Clear choice

Published : Jun 02, 2006 00:00 IST

Kerala votes against the neoliberal agenda of the Congress-led front, which is backed by sectarian interests.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Tiruvananthapuram

IT is a season of anticipation and enormous responsibility that greets the new government in Kerala following the electoral triumph of the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

The 98-42 mandate in a House of 140, though similar to the one that the United Democratic Front (UDF) obtained in 2001, was the result of a discerning headhunt by the voters which brought down entrenched communal and caste barriers, rejected wayward celebrity candidates entangled in scandals and corruption charges, ignored election-eve political trickery and alliances of convenience and voted down the neoliberal development agenda that the ruling Congress-led coalition put forward.

"The new government will take forward the aspirations of the early communist organisers of Kerala. Only the Left governments have protected the interests of labourers and peasants of this State. The 2006 LDF government will follow the lead of the 1957 Communist Ministry under E.M.S. Namboodiripad," V.S. Achuthanandan said, addressing a meeting at a memorial for the martyrs of the Punnappura-Vayalar struggle in Alappuzha district on May 18, before his swearing-in as Chief Minister in Thiruvananthapuram.

The statement was an unmistakable reference to the basic development agenda that transformed Kerala. Land reform, radical changes in the education and health sectors and the strengthening of the public distribution system (PDS) were its important features, which subsequent Left governments tried to build upon.

The 19 members of the LDF Cabinet include 12 from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), four from the Communist Party of India, and one each from the Kerala Congress (Joseph), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Janata Dal (Secular). The two communist parties together hogged almost all the significant portfolios in addressing a long-standing suggestion that only those parties that have a reasonable mass base should handle crucial Ministries such as Home, Finance, Revenue, Agriculture, Industries, Information Technology, Health, Education, Food and Civil Supplies, Fisheries, Labour and Employment, Local Self Government and Electricity. The Congress (S) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), with only one legislator each, have no representation in the Cabinet.

Chief Minister Achuthanandan was left with only the General Administration portfolio initially and a minority of confidants among his 12 party colleagues in the Cabinet, a result of the pre-election factional strife within the party. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, a senior party colleague, for example, became the Home Minister, a position that usually comes attached with the Chief Minister's post in Kerala. Rumblings within the CPI(M) and among its coalition partners about portfolio allocation became the topic of newspaper cartoons. One lively sketch showed CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Local Administration Minister Paloli Muhammed Kutty, Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, Education Minister M.A. Baby and Health Minister P.K. Sreemathy (the only woman in the Cabinet) building a crude fence around a perplexed Achuthanandan reclining on a red, ornamental chair. Pinarayi held the sickle and Kodiyeri was intent on the hammer. The front-page humour was piercing and it mellowed the mood in the State.

"But I am the Chief Minister," Achuthanandan told Frontline in a nearly hour-long interview on the day on which he staked his claim to form the government and the cartoon appeared in one of the largest-circulated Malayalam dailies. "Nobody can prevent the implementation of the things that I intended to do," he said.

In the elections held in three phases on April 22, April 29 and May 3, the LDF scored its biggest ever victory in the State riding comfortably on Achuthanandan's personal triumph within his party as its lead campaigner and on the highly fruitful manner in which the CPI(M) itself closed ranks for the electoral battle after a bout of inner-party tussle.

The troubles in the party faded before the quality of the verdict, in which a large section of voters, especially those belonging to the minority communities in the central and northern districts of the State, for long captive supporters of the coalition of communal and caste-based parties, decided to vote for the LDF on the basis of issues and policy options it presented.

Kerala also saw the fragmentation of "vote banks" and the humiliating defeat of several regional satraps who had been holding the State to ransom merely on the basis of majority support (often) in a single constituency. Along with this, a number of small parties that held sway of coalition politics in State for years, without the mandate for it, were defeated. This, hopefully, may be the beginning of a new trend in voter preference in Kerala.

The results also reflected a fondness for clean politics, with voters rejecting several prominent candidates of the two coalitions because they were tainted by allegations of corruption, mafia links, or involvement in sex scandals or because of their general disregard for political decorum and ethics.

For the LDF, it turned out to be the most emphatic victory since 1967, with the CPI(M) alone winning 65 seats (including four party-backed independents) or 33 per cent of the votes, its highest share in the State's electoral history. The final results were a reversal of the 2001 election results in Kerala when the UDF notched a 99-42 victory over the LDF winning 49.28 per cent of the votes. This time, the CPI(M)-led LDF won 48.63 per cent votes while the UDF got 42.98 per cent. The Congress contested in 62 seats and won 24 seats and 24.09 per cent of the votes (as against 31.39 in 2001). Other constituents of the LDF increased their number of seats: the CPI from seven to 17, the Janata Dal (S) from three to five, the Kerala Congress (Joseph) from two to four, the RSP from two to three. The NCP, the Congress (S) and the INL got one seat each.

But the body blow was on the two discredited UDF partners, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran's new party, the Democratic Indira Congress (K). The IUML, the second biggest partner in the UDF, faced the biggest electoral debacle in its history. The alliance that the Congress entered into with its own splinter group DIC(K) proved to be a disaster as expected, especially for the new party, with 17 of it 18 candidates, including its president K. Muraleedharan, losing miserably in key constituencies.

The Congress was defeated in many of its stronghold constituencies. Three other UDF coalition partners, the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi, the Kerala Congress (B), and the Communist Marxist Party were pushed to the brink of extinction, like the DIC(K), winning but one seat or none at all in the new Assembly. Only the Kerala Congress (Mani) group emerged more or less unscathed, winning seven seats as against its tally of nine in the previous Assembly.

It was the first time that the UDF sought a mandate for what it described as a "definite alternative vision" for the development of Kerala. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's interesting argument during the campaign was that the UDF believed in "creating wealth first in order to distribute it while the LDF policy is to distribute poverty and unemployment". According to the CPI(M), the electoral battle was "between the Congress' concept of development that aims at maximising profits by imposing greater burden on the people, and that of the Left that seeks to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of people."

The majority mandate was against the UDF agenda, though, significantly, 42.98 per cent of the voters favoured it. It is this sharp division in priorities and needs, supposedly articulated by those who supported the UDF and the LDF, that is most striking in Kerala as the new government takes over.

In this context, the preliminary findings of a new study by the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP, the People's Science Movement that was famously at the forefront of the total literacy campaign) offer a glimpse of the legacy of a pervasive neoliberal environment on a State that schizophrenically shifts its loyalty between the Left and the Right every five years.

Among several other significant findings on "How Kerala Lives and What Kerala Thinks", the study found that "the rising incomes" reported since the 1990s have benefited only a thin upper crust of 10 per cent of people consisting of the immensely rich and the upper middle class. Along with rising health care, education and social expenditure costs, poverty and debts have increased for 90 per cent of the others.

The 10 per cent upper crust corner 41.2 per cent of the income, while the poorest 10 per cent get only 1.3 per cent. Among Indian States, disparity was widening most sharply in Kerala, with assets, especially land, flowing from 91 per cent of the people into the hands of the affluent 9 per cent. The study found that there was wide disparity in the incidence of poverty among rural and urban areas, districts (high poverty rate in districts that had reported the largest number of farmer suicides during UDF rule) and communities.

Kerala was also the State with the highest health care costs and the poor spent 34.5 per cent of their income on health care that forced them into poverty or debts, the study found. Unlike in the past, more than caste, religion or region, education plays the most important role in deciding the income level of people and there is a clear trend of only the 9 per cent rich cornering most of the higher educational opportunities. The majority, mostly the poor, stop education after the secondary school level, without acquiring the skills for employment in the emerging job markets, mostly in the service sector. Employment opportunities have shifted away from the primary and secondary sectors (that have witnessed a sharp fall in income) to the tertiary sector.

It is this Kerala that beckons the LDF now. Surely, the LDF's beliefs and policies are rightly oriented towards the disadvantaged 90 per cent majority (15 per cent of whom are "those below the poverty line", 35 per cent are "poor" and 41 per cent belong to the "lower middle class" in the KSSP study). But, for its dreams to come true, it has first to confront the irritating challenge that Oommen Chandy threw at it during the election campaign: "Don't you need to create wealth in order to distribute it?"

This lingering question that explains the crisis of the "Kerala model of development" is sure to be the fuel for an exciting phase in Kerala politics in the coming months.

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