Battle of ideas

Print edition : May 10, 2019

In Chellanam, a coastal village near Kochi, Congress party workers use country boats to reach voters in small islands on April 7. Photo: H. Vibhu

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury in Kochi on April 2 to address a party convention. Photo: H. Vibhu

In no other election in recent decades have contesting political parties in the State been forced to lay their cards on the table and be so open about their core ideologies, beliefs and policies.

“Royalty and family rule are a thing of the past. I hope this will turn out to be a democratic contest. This is an election that has grabbed the attention of the whole country. It is a golden opportunity for the people of Kerala to uphold their pride and self-respect and demonstrate to the world their political and democratic consciousness,” Communist Party of India (CPI) candidate P.P. Suneer said while campaigning in Kerala’s Wayanad Lok Sabha constituency against Congress president Rahul Gandhi.

There was a crowd of just over a hundred people, mostly hardy settler farmers, farm workers and tribal people, waiting to listen to him at a nondescript bus stop named after Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in a remote corner of Thiruvambadi Assembly segment of the constituency.

It was a picturesque setting marred only by the hot morning sun reflecting off a huge granite quarry as Suneer began his brief address: “Friends, you know what the situation in Wayanad was during the past 10 years when a Congress MP was representing the constituency. The Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) is trying to portray this as an election that will bring changes at the national level because a national leader is contesting as their candidate. But in truth this is an election in which their candidate is accepting his failure at the national level. Why did the people of Amethi lose faith in him? The people of Wayanad should understand why the Congress is facing a setback in a constituency where it used to get lakhs of votes? But what is this election in Wayanad really about? Isn’t the development of our constituency the main agenda of this election? I promise you I will work with you sincerely for it if you elect me. You will not have to go to far-off lands in search of your MP.”

Elsewhere in Wayanad, at Pulpally village in Sulthan Bathery, known since 2000 for severe farm distress, droughts and farmer suicides, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) had called a “farmer’s parliament” to highlight the plight of the farmers of Wayanad during the past two decades under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) governments at the Centre.

Undeterred by the overwhelming response of the people to Rahul Gandhi’s grand roadshow and his two visits to the constituency, the LDF has launched an intensive grass-roots level campaign, deploying hundreds of workers for booth-level campaigning in the constituency, where the policies of the Congress and BJP-led governments, severe drought, fall in prices and indebtedness have led to over 3,000 farmer suicides in the past 18 years.

Top leaders of the Left, including Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), general secretary Sitaram Yechury and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, also led huge election rallies in Wayanad and highlighted the differences in the policies of the first UPA government, in which the Left played a major role in formulating policies, and the second UPA government, which, without the Left in it, went ahead with its neoliberal agenda that led to much rural distress and eventually to the advent of NDA rule at the Centre.

In contrast, the spirited campaigns organised by the NDA’s candidate in Wayanad, Bharath Dharma Jana Sena president Thushar Vellappally, seemed like a footnote even though the issue of the BJP’s divisive agenda was the dominant election theme of both the LDF and the UDF throughout Kerala, not just in Wayanad.

Thus, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing a huge Vijay Sankalp rally in Kozhikode, the gateway to Kerala’s Muslim heartland, former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told voters at Ambalavayal in Wayanad: “Rahul Gandhi’s candidature at Wayanad seems to have upset the BJP a lot. The Prime Minister says that he ran away from north India and sought shelter under the minorities in Kerala. Should a Prime Minister say such things? Does it behove a Prime Minister to use wrong facts and make an open attempt to communalise the issue and to raise communal sentiments? Amit Shah went a step further, comparing Wayanad to Pakistan. Don’t these leaders realise that Wayanad is 53 per cent Hindu? Don’t they know that Wayanad is a tolerant society where tribal people, Dalits, the upper castes, the minorities and the majority communities all live in harmony? Yet, they try to make false statements in order to create divisions for electoral advantage.”

But, in a State where the fight in most constituencies is bipolar in nature, between the LDF and the UDF, there were subtle differences in the way the national and State leaders of both these fronts attacked the BJP and then each other in their speeches in various constituencies.

While Yechury and Rahul Gandhi clearly left room in their speeches for a post-election Congress-Left understanding at the national level, the State leaders of both the Congress and the CPI(M) were unsparing of each other even as they attacked the BJP/Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and their communally divisive agenda.

Speaking at an LDF election rally in Sulthan Bathery, Yechury was critical of Rahul Gandhi’s choice of Wayanad as a place to contest against the BJP, even as he said that the need of the hour was for “an alternative secular government with the support of the Left”.

“Rahul Gandhi has to explain why he is contesting from Wayanad against a Left candidate, when we are both seeking a democratic secular alternative at the Centre that gives importance to people’s problems,” he said. Yechury said that for such a government to be formed, it would need strong support from the Left parties. For that, it is important that the LDF win all the 20 seats from Kerala.

On the day he filed his nomination papers, Rahul Gandhi said that he would not say a word against the CPI(M) even though the Left was free to attack him. Subsequently, at one of his rallies in Alappuzha, a district where the CPI(M) has strong roots, Rahul Gandhi even praised the Left: “I differentiate between the Left and the RSS. Of course, we fight the Left in Kerala. But the Left has never done what the RSS is doing. The Left has never questioned the institutions of this country. They have never tried to control the institutions of this country. They have never tried to question the Constitution of this country. They never tried to destroy the institutions of this country.”

But at the same time, the State leaders of the Congress were harsh in their criticism of the Left, raising the issue of political violence involving CPI(M) cadres in its north Kerala strongholds as among the dominant topics that would decide the election results in all 20 constituencies of the State.

Oommen Chandy, for instance, asked his audience at Ambalavayal: “Kerala was once known the world over for its proud achievements in education and health and other social sectors, for communal harmony and for peaceful life. But what is Kerala’s hallmark today? Cruelty. Every day we hear stories of political murders and cruelty to women and children. Under LDF rule, violence and perpetrators of violence are encouraged; they are given protection and sanctuary by the ruling dispensation itself. Don’t we need a relief from such State and Central governments and their leaders?”

How crucial the issues of political violence and serial murders have become for the fate of CPIM) candidates is evident in the north Kerala constituency of Vadakara, where the controversial former Kannur district secretary of the party, P. Jayarajan, is the LDF candidate. (For a detailed report on the Kerala elections, see “The Rahul factor”, Frontline, April 26, 2019.)

U. Rajeevan Master, general convener of the UDF campaign, said:“The same Left leaders who perpetrate the violence also claim they are the victims of such violence. But is that a justification? Political violence is not just about injuries and death. People’s lives get disrupted for days on end, and there is that feeling of insecurity that comes with it. There are even murders that were done mistaking the identity of the victims. People are afraid even to move around. Let them fight their opponents politically. Not even 1 per cent of the population favours this kind of violence to settle political scores. That is why it will be a crucial factor in Vadakara and neighbouring places favouring the UDF.”

The surprise candidature of K. Muraleedharan, former MP from Kozhikode and former State Congress president , against Jayarajan has made the contest one of the most keenly watched in the Kerala elections. Muraleedharan told voters in the CPI(M) stronghold of Kathirur, near Thalasseri: “The decision is yours to make. If such candidates win, won’t the world say that you give sanction for the political murders taking place in this region? You must vote to deny them a chance. If the murders continue, there will be no development. Development will matter only if you have a head on your shoulders.”

However, the CPI(M) has a strong party machinery in Vadakara and neighbouring Kannur, and its campaign managers feel that they can overcome such critical opinions. Jayarajan himself said at an LDF election convention in Vadakara: “The LDF sees this election as a struggle to sustain democracy, secularism and social justice. So the engagement should be between the different views of the parties concerned. The clash should be between political ideologies. But here the attempt of the political Right is to launch a campaign based on certain individuals. We must all be careful not to fall prey to that attempt.”

One of the crucial questions of the Kerala elections is the likely choice of the State’s substantial minority communities when they think of an alternative to the BJP at the Centre given the presence of Rahul Gandhi as a candidate in the State, the wholehearted support offered to him by the Muslim League and the surprising way Modi and BJP president Amit Shah chose to alienate the minorities through the repeated statements they made in their desperate bid to consolidate Hindu votes in their favour over the Sabarimala issue in the few constituencies where they hope to achieve a breakthrough.

Speaking at Jayarajan’s campaign meeting in Koyilandy, Pinarayi Vijayan skipped the controversial topic of political violence and chose to take the battle to the camp of the UDF: “The Congress is making several tall claims in this election. But what is the state of the Congress? Is the Congress able to take a clear stand on the important issues in the country? Why is the Congress unable to confront communalism head-on? Why is the voice of the Congress so weak when it comes to issues such as Ayodhya, triple talaq, cow vigilantism, the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill or the special status for Jammu and Kashmir?”

“What we need to understand first about the Congress is that nobody can say for sure who will leave that party, or when, and join the BJP. There are a lot of leaders in that party ready to defect to the BJP any time. So people should be vigilant about one thing. We cannot trust any of them. They stand always with one foot across the door. So those who cast their votes, especially given today’s national political situation, with the hope that secularism needs to be protected should be vigilant and ensure that their votes do not go waste. You are placing your trust. Shouldn’t you take care that your trust is not misplaced?” Pinarayi Vijayan said.

Surely, it is a campaign where issues as varied as the problem of the wild boar menace in farmlands to the economic theories of Thomas Piketty are being discussed in the constituencies of Kerala. But the arrival of Rahul Gandhi as a candidate in Wayanad necessarily meant an unusual focus on national issues as well and the campaigns of the three Fronts being led by its national leaders. Indeed, both Rahul Gandhi and Modi drew the largest crowds in their multiple campaign venues, an indication perhaps of a general polarisation of voters in the Left-ruled State into pro- and anti-Modi camps. Along with this, for the first time in the State’s history, the BJP found itself a subject that had a pan-Kerala appeal among its potential supporters: the handling of the Sabarimala issue by the Left government.

Addressing a massive crowd of supporters in Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram towards the fag end of the campaign, Modi said: “The communists and the Congress have blatant double standards when it comes to women empowerment. The so-called defenders of women’s rights are the ones in the forefront of defending the brutal and barbaric practice of triple talaq. But then the so-called liberals activate their entire network of fake NGOs [non-governmental organisations], fake civil society groups, urban naxals and sundry gangs to interfere in the faith and religion of our land. They are trying to make Kerala a laboratory of their misdeeds. They are insulting the sentiments of the people. Their deeds are aimed at making people helpless in their own land. But if the UDF and the LDF think they can destroy our faith, they are mistaken. Their lathis, their lies and disgusting mischief will never be able to destroy our tradition. I want to say it clearly. The BJP stands with Kerala. The BJP stands with our faith.”

Alleging that Kerala’s culture has come under immense attack from the UDF and the LDF, he said: “Kerala is a land of peace and harmony. But the insensitive communists and the Congress have brought a culture of political violence. Several patriotic BJP/RSS workers have been attacked, killed for serving the people. From Kozhikode I want to ask these outdated communists and fake liberals, why are you silent on the political violence in Kerala? What are your compulsions? I assure my fellow BJP workers your struggles will not go in vain. Some people, merely for political ends, are pretending not to understand the difference between belief and atrocities such as triple talaq. These people are out to destroy our cultural traditions in the name of the Supreme Court. We cannot accept any kind of attack against our traditions. It is an unfortunate situation if in our own land we have to face lathis in order to peacefully express our devotion based on our centuries-old traditions. We will raise the issue before the Supreme Court. Our government will strive to ensure constitutional protection to people’s beliefs and traditions.”

The April 23 election in Kerala has been posed by the Congress president as “a battle of ideologies”. Addressing multiple rallies over two days, he said:

“We are currently involved in an ideological fight between the Congress and the BJP/RSS. The Congress party views India in a particular way, and the RSS sees India in a completely different way. We say India should be represented by the voice of India’s people. We say that we should accept many, many different ideas, many different histories, languages, cultures. We say that the people should be able to express themselves, should be able to dissent, to argue and then resolve things peacefully. That is not how they see India.

“They want India to be ruled by one idea. And they want to crush anybody who does not agree with their idea. We disagree with the RSS and the BJP. We will fight them. But we do not want to kill the BJP and the RSS. We will never use violence against our opponents. We will never kill or destroy our opponents because we disagree with them. And even when we are fighting our opponents, we will do so with love, respect and compassion. And the history of this State and the country will show you that in this country love always triumphs over hatred. We want people to feel comfortable in this country irrespective of what religion they belong to, which part of the country they are from or what language they speak. We want them to be relaxed, do their work, live their lives how they please.”

In no other election in recent decades have contesting political parties in the State been forced to lay their cards on the table and be so open about their core ideologies, beliefs and policies. The election has therefore also turned out to be unusually divisive.

The coalitions led by the CPI(M) and the Congress, which alone have sent representatives to Parliament from the State so far, are suddenly forced to contend with the BJP’s desperate bid to disturb that cosy situation. The latter, though ruling India but still an “outcast” in the State, has finally found in the Sabarimala controversy an issue to propel itself into credible triangular fights in at least a two of the State’s constituencies: Pathanamthitta, the gateway constituency to Sabarimala, and Thiruvananthapuram, where the fight between Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, former CPI Minister C. Divakaran and the BJP’s former Governor of Mizoram Kummanam Rajasekharan has all the makings of a political thriller.

Despite being battle ready quite early and having a fairly good record of governance, good candidates and disciplined campaigns, the ruling CPI(M)-led LDF finds itself being compelled to prove its credentials as a better alternative to the Congress in the fight against their common foe, Modi’s BJP.

For the Congress, it seemed, it was a case of sudden excitement and hope at finding in Rahul Gandhi a leader transformed, who took political Kerala by surprise with his sudden decision to contest from Wayanad and seek what he termed, significantly, as a “life-long relationship” with that constituency.

R. Krishnakumar has travelled in Wayanad, Vadakara, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram for this story.

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