Kozhikode: “Ho, ho, ho”, said Moosa, laughing loudly as I ask him about the fortunes of Kerala’s Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi’s party in this Assembly election.
We are standing at a small corner fish shop that Moosa owns, open to the elements, in Dharmadom constituency in the northern Kannur district that is home to Pinarayi village, where Kerala’s chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan hails from. There isn’t that much fish in the shop, presumably because it’s already 2 pm and most of it is sold – prawns and mussels and one or two other kinds of sea-animals, fresh from the Arabian Sea over and across the other side of the road, remain.
This is Kerala’s famous Malabar region, that stretches from Mallapuram to Kasargod, home to 48 constituencies and a swarm of races and religions. Along the coast, Hindu rulers in the 15th century allied with Arabs to fight spice wars against the Portuguese; over the next 300 years, the Dutch, the French and the English thought nothing of spilling blood for control over the lucrative spice trade.
Here in Kozhikode, once known as Calicut, Kerala’s oldest mosque, the Mishkal Palli (“palli” is Malayalam for mosque), was built in the 13th century without minarets and domes. (Nakhuda Mishkal was an Arab trader who dealt in spices between Yemen, Persia, India and China). Here in Thalassery, once known as Tellicherry, godowns on streets like the Goods Shed Road are still home to Kerala’s black gold – pepper. Here, in the once-French settlement in Mahe, administered by Puducherry across the border, much lower taxes on liquor translates into scores of “foreign liquor bars” and a few enterprising smugglers. While Kannur is home not just to chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is contesting from Dharmadom constituency, but to Kerala’s martial arts tradition, the ‘kalaripayattu’ as well as the ancient ritual worship carried out by ‘theyyam’ dancers.
As the sun set on the Arabian Sea in Calicut this week, less than a hundred yards away the ‘azaan’ summoned the faithful to prayer at the Mishkal mosque. Middle-aged men sauntered in, inviting me to wander in the courtyard. The conversation soon turned to ‘love jihad.’ They seemed both embarrassed and bothered by it, as if that’s the only conversation worth having with visitors who have recently parachuted into their privacy.
Only love, no force
“I will vote for the LDF, I am not interested in these things. I know so many inter-caste couples (the man called them “inter-caste, not “inter-faith”), I don’t understand why this ‘love jihad’ has become such a big issue. If conversion is forced, it’s simply wrong,” said Ali, home for the last Covid year and waiting to return to Saudi Arabia where he works with the Bechtel company.
Kozhikode – pronounced ‘korhikode,’ the ‘zh’ a peculiar sound in Malayalam, and if you’re interested in the language, start with mastering ‘Kizhakambalam’, the name of a town outside Ernakulam, where the TwentyTwenty party is fighting the big dadas – is where it all began, of course. The sea washed up Arab traders as well as the famous Chinese admiral Zheng He, who made seven voyages to these parts and is even believed to have been buried in Kozhikode, before Vasco da Gama landed up in 1498.
Further up the Malabar coast, national highway 66A to Thalassery is really a long and winding road, packed with crazy traffic. But you’re soon in kissing distance of a blue-green water body, that is neither lake nor inlet, and your tiredness washes away. Thalassery arrives without warning and the search for spices leads you to a bazaar that is plastered with posters of Kerala’s beloved film-actor Mohan Lal, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the LDF candidate A N Shamseer and a familiar figure with a rakish beret on his head.
Che Guevara !
“You know Che Guevara?” asked a man who has taken it upon himself to inform me about Thalassery’s political landscape, when he sees me shooting video of the hammer-and-sickle engraving in the middle of the road.
“CheGue,” he added, solemnly, is also our leader.
Of course. Only in Kerala. The Soviet Union broke up nearly 30 years ago, but Communism in Kerala survives because it has adapted to local conditions. Just like the Arab traders from six centuries ago who also brought Islam with them, sowed the seed and became part of the pot pourri. But Malabar’s Muslims have more recently been considerably influenced by the religious orthodoxy of the Gulf, which means that it is now common to see women dressed not just in a black burqa from top to toe, but also with face covered up so that only the eyes are seen. Muslim organisations like the Popular Front of India, believe that its political party, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), is the appropriate vehicle to propagate its message of a purist Islam. No prizes for guessing that the SDPI and the Indian Union Muslim League( IUML), with 18 seats in the outgoing Assembly, have a troubled relationship – each of them vying for the hugely important 26.5 per cent Muslim vote.
With the exit of the Syrian Christian Kerala Congress (KC) from the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) – the KC saw the writing on the wall and joined the LDF – the IUML has become the Congress party’s largest ally. It is contesting 27 seats and for the first time in 25 years, has given a woman candidate a ticket. Some say it has become so powerful and the Congress so weak that it is leading the Congress by the nose, rather than the other way around.
A fish shop in Dharmadom
Meanwhile, the Arabian Sea is gleaming like silver under the hot sun. Moosa’s fish corner in Dharmadom, a few km up the coast from Thalassery, offers welcome shade. A woman in full black burqa and face niqab walks in to buy some fish. She tells me she’s voting for the LDF, because “they did so much work for us during Covid, even getting food rations delivered to our homes.”
Moosa and Zubair and Naushad, three men of the sea, can’t wait to add their voices to the conversation. Dharmadom is a LDF stronghold, no one can breach it. The question is not if Pinarayi Vijayan is winning from here, but by how many thousands of votes.
Doesn’t the Muslim vote traditionally go to the UDF and the Congress, I ask? And what about Rahul Gandhi, who came all the way to Kerala to become your MP?
“Rahul Gandhi Wayanad se hai. Idhar Malabar se nahin hai. Voh aaya tha swimming karne, usko swimming hi karna chahiye,” said Moosa. (Rahul Gandhi is from Wayanad, not from here. He came to swim, he should continue to do so.)
“Lal salaam!” added Naushad, who understands neither Hindi nor English.
Certainly, it seems as if the tide is turning in Kerala. Rahul Gandhi’s party, which should have wrested Kerala back from the LDF according to the state’s tried and tested political tradition, has not been able to capitalize on the LDF’s omissions and commissions in power. There is a sinking feeling in the UDF that power, like sand, is slipping through its fingers.
Kerala has always been unusually kind to the Congress – it voted for Indira Gandhi in the wake of the Emergency and despite her rout elsewhere in 1977, after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, as well as when the rest of the country gave the BJP a thumping victory in 2019.
Here, then, is the question staring the Congress in the face that no one wants to answer: How much worse can things get before the party hits the rocks at the bottom of the sea?
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)