Shifting sands

Published : Apr 24, 2009 00:00 IST

in Thiruvananthapuram

JUST a decade or more earlier, the north Kerala district of Malappuram used to amuse visitors by its lack of fervour during election campaigns: life would appear as normal and mundane, the countryside as green and desolate, the people as polite and resolute as ever. Every half an hour or so, as one drove by, there would be a few green flags or other buntings at village junctions that had nothing to sell but soda, cigarettes and bananas. The writings on the wall would be clear but far between, and the offices of political parties nondescript and deserted. On rare occasions, in the late evenings, there, with speakers blaring, would be a subdued crowd of nonchalant men, waiting to hear the Muslim League supremo, Panakkad Sayeed Mohammedali Shihab Thangal, or the occasional leader from other political parties. That was all the excitement one could hope for during the peak of a campaign in the Muslim-dominated district, with the largest number of voters in the State. Then on the day of polling, the majority of them would go to the booths to cast a whole lot of votes on the Ladder, representing the Indian Union Mulsim League (IUML) irrespective of the candidate. That would be it.

But a remarkable change has been evident since 2004, when, for the first time since the formation of Malappuram district, with its twin constituencies that would only vote for the IUML, one of them, Manjeri, created a revolution of sorts by voting instead in favour of a secular Muslim candidate fielded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The campaign that preceded that extraordinary victory had been uncharacteristically fierce and had painted the normally staid poll-eve scenes at Manjeri in refreshing red as well, not just in green alone. In that election, the CPI(M) managed to gather all the anti-League forces around it, irrespective of their secular credentials, finally to crack the first of the two IUML bastions.

Almost all the forces that declared unilateral support to the CPI(M) in that election in Manjeri had originally been established in opposition to the IUML and were arguably more communal and fundamental in their approach. They, in fact, appealed to a new generation of Muslim voters who were disgruntled with the management of the community by the IUML and its self-seeking and wayward leadership, and were even seeking extreme options as a solution to their grievances. To somehow gather such anti-votes from within the Muslim community was the only way to try and break the otherwise dedicated vote bank of the IUML; and, yet, for long, the CPI(M) had been reluctant to try such an electoral strategy for that inherently had the potential to stain its secular visage too.

But in the 2004 elections in Manjeri, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) eventually tried this strategy and the parties that declared unilateral support to the CPI(M)s Muslim candidate T.K. Hamza, or voted for him silently, included Abdul Nasir Maudanys Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) , (former Muslim League president) Ibrahim Sulaiman Saits Indian National League (INL), a locally influential group of Sunni Muslims led by Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musaliar, and even the National Democratic Front (NDF), at the extreme edge.

Since then, election campaigns in Malappuram have refused to be sedate affairs. In the Assembly elections in 2006 too, a friendship of convenience with such parties helped LDF candidates gain that edge and topple several IUML leaders who had never before tasted defeat in the traditional IUML strongholds in the district. But, both in 2004 and 2006, the CPI(M) and the LDF had taken care that none of its unofficial allies with dubious secular credentials had any role in the selection of its candidate or ever campaigned openly on LDF platforms.

And now, once again, as Kerala goes to the polls on April 16, the CPI(M) claims it can repeat the strategy at Ponnani this time and try and topple the last standing IUML fortress in the district too, where its LDF partner, the Communist Party of India (CPI), had been unsuccessfully fighting the IUML all these years. According to the CPI(M), the best way to wrest Ponnani from the IUML was to field not a CPI candidate but an independent who would be acceptable to all, meaning mainly the PDP (which is believed to have nearly 50,000 votes in the constituency, much more than the CPI) and the Sunni group of Kanthapuram Aboobacker Musaliar which is also a force to reckon with locally.

Thus, even before the CPI could react, and, allegedly at the behest of the CPI(M), Dr. Hussein Randathani, the principal of a college run by the Muslim Educational Society, who was closely associated with the Kanthapuram group and had the support of the PDP, announced his candidature on his own from Ponnani and established himself very soon as the LDF candidate.

The revolt of the CPI that followed, by questioning the PDPs right to find a candidate for the LDF, alleging that it was a ploy by the CPI(M) to wrest its seat and threatening instead to spoil the chances of all the CPI(M) candidates in the fray, was only the beginning of the troubles in the ruling LDF in Kerala on the eve of the elections.

The crisis in the LDF deepened further with the CPI(M)s decision to take over the Kozhikode Lok Sabha seat from the Janata Dal (Secular), its only one in Kerala, represented in the last Lok Sabha by JD(S) State president M.P. Veerendra Kumar. The CPI(M)s alternative offer of the newly created Wayanad constituency to the JD(S) or its argument that, with delimitation, the situation in Kozhikode was more favourable to a CPI(M) candidate was not taken kindly by its long-time partner in the LDF. The JD(S) therefore withdrew its only representative, Transport Minister Mathew T. Thomas, from the LDF Cabinet in protest, and in turn decided to vote against CPI(M) candidates in at least four crucial constituencies in north Kerala where it had its support.

Thus, while, at the national level the CPI(M) and the JD(S) were joining hands under a Third Front, there were even reports that the JD(S) would field its own candidate in Vadakara, a CPI(M) stronghold, with the support of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Eventually, at the time of writing this report, the CPI(M) managed to field its own candidate at Kozhikode even as the JD(S) tottered on the verge of a split, with some of its MLAs refusing to support its State leadership in its all-out efforts to spoil the LDFs chances in the election.

The CPIs main problem with losing the Ponnani seat, where it had never tasted victory, was that it would then probably also lose the minimum number of votes required under the law to hold on to its position as a national party. Earlier, of the total 20 Lok Sabha seats from Kerala, the CPI contested in four, the JD(S) and the Kerala Congress(J) in one each and the CPI(M), which had the mass base in all constituencies, in 14, including Ernakulam, where a CPI(M) independent contested. (In the UDF camp, by tradition, the Congress contested in 17, the Muslim League in two and the Kerala Congress (Mani) in one.)

Though the CPIs grievance was sought to be assuaged by the CPI(M) later on by offering it the controversial Wayanad seat (after the JD(S) refused to take it), the hurt and anger remained in both camps and was sure to affect the prospects of at least some candidates. Much to the CPIs embarrassment, and to the opposition Congress-led UDFs glee, Randathanis election campaign was launched in Ponnani by CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan from an LDF platform, with the PDPs controversial chairman Maudany present as an important guest and speaker. Obviously, Maudanys reward was the political legitimacy that came with it, being on the dais of a major political party for the first time in the State. The CPI(M) wanted to break into Ponnani.

From then on, the Opposition UDF declared at every election meeting that the CPI(M), in a desperate effort to win the maximum number of seats from Kerala (in an election where its prospects appeared less rosy than in 2004), had brushed aside the claims of its LDF partners and instead allied itself with a party whose secular credentials left much to be desired and whose chairman Maudany himself was the target of much media attention for the links he allegedly continued to have with terror networks or suspects.

Such factional strife among Front partners had always been a common pre-election phenomenon in the Congress-led UDF coalition, and only rarely within the LDF. But this time around, the CPI(M) and its partners provided both the Opposition and the media with much excitement as they fought irrationally and seemingly wished the predictable outcome upon themselves. Therein lies the irony of this election in Kerala.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and the 2006 Assembly elections, the conquest of Manjeri and the various Assembly constituencies in Malappuram district respectively were not merely the result of CPI(M)s tactical alliance with parties such as the PDP. Instead, the two elections were marked by the popular upsurge evident in all constituencies against the then ruling UDF coalition led by the Congress.

Annoyed and betrayed by the way the UDF had squandered the 100-seat (out of a total 140 seats) mandate that it received in the 2002 Assembly elections, by neglecting governance and indulging in an unbearable factional war centred around the personal and dynastic ambitions of a handful of top party leaders and functionaries of the Congress, Kerala voted emphatically for the then opposition LDF, which won an unprecedented 18 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats, most of them with margins of over 50,000 votes. The CPI(M) won all the 13 seats it contested, eight of them with high margins of between 60,000 and 1.2 lakh votes. The CPI won three of the four seats it contested. All the 17 Congress candidates in the fray failed to make it to Parliament.

Kerala also allowed the Left to triumph in even the IUML stronghold of Manjeri, and chose a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance candidate in one constituency and gave a nearly 30 per cent share of votes (the biggest so far) to a BJP candidate in the State in another. (The UDF therefore had just one representative in the last Parliament, E. Ahmed of the IUML, who won from Ponnani.)

In the Assembly elections that followed, precisely for these reasons, Kerala once again voted unfalteringly in favour of the LDF, giving it 98 seats out of a total of 140 seats. In fact, along with the disgust at the unending group tamasha within the Congress, the results of the two elections also reflected the anger of Kerala voters at the near-paralysis of the State administration because of it, and the belying of the rosy promises that the ruling coalition had extended to the people in the days before it came to power in 1999. Added to this was the clear drifting away of the substantial Christian and Muslim minority voters for various reasons.

Paradoxically, in this Lok Sabha election, the CPI(M)-led LDF finds itself in exactly the same position as the Congress coalition was in 2004 and 2006. In a way, the CPI(M)s puzzling aggression against its Front partners in such a context and on the eve of a crucial round of elections and the series of controversies over Ponnani, the PDP, the CPI, the JD(S), and so on serve but only as a thin veil over the deep divisions within the CPI(M) itself, with the partys State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan on one side and Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan on the other.

The Nava Kerala Yatra, a rally that Vijayan led from one end of Kerala to the other as part of a mobilisation strategy before the elections, appears to have served the opposition more than it did the CPI(M) or the LDF. It revealed the extent of factionalism within the party. In many constituencies, especially in north Kerala, CPI(M) rebels have come under a common umbrella to field candidates against party nominees.

The Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) inquiry report on the SNC-Lavalin corruption case (relating to alleged irregularities in the award of the contract for the rehabilitation and modernisation of three hydroelectric projects when Pinarayi Vijayan was the State Electricity Minister in the mid-1990s) is now before the Kerala High Court, with Vijayan as one of the accused. It is seen as yet another weapon Achuthanandan is using in the inner-party fight.

So far this hostility between the two leaders, which began much before the LDF government came to power, has served only the interests of the opposition and has paralysed the State administration and is a threat even to the healthy survival of Left unity that has achieved so much for the State and had been behind most of Keralas acclaimed development achievements.

Of the 14 CPI(M) candidates, six are Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and Students Federation of India (SFI) leaders, a fairly young crowd of first-time contestants. The Congress has been more or less prudent in its choice of candidates, with the average age of contestants being 54 and with the former Under Secretary-General of the United Nations, Shashi Tharoor, as the party high commands own nominee leading the list and engaged in a five-cornered, prestigious fight in Thiruvananthapuram.

Given its history of open bickering even during elections, the Congress camp seems uncharacteristically quiet this season, even though there are rumbling undercurrents in the party that may still help a few LDF candidates. But more than anyone else, with a clear consolidation of communal groups and minority organisations behind them, especially in the southern and central parts of Kerala, and with the LDF in trouble in many of its northern strongholds, the Congress and the UDF leaders know well that they merely have to hold on to the veneer of unity that they have accomplished, even after a tough seat-sharing exercise in New Delhi, for them to avenge the humiliation of 2004 and 2006. That is, if the LDF has no surprises up its sleeve.

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