THE most interesting aspect of the 2004 elections in Kerala, where the BJP is yet to gain a foothold, is that in all the 20 constituencies in the State, the leaders of the two established coalitions are explaining to voters why they have to make a choice between the Congress(I) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), though both have an electoral understanding elsewhere in the country and are seeking a mandate to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance out of power at the Centre.
Leaders of the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front (UDF), including Chief Minister A. K. Antony, argue that defeating the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) is essential because the fight for a secular alternative at the Centre would be fruitful and effective only if the Congress(I), "the party that leads that fight", gets the maximum number of seats. LDF leaders caution voters that "the Congress(I) is at best only the lesser of the two evils", different from the BJP only in its secular outlook, and that the neo-liberal policies of both parties are one and the same. Therefore, they argue, it is essential for the Left to have a decisive number of MPs in any anti-BJP alternative that may emerge.
What the leaders of both the Fronts do not say is that by fighting each other the two sides are preventing the creation of electoral space for the BJP in the State. The anti-BJP stand of the two Fronts and their State-level policies will be put to the test most in those constituencies where the BJP-led NDA has fielded prominent candidates. Among such constituencies are Thiruvananthapuram and Muvattupuzha, where Union Ministers O. Rajagopal and P.C. Thomas respectively are the NDA candidates. The outcome in these two constituencies and in Mavelikkara, where former Union Minister of the Congress(I) S. Krishna Kumar is the BJP candidate, will be crucial for both the Fronts and the BJP, given the fact that narrow margins decide the winner in most of the constituencies in the State.
The contest at Manjeri, the Muslim League stronghold in north Kerala, too is being watched keenly. The League, which usually wins the seat with thumping margins, has fielded a fairly lightweight district leader K.P.A. Majeed, a former legislator. The CPI(M) candidate is T.K. Hamsa, a local Muslim leader and former legislator. The BJP has fielded Uma Unni, the firebrand who led the Sangh Parivar-engineered women's agitation against the rehabilitation of Muslims at Marad where eight fishermen were massacred in 2003. The result in Manjeri could be an indication of how far Muslims have shifted their stand towards secular alternatives as against the communal parties that have traditionally claimed to represent their interests. In most other constituencies in Kerala, the BJP has at best the strength only to play spoilsport, ruining the chances of one or the other Front.
For Antony and his government, the election could not have come at a worse time. His `we are different' UDF came to power in May 2001 riding the wave of annoyance against the five-year rule of the LDF. Antony, then the Opposition leader, and his partners had accused the LDF of pushing the State's economy to the brink, hampering development activities, indulging in corruption and encouraging cadres to resort to violence. The eight-party UDF alliance held out the promise of saving the State economy, striving unitedly for development and ushering in a peaceful atmosphere in the State and was voted to power with 100 out of the 140 seats in the Assembly. (In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections, when the LDF was in power, the UDF won 11 of the 20 seats in Kerala.)
Ironically, the group war within the Congress(I), relaunched by veteran party leader K. Karunakaran from the day Antony sat on the Chief Minister's chair, scuttled every step that the UDF government took towards fulfilling its promises. When Antony sought to launch austerity measures, soon after the government's inauguration, aggrieved employees encouraged by Karunakaran paralysed the administration for weeks. The Global Investor's Meet (GIM) and similar ventures meant to usher in industrial investment failed to evoke a good response. The administrative and financial restructuring policies initiated as per the norms set by international lending agencies such as the Asian Development Bank became hugely unpopular.
Antony himself fell into a political trap at every step he took: his efforts to pacify the tribal agitation for the restoration of alienated land culminated in the controversial police action at Muthanga; the government's handling of the communal tension following the massacre at Marad earned him the wrath of the minorities. The Opposition as well as his opponents within his own party and coalition accused him of being `anti-minority' and of "pampering majority Hindu fundamentalism".
In three years, Kerala fell further into debt even as the government claimed that the State's economy had improved vis-a-vis its position during LDF rule. But, as the government went ahead with its neo-liberal policies, it was also squarely held responsible for the crisis in the agriculture sector, traditional industries such as coir, cashew and handloom, and the plantation sector and for the corruption in the sanctioning of a never-before number of self-financing educational institutions and private hospitals.
The resentment that such policies generated among the affected people was made worse by the group war in the Congress(I), which - more than the Opposition - immobilised the State administration and, in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, pushed the party to the brink of a split. The candidate selection process proved to be the last straw. A typical election-eve rapprochement between Antony and Karunakaran ensured a Rajya Sabha seat for the latter, a Lok Sabha seat (Mukundapuram) for his daughter Padmaja Venugopal and an Assembly seat (Wadakancheri) for his son K. Muraleedharan.
As Antony launched his election road show, `Navodhana Yatra', on April 20, the State Congress(I) had a semblance of unity only at the top level but was a divided lot at the bottom, jeopardising the chances of many of its candidates. Antony said at campaign meetings as part of his road show: "It is going to be a very tough election for the UDF and the ruling coalition could make a fight out of it only if the party stood united and the wounds at the lower levels are healed quickly." No UDF leader would hazard a guess on the coalition's prospects, except in four constituencies, Ponnani and Manjeri, the Muslim League strongholds, and Thrissur and Alappuza.
Kerala is facing one of the worst droughts in its history and despite Antony's much-publicised tour of the affected districts, the government is struggling to provide the required relief to farmers, with little help from the NDA government at the Centre. Rural Kerala is suffering and the State government, given the scope of its pre-election drought relief activity, cannot genuinely claim to have won over hearts in the villages.
Not surprisingly, given the Opposition criticism of UDF rule, Antony was asking voters to compare the three-year rule of his government with the five years of the LDF and perhaps see his government's "miracle-less record" in favourable light.
Already, leaders of the ruling coalition, including Ministers, are inclined to describe the anger against the State government's poor record vis-a-vis its promises and the group war in the State Congress(I) as "inevitable anti-incumbency factors". It is this that gives the LDF camp the hope that it can improve its tally in the next Lok Sabha.