Winner's losses

Published : Jun 03, 2011 00:00 IST

The United Democratic Front just about crosses the half-way mark to assume power in Kerala.

in Thiruvananthapuram

RARELY has a ruling coalition in Kerala been so pleased about its electoral defeat; and, seldom has an opposition front been so miserable, in turn, about its victory. It was a beaming Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and a glum Leader of Opposition Oommen Chandy who faced the media as the final results of the 2011 Assembly elections in Kerala indicated that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had been voted out of power. In one of the closest electoral contests since 1965, the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) managed a wafer-thin victory, winning 72 of the total 140 seats.

The LDF, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), missed a second consecutive term in office by a whisker, with 68 seats, even though it was defeated thoroughly in the elections to the Lok Sabha and the local bodies held earlier. For the first time, the party leading a defeated coalition, the CPI(M), also became the party with the largest number of seats (45) in the Assembly; the Congress managed to win only 38 of the 82 seats it contested.

Though it came a close second in three constituencies at Nemom in south Kerala and Manjeswaram and Kasaragod in the north the Bharatiya Janata Party once again failed to win a seat in the State and got just over 6 per cent of the total votes, far below its expectations.

Among the other six LDF partners, the Communist Party of India (CPI) won 13 seats, the Janata Dal (Secular) four, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) two each. LDF-backed Independents won two seats.

In the Congress-led front, the Muslim League won 20, the Kerala Congress (Mani) nine, the Socialist Janata (Democratic) two, and the Kerala Congress (B), the Kerala Congress (Jacob) and the RSP (Bolshevik) one each. The LDF had come to power in 2006, winning 98 out of 140 seats. In 2009, however, the opposition UDF won 16 of the total 20 seats in the Lok Sabha elections. In October 2010, it triumphed in the local body elections too, winning nearly 55 per cent of the panchayats and municipalities. But this time it managed to win barely four seats and a mere 1,68,520 votes more than the ruling front an incredible victory, indeed, for the LDF coalition that was in a bad shape barely six months earlier. According to the initial estimates, the LDF won 45.06 per cent of the votes and the UDF was marginally ahead with 46.03 per cent of the votes.

The Muslim League factor

Within the UDF, the most resounding victory was that of the Muslim League and of its general secretary P.K. Kunhalikkutty, one of the most important targets of the LDF campaign led by Achuthanandan (Rash of scandals, Frontline, March 11). The Muslim League won 20 of the 24 seats it contested, a record for the party, avenging a dismal performance in its stronghold Malappuram district in 2006 that saw it being reduced to its lowest ever strength (nine seats) in the history of the Assembly. The party's performance this time is a key factor in the UDF coming to power, with a weak coalition leader and stronger coalition partners, the implications of which would only become evident as the new government is formed and starts functioning.

Kunhalikkutty himself won a categorical victory by a margin of 38,237 votes at Vengara, a new constituency formed after the recent delimitation exercise. The Muslim League won all the 12 seats it contested in Malappuram, and its ally, the Congress, won two, taking the UDF's tally to 14 of the total 16 seats. The CPI(M) won one seat in Malappuram, and K.T. Jaleel, an independent backed by it won the Thavanur constituency. In 2006, Jaleel scored a memorable victory against Kunhalikkutty in Kuttippuram before the delimitation of constituencies.

The united Kerala Congress (Mani), into which two LDF constituents, the Kerala Congress (Secular) and the Kerala Congress (Joseph), had merged over a year earlier, won in only nine of the 15 seats for which it had haggled hard within the UDF during the seat-sharing exercise. The three Kerala Congress groups together had a strength of 11 seats in the previous Assembly.

But the bad blood that ensued with the merger of the Kerala Congress (Joseph), especially during the sharing of seats and candidate selection, affected the prospects of several Kerala Congress (Mani) and UDF candidates in the central districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Idukki and Alappuzha. Mani himself won by a slender margin in his pocket borough Pala, and some other candidates of his party won narrowly in constituencies where the Congress has a strong base.

Surprisingly, the LDF got a bigger share of the seats in nine of the total 14 districts in the State, and the UDF, only in five. The LDF won a majority of seats in the districts of Kasaragod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Palakkad, Thrissur, Idukki, Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Kollam. The UDF led the tally in Wayanad, Malappuram, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram districts.

The Congress failed to win even a single seat in four districts Kollam and Idukki in south Kerala and Kozhikode and Kasaragod in the north. The LDF lost all the three seats in Wayanad district.

Three LDF Ministers, N.K. Premachandran (RSP), Ramachandran Kadannappally (Congress-S) and V. Surendran Pillai (Kerala Congress Anti-merger Group led by P.C. Thomas) and veteran UDF leaders K.R. Gouri Amma (Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi) and M.V. Raghavan (Communist Marxist Party) were among those who were defeated. Except the RSP, the parties represented by these unsuccessful leaders failed to win even a single seat this time.

Chief Minister Achuthanandan and several of his Cabinet colleagues, including Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Thomas Isaac, A.K. Balan, G. Sudhakaran, M.A. Baby and C. Divakaran, and Speaker K. Radhakrishnan and the Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy were among those who were re-elected with generous victory margins.

Only seven of the nearly 80 women contestants belonging to the two fronts were elected.


A fresh element of uncertainty in this election had been caused by the delimitation exercise, and it will take a while for both the fronts to assess its impact on their fortunes. For example, it certainly played a role in the booster feat of the Muslim League in north Kerala and the lacklustre show of the Kerala Congress (Mani) and the Congress in many southern districts.

Though the total number of constituencies remained 140, the boundaries of a lot of them had been redrawn. Seven new constituencies had been added in north Kerala, four of them in Malappuram, and one each in Kannur, Kozhikode and Palakkad districts. Similarly, seven constituencies, two each in Pathanamthitta and Alappuzha and one each in Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam districts, had disappeared from the south Kerala map.

Traditionally, the districts of Kasaragod, Kannur and Kozhikode (except Wayanad) in northern Kerala have played a crucial supporting role in any LDF victory. In 2006, the LDF won 25 of the (then) 30 constituencies in these four northern districts. This time the LDF tally was 19 out of a total 32 seats in the four districts. It won 10 of the 13 seats in Kozhikode district, three of the five in Kasaragod, lost all three seats in Wayanad and could win only six of the 11 seats in Kannur.

In Palakkad district, too, the LDF performance was below expectations, with victories only in seven of the 12 seats. In Malappuram, where the LDF won five of the 12 seats in 2006, it got only two of the 16 seats this time.

The UDF had expected more but got only six of the 13 seats in Thrissur. In Idukki, the UDF had expected to win all the five seats, but it failed to win the three seats in the plantation areas. Significantly, the LDF won the three seats in a district that was the scene of Achuthanandan's famous Operation Munnar against encroachers on government land. But Achuthanandan did not campaign in the district this time because of local opposition and differences of opinion over the issue with the district unit of the CPI(M).

People in Ernakulam, Kottayam and Thiruvananthapuram districts voted mostly in favour of the UDF, while the LDF scored a game-changing victory in Alappuzha, especially, as well as in Kollam and Pathanamthitta.

The most crucial factor for the UDF victory was the key element of consolidation of Muslim (in Malappuram, especially) and Christian minority votes and the impetus given to such a process by the merger of the Kerala Congress groups. While the Muslim League had succeeded remarkably in harnessing Muslim votes for the UDF, the Catholic Church's antipathy to the LDF government may not have found expression in this election as it did, for example, during the Lok Sabha elections.

Moreover, several non-Catholic voters among the Christian population in the State, may have, for various reasons, favoured LDF candidates in the central and southern Kerala districts. The UDF performance in central and south Kerala seems to have been below par, also because of the troubles within the coalition, including within the Congress and the Kerala Congress (Mani).

The results in the 23 constituencies in the southern districts of Alappuzha (9) and Thiruvananthapuram (14), districts which have often switched their preferences between the two coalitions, also went in favour of the LDF. It won 13 seats in all in the two districts. Its gains in Alappuzha (seven out of nine seats) overshadowed its performance in Thiruvananthapuram (six out of 14 seats).

Eventually, the LDF lost power on a slender margin of four seats. Significantly, the margin of victory was below 900 in at least eight constituencies in the State. In two others it was around 1,300. Kerala Congress (Jacob) chairman T.M. Jacob won with the lowest margin of victory (157) at Piravom in Ernakulam district, and former Minister M.K. Muneer, Kunhalikkutty's party rival, won by a margin of just 1,376 votes from the Kozhikode South constituency.While the low victory margins at Kozhikode South and at Azhikode (of K.M. Shaji, 493 votes) were a result of the inner struggles within the Muslim League, the verdict at Vadakara (Kozhikode district) and Chittur (Palakkad district) were indicative of the troubles within the Socialist Janata (Democratic), a splinter group of the Janata Dal (S) that left the LDF during the 2009 parliamentary elections over differences with the CPI(M) on the Vadakara Lok Sabha seat.

The defeat of its candidate at Vadakara, M.K. Premnath, at the hands of C.K. Nanu of the Janata Dal (S) faction that remained with the LDF, has turned out to be a crushing blow to M.P. Veerendra Kumar's fledgling party. The SJ(D), now in the UDF, contested in four seats and lost two, while the JD(S) faction that remained with the LDF fought in four and won all four seats.

But with two legislators in the new Assembly, including M.V. Sreyams Kumar, Veerendra Kumar's son who won from Kalpatta (Wayanad district), the SJ(D) is sure to have a place in the new UDF Ministry, along with the lone MLAs of the Kerala Congress (Jacob), Kerala Congress (Balakrishna Pillai), and the RSP (Bolshevik) parties namely, T.M. Jacob, Balakrishna Pillai's son Ganesh Kumar, and former RSP leader Baby John's son, Shibu Baby John.

The UDF is a nine-member coalition, and only the JSS and the CMP within it have failed to win a seat. In the eight-member LDF, except for the CPI(M) and the CPI, others have only two to four seats.

However, despite the fact that such smaller partners won only a few seats each, the 2011 elections have once again underlined the importance of their meagre influence in Kerala to the fortunes of the two fronts. The Kerala Congress (Joseph) and the SJ(D), for example, carried with them a crucial chunk of the LDF votes to the UDF camp.

Achuthanandan's role

Numerous local issues had played their part in this strange verdict, but an overriding phenomenon that made the April 13 elections such a close contest was indeed the Achuthanandan factor ( Frontline, April 8). Even though the Lok Sabha and local body elections had offered ample evidence of the people's anger against the continuous factionalism within the State CPI(M), the never-ending feuds among LDF coalition partners and the lack of unity within the State Cabinet, the campaign phase itself was marked by the absence of severe criticism against the LDF government.

Instead, what overwhelmed Kerala (once again after five years) was the re-emergence of Achuthanandan as the LDF's campaign leader and the attention-grabbing campaign that he undertook throughout the State, with its focus on corruption and misdeeds of the UDF leaders perhaps, right at the time when the issue of corruption was grabbing national attention.

It was certainly an attempt at quick mobilisation, and critics argue that it brushed aside significant political and socio-economic and policy issues, which ought to have been the focus of the LDF campaign. There was also a recognition that the troubles within the CPI(M) and the LDF had really eclipsed the numerous welfare measures and pro-people initiatives of the government that ought to have received better response among the people.

In the last six months of their rule, therefore, there were frequent attempts by the LDF/CPI(M) party leaders to present a united front, as it were. Naturally, it carried little conviction among the people because the sparring among the LDF leaders never really came to a stop. But, fortunately for the LDF, all this also had helped make the opposition UDF complacent about an easy victory in the Assembly elections and its members started fighting among themselves for its spoils.

The Chief Minister's campaign really caught the UDF off guard, struggling as it was with seat-sharing and candidate selection and had its leaders rather perplexed and on the defensive. Throughout the brief pre-election phase, Kerala saw both the fronts resorting to an unusually mean campaign, marked by a kind of brutal targeting of individuals and unpleasant personality-based disputes. And, the UDF failed miserably to bring forth a seasoned leader capable of countering Achuthanandan or even to drum up an alternative election agenda.

Kerala will continue to weigh the merits and defects of the 2011 election campaign for long, but there is already a smug realisation that it almost did the trick for the LDF. However, after a gap of many decades, the State seems to have voted for a period of intense political instability, during which no party or coalition can afford to be self-satisfied about past verdicts or complacent about governance.

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