"Just compare the quality of this rice with what we get from the ration shop!"
Workers of a remote Food Corporation of India (FCI) depot in North Kerala were looking at a handful of high quality polished rice extracted from a sack meant for distribution through fair price shops in their district.
The quality of the grains was far superior to what they had ever got from the local state-owned ration shops because it is often diverted to the open market. However, people are not complaining.
For the politically and academically literate people of Kerala, this election is all about the price of the foodgrain and not so much about the quality.
Rice politics, which is usually associated with states that are economically backward, has taken centre stage in poll-bound Southern state that derives its economic strength from the earnings of Non Resident Indians (NRI).
As Kerala goes to polls on April 13, the United Democratic Front (UDF) - the Congress-led coalition that hopes to wrest power from the Communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) - has promised a monthly quota of 25 kg of rice at Re 1 to all families that are below the poverty line (BPL).
The campaign was meant to counter LDFâs decision to extend its Rs 2 per kg rice scheme to all families instead of the 35 lakh BPL families that benefit from the scheme in its present form.
The issue has gained prominence following the intervention the Election Commission of India which has decided that the LDF announcement violated the model code of conduct. It stayed the government decision, which was overruled by the Kerala High Court, only to be reversed in favour of the Election Commission by the Supreme Court a few days ago.
The rice campaign has put anti-incumbency aside for the moment. As election campaign enters the third and final phase, the ruling Left front seems to be readying for a close fight with UDF, with a section of political pundits predicting a second term for the LDF.
The high decibel rice campaign has also taken the wind out of all national issues such as the telecom scam which had put Congress-led central government in the dock recently.
LDF functionaries said the absence of anti-incumbency discussion is testament to the success of their development oriented policies during the five-year term of their government. Chief Minister VS Achutananthan's popular image is also helping LDF considerably.
Congress and UDF, they say, are trying to defend themselves from the recent image loss caused by fresh revelations related to an old sex scandal involving a coalition partner (Muslim League) leader and the Supreme Court verdict against former Kerala Congress leader R Balakrishna Pillai on a corruption case.
Though the Congress party admits that the UDF has been slow on the campaign trail, the state unit is confident of turning the tables on the LDF. The fight-back is led by Defence Minister and former Kerala chief minister AK Antony who has started focusing on the anti-incumbency factor and the electorateâs "desire" for a change.
"We agree that it would be close. But there is a strong wave of support in favour of UDF from across the state. It will strengthen further as our national leaders (including Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi) begin their campaign in the state," Congress spokesperson MM Hassan told Business Standard.
In addition to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress led coalitions, Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) and dozens of independent candidates are also among the 971 candidates that are contesting the 140 assembly constituencies of the state.