Thiruvananthapuram, April 19 : A record 227 candidates will fight it out for the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala, which go to the polls in the third phase of polling on April 23.
A total of 25,408,711 voters, including 13,111,189 women, 12,297,403 men and 119 belonging to the 'other' gender, will exercise their franchise in 24,970 polling stations spread across 14 districts.
Even though sitting parliamentarians have contested the polls in the past, this time a record nine sitting MPs -- six from the Left and three from the Congress -- have been named candidates for the Lok Sabha elections.
The contest in Kerala in the past has primarily been between two traditional rivals -- the ruling CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
But of late, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has become a force to reckon with, at least in a handful of constituencies in the state, thanks to the Sabarimala issue.
The Supreme Court (SC) on September 28, 2018 had ruled that women of all age groups should be allowed to pray inside the Sabarimala temple, thereby striking down the temple tradition of barring girls and women in the 10-50 age bracket.
While the right wing parties were up in arms over the SC verdict, the ruling Pinarayi Vijayan government decided to abide by the apex court ruling. The Kerala Police even facilitated the visit of two women to the Sabarimala temple.
While the saffron party has been raking up the Sabarimala issue, Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi said at a public rally here on Thursday that the BJP will go for 'constitutional support' to protect the faith, culture and tradition of the devotees if it returned to power after the Lok Sabha elections.
In the 2014 general elections, the Congress-led UDF had won 12 seats, the Left 8 while the BJP drew a blank. It only managed to finish a close second in Thiruvananthapuram, while in the rest of the constituencies it finished a distant third.
This time though, there's a twist in the electoral plot with the unexpected arrival of Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who has sprang a surprise by announcing his candidature from the Wayanad Lok Sabha seat besides contesting from his traditional constituency in Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
Incidentally, Wayanad has the highest number of candidates, 20, while the Alathur reserved seat has the least, six.
Like in 2014, Thiruvananthapuram will witness the 'mother of all poll battles' with sitting Congress MP Shashi Tharoor eyeing a hat-trick of wins. Tharoor is pitted against former Mizoram Governor Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP and LDF candidate C. Divakaran, who's a sitting CPI MLA and former state Minister.
In 2014, Tharoor scraped past O. Rajagopal of the BJP by a slender margin of 15,470 votes. This time though, the BJP is leaving no stone unturned to ensure that the lotus finally blooms from here.
Pathanamthitta is another constituency that will be keenly watched, as it's here that the Sabarimala temple is located.
In Pathanamthitta, the BJP is placing its bets on K. Surendran, who has 240 criminal cases against his name, the highest among all the Lok Sabha candidates in the state. Ninety per cent of the cases pertain to issues related to the Sabarimala temple.
Surendran is up against two-time sitting Congress MP Anto Antony and Veena George, a journalist-turned-Independent legislator fielded by the CPI-M.
The Thrissur and Chalakudy seats too will be followed keenly because of the 'star value' associated with the candidates in fray.
In Thrissur, the BJP has sprung a surprise by fielding its Rajya Sabha MP and superstar Suresh Gopi, who will take on two former legislators -- T.N. Prathapan of the Congress and Rajaji Mathew Thomas of the CPI.
In 2014, the seat was won by C.N. Jayadevan of the CPI who beat K.P. Dhanapalan of the Congress by 38,227 votes.
Likewise in Chalakudy, ace comedian Innocent, the sitting Independent MP backed by the LDF, has decided to seek re-election after days of indecision. However, the arrival of Congress strongman Benny Behanan, who is also the UDF Convenor, has turned the battle for Chalakudy into a tough one.
In 2014, Innocent had defeated P.C. Chacko of the Congress by a thin margin of 13,884 votes.
The UDF has reasons to cheer as most poll surveys have indicated that it is on a strong footing and is likely to increase its tally. The CPI-M, however, has dismissed the surveys as immaterial and is confident of having the last laugh.
The BJP, on the other hand, is hoping against hope to emerge as the 'dark horse' when the votes are counted on May 23.