonder, activists of the Muslim League, the second largest constituent of the United Democartic Front (UDF), are in an upbeat mood. E. Ahmed, UDF campaign managers argue, is poised to set a new record in victory margin in the party's citadel.

Mr. Ahmed's main rival, P.P. Suneer of the CPI, a constituent of the Left Democratic Front (LDF), is banking on the Chief Minister, A.K. Antony's `anti-minority' statement (that the minorities manage to get more than their due through organised bargaining) and the `lack of commitment' on the part of the IUML in the implementation of the Narendran Commission report (on Backward Classes' representation in State service).

Ghulam Mehmood Banatwala (G.M. Banatwala), who had won seven times from Ponnani since 1977, won four times with a margin of over one lakh votes. Last time, even when the turnout was the lowest here, the electorate gave Mr. Banatwala a lead of 1.30 lakh votes, the highest in the State.

According to the latest voters list, Ponnani has a total electorate of 11,72,057. The number of new voters is 11,890.

This time the IUML candidate is a `heavy weight', even LDF campaign managers admit. The candidature of Mr. Ahmed, a leader of national stature, has galvanised Muslim League cadres into real action. Since Mr. Ahmed is contesting from Ponnani for the first time, he is leaving no stone unturned to consolidate his hold over the constituency.

UDF campaign managers argue that there is a marked lull in LDF campaign this time round. They argue that the LDF, which had campaigned on the emotive issue of Mr. Banatwala as `an outsider' in the past, might have been rattled by the entry of Mr. Ahmed this time. They say that the LDF has been campaigning as if it has accepted defeat before the polls.

On the other hand, the LDF campaign managers say that they are putting up a tough fight. They are engaged in a very systematic low-profile campaign focussing on family meetings. According to them, the polling percentage is likely to drop this time as well. Interestingly, Ponnani has the dubious record of being the constituency having registered the lowest voter turnout in the State in five out of the eight general elections held since 1977. UDF leaders attribute this trend to the large number of people from the constituency working in the Gulf countries who would not vote though their names appear in the voters list. They, however, hope that there will be a massive turnout of voters this time, enthused by the candidature of Mr. Ahmed.

The decision not to field Mr. Banatwala had fuelled speculation that he was not in good terms with the Muslim League leadership. But the entry of Mr. Banatwala on the campaign trail from May 4 has set at rest all such speculations.

The losing of the Mankada Assembly segment, which falls in the Ponnani Lok Sabha constituency, to the LDF in the last Assembly elections had taken the sheen off the UDF's impressive win in all the other constituencies in the district. The UDF this time is engaged in a focussed campaign in this segment, besides Perinthalmanna and Ponnani, where the CPI(M) is considered to have some influence though the IUML and the Congress candidates had won from there in the last Assembly elections.

The LDF candidate, a young orator, promises that, if elected, he would be easily accessible and would remain in the constituency. The LDF feels that Mr. Suneer, who contested unsuccessfully against Mr. Banatwala last time, is a familiar figure among the voters here and will fetch more votes this time.

The LDF points out that the `unholy alliances' that the IUML has notched up with the BJP in some grama panchayats in the district will turn Muslim voters against it. Its poll managers are of the view that unlike the last Assembly elections, which witnessed a pro-UDF wave, the voters are angry with the UDF Government this time round. Also, a section of the IUML cadres are miffed at the party's general stance on issues affecting the Muslim community, they aver. Also, the Sunni faction owing allegiance to Kanthapuram A.P. Aboobacker Musaliar will support the LDF, though the Front as such has not sought its support.

But the UDF poll managers are quick to point out that the Sunni faction has no considerable influence in the constituency. Moreover, they point out that the Jamaat-e-Islami has pledged its support to Mr. Ahmed.

The BJP, which has put up N. Aravindan, is trying to increase its vote share from the 9.64 per cent last time. The party would be happy if it could increase its vote share to 12 per cent, its poll managers say.

The PDP candidate, U. Kunhimuhammed, is not a well-known figure here, but he has done much campaigning in the party's pocket boroughs. The PDP candidate polled 35,026 votes in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

As IUML cadres work overtime to ensure a spectacular win for their leader, it remains to be seen whether the voters would respond with the same vigour and enthusiasm.

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