WAYANAD (KERALA): It could be the most passionate electoral battle now being fought in Kerala. Almost every child in Wayanad knows the two words that drive it: kharshika prathisandhi. Or agrarian crisis. They mean a lot in a district that has lost over Rs. 10,000 crore of income in the past five years. Close to Rs. 6,000 crore of that in losses suffered on coffee and pepper alone. Huge drops in prices have also hit cardamom, tea, ginger, and vanilla. This is also a district that has seen hundreds of farm suicides in that period.

Normally, polls in this region have seldom been of the photo-finish kind the State is famous for. The United Democratic Front (UDF) has long been dominant. Overwhelmingly so. The clout of the Church in this devout, conservative belt also helped keep Wayanad on a strongly anti-Left track for decades. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) has rarely captured even local bodies in this tiny district. In Sulthan Bathery, it could not wrest control of the panchayat for 35 years. Wayanad as a whole has been staunch Congress territory.

This time, it is different. The kharshika prathisandhi has transformed the arena. Lively battles that could change the face of this region are on in all three seats here. The crisis has hit all, across party, community, religious and caste lines. "Everybody is affected. No one is exempt," says Krishna Prasad, Left Democratic Front candidate for the Sulthan Bathery seat. Mr. Prasad also heads a 14-organisation front that has been trying to fight the crisis. This front combines farm unions, NGOs, and other bodies of diverse political forces. The dynamic Mr. Prasad has worked tirelessly on the agrarian issue and has won support across political lines.

Facing him is the UDF's N.D. Appachan, former Congress MLA from here. He is now with the DIC (K). Mr. Appachan is equally clear that "the problems of agriculture are the main thing here." But he resigned 10 months before his term ended in support of his mentor and former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran when the latter split the Congress party. This now goes against him. In Irulam, staunch Congress supporters such as cinema theatre owner Raman Kutty are angry with him. "Governments only work in the last ten months of their term," grumbles Mr. Kutty. "That's when they release money for projects, as the polls draw near. And in those ten months we had no MLA because this man resigned."

That he broke away from their party has also upset Congress workers. Nor is he helped by the fact that a section of the DIC(K) in Wayanad split away to form their own force when the party joined hands with the Congress. Mr. Appachan is aware the resignation worked against him and has sought the voters' pardon. "It was a political decision," he told The Hindu in Cheeral. "At that time, there were compulsions. But I did good work in the four years I was there." The voters do not seem too forgiving, though. One wisecrack making the rounds is that Mr. Appachan took voluntary retirement from his job. And after VRS you cannot go back full time to the old slot. As the polls approach the third round, the CPI (M)'s Mr. Prasad seems right on top.

Next door, Shreyans Kumar of the LDF (from the Janata Dal) is strongly challenging the former Health Minister, K.K. Ramachandran, in the Kalpetta seat. The latter's image took a hit following a corruption scandal that forced his exit from the State Cabinet. Adding to this problem was the UDF's poor tackling of the agrarian crisis when he was a Minister from here. That crisis is now claiming not just the lives of farmers but those of their children as well. Many young people are forced to drop out of college due to their parents' bankruptcy. Some of them have also committed suicide.

Also giving the UDF a run for its money is K.C. Kunhiraman (CPI-M) in the Mananthavady seat. He is up against P. Balan of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The latter is a new entrant to the League. That he is accused of having earlier been close to the Hindu Right is causing some confusion amongst League voters. The popular Mr. Kunhiraman has won support amongst the Adivasis and could well cause an upset in this strong UDF seat.

Upsets in Wayanad would have to occur against major odds. The Left did make inroads in both the Lok Sabha polls of 2004 and in the panchayats last year. But to wrest the Assembly seats here would mean the biggest upheaval yet. One tricky factor is the presence of smaller groups such as the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha (AGM) in Mananthavady. There, the UDF hopes, C.K. Janu of the AGM will divide the tribal vote of Kunhiraman. In Sulthan Bathery, too, Farmers' Relief Forum (FRF) leader A.C. Varkey is in the arena.

The 'VS factor'

Mr. Varkey has been active on agrarian issues and got 35,000 votes when contesting the last Lok Sabha polls. He believes "the fight is between me and Krishna Prasad. Appachan is trailing us." However, the most impact third players are likely to have is in splitting the vote. On the other hand, there is the "VS factor." LDF leader and chief ministerial candidate V.S. Achuthanandan has toured the district. "Our first priority is agriculture," he told The Hindu in Mananthavady. "We will act firmly to revive this debt-ridden agrarian sector." His tour and its agrarian focus have had their own impact.

Pepper fetched Rs.270 a kg just a few years ago. Today, growers would find it hard to get much more than Rs.60 a kg. Vanilla, once commanding prices touching Rs.4,000 a kg, would be lucky to fetch over Rs.130 a kg today. The coffee economy is in a shambles. That, in a district where it occupies close to 70,000 hectares and has some 60,000 small growers. Reaching Rs.130 a kg a few years ago, the coffee price is now around Rs.24 a kg and sliding. The better grades of cardamom have seen prices dip by 75 per cent and now clock around Rs.200-250 a kg. Tea prices too, are down the tube. Many plantation owners have simply walked away, deserting their workers. Hence the new trends in this long-time UDF bastion. But the winners will find that victory signals just the beginning of deadly, seemingly intractable problems.