Assembly Elections: Kerala

Left gets it right

Print edition : June 10, 2016

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury (right) with Chief Minister-elect Pinarayi Vijayan in Thiruvananthapuram on May 20. Photo: PTI

LDF supporters celebrate the party's victory in Kollam. Photo: C. Suresh Kumar

V.S. Achuthanandan, the LDF's star campaigner. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Oommen Chandy, the outgoing Chief Minister. Photo: George Jacob

O. Rajagopal, who gave the BJP its only electoral victory in Kerala. Photo: The Hindu Archives

In a State that values its secular political traditions, voters rally behind the Left Democratic Front because of its consistent stand against divisive politics and its opposition to the misguided policies of the Congress-led front.

Kerala’s political landscape may have turned hazy all of a sudden with the arrival of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led third front, but the election verdict was unequivocal: it was against corruption, bad governance, misguided policies and communal politics and emphatically in favour of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).

In a contest in which the BJP pulled out all the stops to make its long-cherished breakthrough in Kerala —with an array of its national leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, leading the campaign of an alliance of nearly a dozen community-based organisations, and fielding candidates in all the 140 constituencies—the State gave the LDF one of its most resounding electoral victories in the past few decades.

The clear turn to the Left was marked by the 91-seat victory that it gave the LDF, 23 seats more than what it had in the 140-member Assembly last time. It won 39.1 per cent of the total votes (not including the percentage of votes of the five CPI(M)-backed independents); the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which won 47 seats, got only 36.6 per cent of the total votes, a sharp fall from its share in the 2011 election.

Yet, for the first time in the history of the State, the BJP succeeded in winning a seat in the Kerala Assembly, lost another by a whisker (89 votes), and came second in six other constituencies, pushing the UDF in most cases, or the LDF, to the third position.

A day after the results were announced, the CPI(M), which won 63 seats (including those of its five independents), chose former party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan —who, along with Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan, had led the LDF’s spirited election campaign against both the UDF’s corruption-tainted government and the BJP’s new alliance—as the new Chief Minister of Kerala.

The quick decision came as a relief for party cadres, just as the cordiality that the two leaders maintained throughout the campaign did, which was one of the main reasons for the LDF’s historic victory.

The BJP’s long-cherished dream of winning at least one seat in Kerala was made a reality finally by its most familiar face in Kerala, former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, who won at Nemom, a constituency adjoining Thiruvananthapuram, after several unsuccessful attempts earlier. The only sure vote-getter for the party until now, who seemed fated to contest in hopeless elections, finally created history for the party by defeating the CPI(M)’s two-time MLA V. Sivankutty by a margin of 8,617 votes.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 15.8 per cent of the total votes polled in Kerala this time, up from the 6.3 per cent the BJP got in the Assembly election in 2011, when it contested alone.

None of its alliance partners—the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), claiming the support of Ezhavas, the largest Hindu backward caste community in the State; the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS), formed by former Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha leader C.K. Janu; or the Kerala Congress faction led by former NDA Member of Parliament P.C. Thomas—managed to win a seat or even a second place in any constituency. Janu came third in Sulthan Bathery, a constituency in the tribal district of Wayanad, the only seat her new party had contested. She got 27,920 votes as against the 75,747 votes for the winning UDF candidate.

An individual who made history of another sort this time was the former Kerala Congress (M) rebel leader and Government Chief Whip, P.C. George, a controversial crusader-politician prone to switching loyalties. He won again as an independent from the central Kerala constituency of Poonjar, fighting the ruling and opposition fronts tooth and nail, as well as the candidate of the BJP-led front and 15 other independents. In a State where only candidates supported by either of the two traditional coalitions usually win elections, George emerged victorious with 63,621 votes, 27,821 more than his nearest Kerala Congress (M) rival, Georgekutty Augusty.

But the real story of this election is certainly the total domination of the LDF, especially in the southern and northern districts. Only in Kottayam and Ernakulam, the two central districts, and in Malappuram, the Muslim League’s stronghold in north Kerala, could the UDF gain a higher, though reduced, tally of seats.

Among the LDF’s prominent winners were Pinarayi Vijayan (victory margin: 36,905 votes) at Dharmadom in Kannur district; V.S. Achuthanandan (27,142 votes) at Malampuzha in Palakkad district; E.P. Jayarajan (43,381 votes) at Mattannur; former Finance Minister Thomas Isaac (31,032 votes) in Alappuzha; and A.K. Balan (23,068 votes) in Tarur.

Within the LDF, the CPI(M) got 58 seats on its own this time, and the CPI 19; the Janata Dal (Secular) three, the Nationalist Congress Party two, and the Communist Marxist Party, the Congress (S), the Kerala Congress (B) and the National Secular Conference one each.

The extent of the LDF’s sweep can be gauged from the nature of the results in the 14 districts. It won nine of the 14 seats in Thiruvananthapuram (UDF four and NDA one); all the 11 seats in Kollam; four of the five seats in Pathanamthitta; eight of the nine seats in Alappuzha; two of the nine seats in Kottayam (UDF six and the independent P.C. George one); three of the five seats in Idukki; five of the 14 seats in Ernakulam; 12 of the 13 seats in Thrissur (the UDF won Wadakkancherry by just 43 votes); nine of the 12 seats in Palakkad; four of the 16 seats in Malappuram; 11 of the 13 seats in Kozhikode; two of the three seats in Wayanad; eight of the 11 seats in Kannur; and three of the five seats in Kasargod.

The UDF lost a total of 25 seats it had won last time. The Congress won only 22 seats (23.7 per cent of the votes), just three more than its biggest partner, the Muslim League (18 seats, with 7.4 per cent of the votes). The other prominent UDF partner, the Kerala Congress (Mani)—KC(M)—won only six seats. K.M. Mani, its leader, who was forced to resign as State Finance Minister in the wake of court observations in the bar bribery scam case, scraped through at Pala, his stronghold for several decades, with a margin of 4,703 votes. In contrast, his party colleague and co-chairman of the KC(M), P.J. Joseph, triumphed at Thodupuzha with the highest margin of 45,587 votes in this election.

The only other UDF partner to win a seat was the Kerala Congress (Jacob), with Minister Anoop Jacob retaining his family fief, Piravom. Three other UDF constituents, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), the Janata Dal (United)—JD (U)—and the Communist Marxist Party (C.P. John faction), do not have a representative in the new Assembly.

Four members in the UDF Cabinet—Excise Minister K. Babu, who was also involved in the bar bribery scam, Labour Minister Shibu Baby John, Agriculture Minister K.P. Mohanan and Scheduled Tribe Development Minister P.K. Jayalakshmi—lost in their respective strongholds. Assembly Speaker N. Sakthan, Deputy Speaker Palode Ravi, Government Chief Whip Thomas Unniyadan and several prominent Congress MLAs and spokespersons too failed to make it.

The RSP, which included a faction that left the LDF during the 2011 Assembly election, faced a rout, failing to win even a single seat this time against LDF candidates. The party lost all the five seats it contested, and its leaders, Shibu Baby John and general secretary A.A. Aziz, were defeated in the party’s strongholds.

Similar was the case with the JD(U), which had left the LDF during the 2011 Lok Sabha election to join the UDF. It contested in seven seats this time.

KC (M), which had won nine seats last time, lost three prestigious seats—Poonjar, Irinjalakkuda and Kothamangalam. Another Kerala Congress, KC(B), named after one of the founding members of the UDF, K. Balakrishna Pillai, had joined the LDF this time, and managed to retain Pathanapuram in Kollam district. Pillai’s son, the controversial actor-politician K.B. Ganesh Kumar, won comfortably with a margin of 24,562 votes, over two other prominent Malayalam film actors, Jagadish and “Bheeman” Raghu, fielded by the Congress and the BJP respectively.

Another popular film actor, Mukesh, the CPI(M)’s candidate in Kollam, also won an easy victory. Of the two local media personalities who contested as CPI(M) candidates, only one, Veena George, won in Aranmula in a tough three-cornered fight with a popular Congress MLA, K. Sivadasan Nair, and the BJP leader M.T. Ramesh. At Azhikode, former UDF Minister M.V. Raghavan’s son, Nikesh Kumar, was, however, defeated by the Muslim League MLA K.M. Shaji.

The State saw the rout of three Kerala Congress factions in 2016. The Democratic Kerala Congress, a faction that left the KC(M) and joined hands with the LDF on the eve of this election, was rejected by the electorate. All its four leaders were defeated in prestigious contests, some involving their former party colleagues. The new party’s chairman, Francis George, son of the founder-chairman of the original Kerala Congress that split later into various factions, himself lost the Idukki seat to a KC(M) MLA, Roshy Augustine, by 9,333 votes.

The Kerala Congress (Scaria Thomas), an LDF partner, and Kerala Congress (P.C. Thomas), part of the NDA, also failed to win a seat.

The UDF got 12 of its tally of 47 seats from a single district, Malappuram, the stronghold of the Muslim League, which was the only party to emerge relatively unscathed from the LDF onslaught. The UDF won 12 of the 16 seats in the district; its tally there was 14 in 2011.

In Tanur, a constituency that had remained a Muslim League fortress for over 60 years, and Nilambur, a fief of the prominent Congress leader Aryadan Muhammed, the LDF’s strategy of fielding independents led to the shocking defeat of the Muslim League leader Abdurahiman Randathani and the Congress’ Aryadan Shoukat (Aryadan Muhammed’s son) respectively. The LDF’s sitting MLAs, K.T. Jaleel and P. Sreeramakrishnan, were also able to increase their vote share in Thavanoor and Ponnani respectively.

It seemed ironic that two opposing camps were celebrating this time in Kerala after the Assembly election results were announced: one camp had taken an uncompromising stand against corruption and religious majority communalism all along and triumphed in this election, winning 91 of the 140 seats. The other was out to make gains for the first time with a new divisive strategy in Kerala politics and had won just a single seat in the Assembly, way behind a thoroughly demoralised UDF.

For the BJP leadership, obviously, it was a now-or-never battle this time, and it has more reasons to be happy about the marked rise in the party’s total vote share than the single seat it managed to win this time. Party leaders have since said that the battle for Kerala is “only beginning”.

Kerala witnessed stiff three-cornered fights for the first time in constituencies such as Vattiyoorkkavu (where the BJP State president Kummanam Rajasekharan lost to former State Congress president K. Muraleedharan by 7,622 votes); Kazhakkoottam and Kattakkada in Thiruvananthapuram district; Aranmula in Pathanamthitta district; Chengannur in Alappuzha district; Manalur in Thrissur district; Palakkad and nearby Malampuzha (where it came second after Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan); Kozhikode North and so on.

At Manjeswaram in Kasargod district adjoining Karnataka, another seasoned BJP candidate, K. Surendran, lost the contest by just 89 votes against the Muslim League’s P.B. Abdul Razak in a contest in which the CPI(M) candidate too won more than 42,565 votes. An independent candidate, “K. Sundara”, got 467 votes. In Kasargod constituency, an unknown BJP candidate, Ravisha Tantri Kuntar, lost by 8,607 votes to N.A. Nellikkunnu of the Muslim League and pushed the LDF candidate, the Indian National League’s (INL) A.A. Ameen, to the third place.

In a large number of constituencies, the BJP-NDA candidates won between 20,000 and 35,000 votes, although it would take a more careful analysis of the results to see whether it was the BJP or its allies, especially the BDJS, which benefited more from the alliance. The BDJS had fielded candidates in 36 constituencies as part of the NDA front. In at least 20 constituencies, they have managed between 20,000 and 35,000 votes, not enough to win the election but sufficient to play the role of a spoiler.

But the case of Nemom is different. Unlike in Manjeswaram, for instance, where the candidates of the Muslim League, the BJP and the CPI(M), won 56,870, 56781 and 42,565 votes respectively in one of the closest triangular fights of the 2016 election, at Nemom, the contest seemed bipolar. While Rajagopal won 67,813 votes, the CPI(M) candidate Sivankutty got 59,142 votes. The UDF, which got 32,639 votes in the Lok Sabha election and 33,100 votes in the local body elections in the Nemom Assembly segment, got only 13,860 votes this time. Its candidate, V. Surendran Pillai, lost his deposit, something unheard of in Kerala for a UDF or an LDF candidate. In a contest that was so crucial for the BJP, the UDF, surprisingly, fielded Surendran Pillai, a politician and a former Minister who had switched sides from a Kerala Congress faction in the LDF on the eve of the election campaign.

In spite of statements by Congress leaders such as A.K. Antony that his party’s main enemy was the BJP, a lukewarm UDF campaign, with little support from Congress workers, eventually fetched Surendran Pillai merely 13,680 votes, obviously the main reason for the BJP’s first-ever victory in Kerala. This has given credence to the LDF’s allegations about an unholy alliance between the Congress and BJP leaderships for mutual benefit in this election, namely, support for Rajagopal to win Nemom in return for similar help for the Congress party in other constituencies.

The results need a more detailed scrutiny before firm conclusions can be drawn about the impact of the rise of the BJP alliance in the State. No doubt, the categorical verdict favouring the LDF this time is the result mainly of the extreme credibility deficit the UDF government faced towards the end of its term. Innumerable scams and scandals had besieged it. As Frontline reported earlier, activities of liquor barons, land grabbers, exploiters of natural resources, unscrupulous ruling front politicians and a businesswoman of uncertain integrity caused shocking allegations to be raised against members of the Cabinet, including the Chief Minister, which led to governance being kept on hold for months on end.

Even the government’s accidental liquor policy which sought to introduce prohibition in a phased manner by first closing down nearly 730 liquor bars, and the string of development projects that the UDF government claimed credit for—including the metro rail in Kochi, the airport project in Kannur, the mega port project at Vizhinjam (near Nemom) that it launched with the support of the Adanis (a business group known to be close to Prime Minister Modi and his party)—did not convince the people, especially as the LDF mounted a persistent campaign against them.

Thus, the situation as the UDF completed its five years in office was very similar to the one in Kerala in 2006, when another discredited Congress-led government was voted out of power on a wave of anti-incumbency factors. But this time in the State, the BJP too was extending its hand to the people as an alternative by mobilising an umbrella grouping of caste and community organisations and through an unprecedented, motivated campaign.

To its credit, even as it opposed the policies and misdeeds of the UDF government, the LDF left no one in doubt about its opposition to religious majority communalism and the facets of its spread in India. Right from the beginning, it also opposed the BJP-BDJS alliance as a vicious communal challenge that threatened the secular, democratic fabric of Kerala.

The UDF, on the other hand, often came through as taking a softer stand towards the BJP’s new alliance. Its leaders perhaps saw in the BJP’s coalition a political opportunity, believing that the votes that the BJP/BDJS attracted would be from the majority community, especially the Ezhavas, a large section of which has habitually voted for the LDF in the past. Similarly, the conventional belief was that, come what may, minority votes would go in favour of the UDF, especially because of the presence of the Muslim League and all the main Kerala Congress factions in its fold.

But as the results have shown, the BJP alliance seems to have gained at the expense of the UDF, not the LDF, in a number of constituencies where the NDA had substantially increased its share of votes. The trend could be seen in the results from constituencies with significant minority/Ezhava populations too. In a State with its time-tested social and political traditions which seek to bind all sections of people together irrespective of religion or caste, the NDA’s divisive mobilisation was the red rag that made all those apprehensive of its intentions to rally behind the LDF, which had consistently opposed the BJP’s agenda as well as all the misguided policies of the tainted UDF government.

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