G. Mahadevan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Charges and counter-charges on the seemingly interminable wait for an international harbour at Vizhinjam, the acute drinking water crisis in Kovalam, Vizhinjam and adjoining areas, issues relating to the use of the Vellayani lake as a source of drinking water, inadequate infrastructure facilities in the Poovar-Kovalam tourism belt, livelihood problems of quarry workers, agricultural labourers and the fisherfolk... the ongoing electoral debate in the Kovalam constituency is anything but dull.

A not-so-subtle presence that looms over this breathless debate is what is being called the `Neelan' factor; the stratagems of the four-time MLA A. Neelalohitadasan Nadar who is contesting this time as an independent after being denied a ticket by the LDF. The way the battle is shaping up at Kovalam, the number of votes polled by Mr. Nadar could well be decisive.

Of course, the LDF camp is firm in its assertion that there will be no such thing as a `Neelan factor.' " The LDF votes are intact and not a single vote from this camp will go anywhere," says Rufus Daniel, the LDF candidate who is banking on his past record as the member and later, as president of the Venganoor panchayat. . He is contesting in the Assembly polls for the first time.

"I was at the forefront of the struggle to protect the Vellayani lake and use it as a source of drinking water for this entire area. I have campaigned against the sale of the ITDC hotel, I have argued for the installation of water, road and electricity facilities before the Vizhinjam harbour is set up. I have stood with the fisherfolk on the matter of giving them BPL cards... The people here know my work and my capabilities," he told The Hindu.

The UDF, on the other hand, is very sure that there will be a heavy erosion of the LDF's vote bank at Kovalam this time. According to UDF candidate George Mercier, it is only a question of how many LDF votes Mr. Nadar will get and not if he will get any. "The LDF votes will split and I stand to gain by that. The LDF is a divided house on the Neelan issue and on the candidature of Rufus. All these years, Neelan has been the face of the LDF in Kovalam. Now, the neutral vote in Kovalam is for the UDF," he said. In Kovalam, lack of a good hospital with in-patient and out-patient facilities is as pressing a problem as the lack of potable water and the absence of solid waste management facilities, he added.

Mr. Nadar, for his part, terms this election as a referendum on the values, ideas and philosophies that he has upheld all these years. "The people who accuse me of being a tainted man assume that they are the citadel of all virtues. Sadly, they are not. The hearts and minds of the people of Kovalam, who have seen me in public life ever since I was a youth, are firmly with me," he told The Hindu. "And it is the people who should judge me. The election committee office I am sitting in now was initially inaugurated as the LDF committee office."

This MLA of 18 years points out that the fight in Kovalam is certainly not between the LDF and the UDF. But then who does he see as his principal opponent. "I will not tell you that now. It is a matter of strategy," he said with a broad smile. He also points out that the issue of the harbour, drinking water, the problems of quarry workers, those in the coir sector, the travails of those in the `Laksham veedu' colony or the problems facing the tourism sector were issues that he had raised many years ago.

Mr. Nadar entered politics through the KSU and served as its president. He was also the chairman of the Kerala University Union in 1972. He was in and out of the Congress after the Emergency - first with the Congress for Democracy (CFD) that later merged with the Janata Party - and has also served as the secretary general of the JD(S).

Mr. Daniel, contesting on the JD (S) ticket, was an SFI activist who went on to become the member of the Venganoor panchayat on a CPI (M) ticket and the president of that panchayat as a Congress ticket. Mr. Mercier too is contesting for the first time in an Assembly election. The BJP has fielded K. Satheeshkumar, party's district secretary. He has served as the member of the Venganoor grama panchayat in 2005 and as the president of the Venganoor Cooperative Rural Development Society.