In the last lap, the United Democratic Front seemed to have lost the edge it had over the ruling Left Democratic Front, thanks to the rumblings within the Congress(I) during the seat-sharing exercise.
"PERHAPS the biggest deception in Kerala politics will be laid to rest here in Chertala this time." C.K. Chandrappan, one of the key candidates of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), concluded his campaign speech on this less-than-confident note. His target was A.K. Antony, the Congress(I) leader who defeated him in the 1996 elections. The two major coalitions in Kerala, the LDF and the United Democratic Front (UDF), had decided against changing their candidates, both leaders with unblemished personal records in their long political careers, in the constituency in Alappuzha district. In 1996, Antony, then Chief Minister, defeated Chandrappan by a margin of 8,385 votes in a close race. Kerala thus lost an excellent legislator and gained an uncomfortable Leader of the Opposition. Antony seemed more confident now about his prospects than in 1996. "I am confident that the people of Chertala will not fail me. They know me well. Lies will not work," he said in Thiruvananthapuram.
Chandrappan thinks otherwise. He told Frontline: "Antony's invincibility is yet another lie. Once the Congress had a very formidable candidate in Vayalar Ravi at Chertala. He was then the Home Minister, son of the soil as we all are. He used to claim that he cannot be defeated. Once he defeated me here in Chertala and the second time we got him. In 1996, Antony approached the people of Chertala after a long gap. He was then the Chief Minister and had the trappings of power attached to him. Not now. He had been an MLA and the Leader of the Opposition for five years. During that time he had come here but occasionally. He had no particular role in development activities in this constituency. He was a big zero in that respect. There is the resultant disillusionment. So this time there is a fair chance that Antony may lose."
In contrast, V.S. Achuthanandan, a senior Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is sure of victory in Malampuzha in Palakkad district, a CPI(M) stronghold held by Finance Minister T. Sivadasa Menon. In 1996, Achuthanandan, widely believed to be the LDF's chief ministerial candidate then, faced a shocking defeat at Mararikkulam in Alappuzha district, considered until then as an impregnable stronghold of the CPI(M). The 1996 elections were held soon after the CPI(M)'s State conference in Palakkad and Achuthanandan had later attributed his defeat to troubles within the party. "We will make sure that the faces at Mararikkulam will not be present there at Malampuzha," he said in Thiruvananthapuram.
The LDF had replaced 40 of its sitting MLAs with new faces, giving representation to youth, the better educated or those who had attained prominence in fields other than politics. Only four Ministers in the E.K. Nayanar Cabinet were contesting again. The CPI(M) had replaced all except one of its Ministers, the young K. Radhakrishnan, who had distinguished himself as Minister for Welfare of Backward and Scheduled Communities. Chief Minister Nayanar, also out of the fray this time, told a meet-the-press programme in the State capital: "No god will be able to engineer Achuthanandan's defeat this time."
Elsewhere in the State, in a remote corner of Puthuppally constituency in Kottayam district, Cheriyan Philip, a Congress(I) rebel, was trying hard to find acceptance as an LDF candidate. Puthuppally is the fief of Oommen Chandy, an Antony loyalist, and a "no-entry zone" for the LDF for the past 31 years. Until recently, Cheriyan was staunch supporter of Antony, the conscience-keeper of Oommen Chandy, and a campaign organiser for both. Now, as a CPI(M)-backed independent he was surrounded by red flags during the campaign and looked very much like fish out of water. But he symbolises the reaction to all that was bad and rotting in the Congress(I) in Kerala. His symbol, a bus, was also symbolic of his promise - "to make the roads of the constituency motorable again" - and a reminder to the constituents of what he alleged was the failure of Oommen Chandy as a legislator. "This is part of my struggle against monopolisation of power by a few in the Congress(I). The trend that one should be an MLA for life should end, that is my slogan," Cheriyan told Frontline. His revolt had surely made Oommen Chandy spare more time and resources to campaign at Puthuppally.
The edge that the UDF seemed to have over the LDF during the initial phase of the election was virtually blunted by the Congress(I) in the course of sharing seats among its four groups, mainly the ones led by former Chief Ministers K. Karunakaran and Antony. And at the end of the exercise, the party was falling apart at the seams. The exercise had steamrolled the aspirations of a lot of young leaders and partymen of long-standing loyalty. Many "rebels" emerged and only the threat of expulsion could make them withdraw their nominations. Four defiant rebels, including Cheriyan, were expelled.
Chandy told Frontline: "Cheriyan's challenge is to the voters of this constituency who had been electing me continuously for 31 years. If it is a monopoly of power, it is in the hands of the voters." As one who played an important role in the selection of candidates, he hinted that lack of dedication to the party was the reason for the rejection of many aspirants. "It is a fact that the party has not been able to bring forward youth in a manner in which it had intended to do. But one reason for this is the failure of Congress(I)'s experiments earlier with people like Cheriyan Philip as party candidates. In 1991, the party had offered the Kottayam seat to a young Cheriyan against CPI(M) leader T.K. Ramakrish-nan. Cheriyan lost only by 2,000 votes. He could have made up that gap in five years, had he continued to work for the party in the constituency. Yet he packed his bags immediately and left and never again bothered about Kottayam. If Cheriyan and his ilk had utilised their opportunity well to justify the party's confidence in them, it would have been a driving force for the Congress(I) to give the youth more prominence in candidate selection." Thiruvananthapuram West in down south was as much the focus of attention for the Kerala electorate as Manjeshwaram and Kasaragod were in the north. The reason: the UDF and the Bharatiya Janata Party allegedly had a symbiotic alliance against the CPI(M). In Thiruvananthapuram West, an area with a dominant presence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was bristling with posters and wall writings in support of M.V. Raghavan, a candidate of the Communist Marxist Party, an UDF constituent. Raghavan is the CPI(M)'s bete noir since his expulsion from the party.
BJP president Jana Krishnamurthy said in Thiruvananthapuram that the party's limited objective was to make an electoral breakthrough in Kerala. Manjeshwaram and Kasaragod, where it secured second places in 1996, were the most likely constituencies that could help the party achieve this objective with some help. This help, the LDF alleged, would come from the Congress(I) and, in return, the BJP would help the UDF in key constituencies. The BJP did not field its candidates in 10 constituencies, including Thiruvananthapuram West and Pala where Kerala Congress leader K.M. Mani was the candidate. (Mani's party veered towards the BJP in the local body elections held a few months ago.) In Chertala, where Antony was contesting, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has put up a candidate who is considered to be a lightweight.
While Abdul Nasser Mahdani's People's Democratic Party had declared its support for the UDF, the CPI(M) has an "electoral understanding" with Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait's Indian National League (INL). In Kannur, which has witnessed frequent BJP-CPI(M) clashes, INL candidate Kasim Irikkur is backed by the LDF. His main opponent is Congress(I) leader K. Sudhakaran, MLA.
Communally powerful forces were lying low, unlike in 1996 when groups such as the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam played an active role, threatening the prospects of many candidates. But with the two major Fronts in the fray accusing each other of having "unholy alliances" with parties that were once considered "untouchables", the picture is hazy in many important constituencies in the State, where even a one per cent shift in support would make a difference to the prospects of either Front.
In Kottarakkara, it was celebration time for R. Balakrishna Pillai, Kerala Congress(B) leader and former Electricity Minister, when the returning officer accepted his nomination papers. He was on bail after being convicted by the Kerala High Court for five years in a corruption case. Balakrishna Pillai seemed to consider the acceptance of his nomination as a vindication of his claim that the case against him was filed out of political vendetta. The two seats allotted by the UDF to his party - Kottarakkara and Pathanapuram in Kollam district - were shared by Balakrishna Pillai and his son, Ganesh, a film actor.
The LDF too had an embarrassment. In Kovalam, the Janata Dal, an LDF constituent, fielded Neelalohita Das, who had been forced to resign as Minister for Transport and Forests after charges of sexual harassment were levelled against him by two officers belonging respectively to the Indian Administrative Service and the Indian Forest Service. Says State Janata Dal president M.P. Veerendra Kumar: "There is a difference between the two cases. Balakrishna Pillai is guilty till he is exonerated by a court. Neelan is innocent till he is found guilty by a court." In Kovalam, the UDF has fielded a woman candidate, Alphonsa John, former MLA from Kundara in Kollam district.
Unusually, local-level development was a predominant campaign issue in Kerala. It is pronounced in Mararikkulam, where P.J. Francis, who defeated Achuthanandan in 1996, had CPI(M) State Committee member Thomas Isaac as his main rival. Isaac, an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvanantha-puram, and Member of the State Planning Boards in Kerala and Tripura, played a key role in the design and implementation of the People's Plan Campaign, a significant experiment in democratic decentralisation that was launched by the LDF Government about four years ago. The experiment, which has won all-round praise, is still in its infancy. One of its weaknesses was the lack of proper coordination between the activities of the State Government and those of the local bodies. The LDF's decision to field Isaac at Mararikkulam seems to be a promise to provide that crucial link. It was also a sign that political parties in Kerala are at last offering the people a new breed of politicians. Isaac told Frontline: "The result of this election will be extremely vital for the decentralisation process. The process has not been fully institutionalised. Continuous support and intervention are required to stabilise the process. For that it is important that the LDF should come to power."
The People's Campaign had changed the rules of the electoral game at the grassroots level in Kerala, putting pressure (to some extent) on political parties to give more importance to the performance of the candidates than their promises, to the quality of the candidates than their political affinities and to concrete results on the development front than to claims about accomplishments.
The array of new faces, especially those who are young and well-educated, in the LDF's list of candidates and the extensive focus on developmental issues in the campaign in a majority of constituencies are seen as signs of significantly new choices appearing before the voters. The election results will show to what extent the Kerala electorate will encourage such welcome changes.