Testing times

Published : Jun 01, 2012 00:00 IST

The political situation in the State is in a flux in the context of a political murder and an Assembly byelection.

in Thiruvananthapuram

KERALA Chief Minister Oommen Chandy 's efforts to make speedy governance the hallmark of the State administration has been, arguably, the best facet of a rather uneventful first year in office for the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) coalition, about to face its second Assembly byelection on June 2. To a large extent, until recently, the UDF rule had been marked by an uncharacteristic eagerness within the Congress and among its ruling partners to maintain unity within, what with the fate of the government hanging on a thin majority in the Assembly.

As it completes a year in office in May, the most tangible political achievement of the UDF, therefore, is the victory of its candidate, Anoop Jacob, in a crucial byelection at Piravom, in central Ernakulam district, in March this year. The byelection had become necessary following the death of Minister T.M. Jacob, a veteran legislator and leader of the Kerala Congress (Jacob).

T.M. Jacob's had been the narrowest of victory margins a mere 157 votes over his long-time rival there, M.J. Jacob of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the April 2011 elections that brought the UDF to power. The coalition won 72 of the 140 seats in the State Assembly, while the rival Left Democratic Front (LDF) bagged 68 seats.

Jacob's death posed a challenge to the UDF, then in its tenth month in office, with the Kerala Congress (Jacob) choosing his inexperienced son Anoop as the party candidate. Had Anoop not won back his father's seat for the UDF, it would have pushed the ruling coalition to a precarious situation. But Anoop won with a comfortable margin of 12,070 votes over his nearest rival M.J. Jacob.

Neyyattinkara byelection

It was a morale-boosting victory for the UDF, and it followed the resignation, a few days earlier, of R. Selvaraj, a disgruntled CPI(M) legislator from the Neyyattinkara Assembly seat in south Kerala. Selvaraj claimed that he was being ill-treated by the CPI(M)'s local leaders and made allegations of corruption against his former colleagues. After leaving the CPI(M), he joined the Congress on the eve of the announcement of the byelection, necessitated by his resignation.

The UDF is, therefore, now set for its second test of strength at Neyyattinkara on June 2, where it is fielding Selvaraj himself as its candidate. But this time around, the seat position in the Assembly is not so insecure for the ruling front, as it was during the Piravom election, and even a defeat would not upset its original tally of 72 in the Assembly.

Macabre murder

However, the byelection is set to take place in a dramatically different political environment for the two prominent coalitions. If the CPI(M)-led LDF is facing the election under the shadow of the gruesome killing of a former CPI(M) leader, T.P. Chandrasekharan, near Vadakara in north Kerala on May 4, the Congress-led UDF is racked by disunity.

The shocking implications of what looked like a case of murder with political intentions has, since then, engulfed the entire State. That it was done right when the campaign for the Neyyattinkara byelection was picking up momentum has added to its import.

At the time of writing this report, the police had found that the well-planned murder was committed by a group of possibly seven contract killers', who had waylaid Chandrasekharan on the fateful night about 4 kilometres from his home at Onchium. The assailants threw bombs at his bike and attacked him with weapons. His body had 50 open wounds when it was finally taken to the hospital. According to reports, his face was disfigured beyond recognition.

The killers disappeared after the macabre act, but within hours the police identified some of them and the car in which they had travelled. There were initial indications that at least some among them were convicts on parole from the Central Jail in Kannur, where a lot of prisoners involved in political violence in sensitive north Kerala hotspots are lodged. These prisoners reportedly receive extensive patronage from political parties and their leaders, who engage them to achieve their own political ends.

Director General of Police Jacob Punnoose said on May 9 that the police had identified the assailants but were yet to identify the masterminds behind the murder.

Chandrasekharan, a former member of the CPI(M), whom the party State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan had repeatedly called a traitor and whom Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan described posthumously as a brave communist, was earlier known as a VS camp follower during the height of the factional war within the CPI(M).

He was one among several CPI(M) members, especially from north Kerala, who had left the party protesting against the State leadership's positions on various issues and eventually formed the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP). As an area secretary of the RMP at Onchium, for long a CPI(M) stronghold in Kozhikode district, he was seen as the main force behind the victory of the RMP in the local body elections there. Though the RMP continued to be only a minor force vis-a-vis the CPI(M) in Kerala, Chandrasekharan and his comrades had remained a thorn in the flesh of the official CPI(M) leadership in the State. Until the very end, he remained a brave organiser and, according to his wife and party colleagues, had received several threats to his life earlier.

Chandrasekharan's death has shocked Kerala and has brought to the fore yet again the deep divisions within the State CPI(M), with Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan openly engaging in a war of words, on whether the CPI(M) considered people like Chandrasekharan traitors or true communists who would one day even return to the party.

It was, therefore, not hard to figure out why the UDF would try and bind this incident to its campaign against the CPI(M) in Neyyattinkara, a constituency in the far south of the State. Significantly, Selvaraj too had earlier proclaimed that one of the key reasons that made him leave the CPI(M) was the information that he had received that some of his then party colleagues (against whom he had made allegations of corruption) had engaged contract gangs' to target him and his family.

It was certain that the murder of Chandrasekharan would dominate the campaign at Neyyattinkara, where it is a three-cornered fight with Selvaraj facing the CPI(M)'s F. Lawrence (who had in the 1990s contested local body elections as a UDF independent) and the BJP's former Union Minister, O. Rajagopal.

Lack of unity

To understand the change of environment for the Congress coalition, it would be worthwhile to look at the important factors that led to the victory of Anoop Jacob at Piravom. Traditionally, Piravom has been a pro-UDF constituency, and UDF candidates lost elections there only when there were divisions among its coalition partners. In the March byelection, however, the UDF partners displayed unprecedented unity during the campaign because the government's future was at stake. Moreover, the UDF was able to garner the support of all the major communal organisations for its candidate. The new UDF government then also had the benefit of a total absence of anti-incumbency factors, including corruption charges. Likewise, the popularity of the new hyperactive Chief Minister was at a high then he was seen as a symbol of the unity and efficiency of the Front and one who had the wholehearted support of prominent coalition partners. Therefore, the UDF was able to successfully project the theory that every vote for the UDF was a vote indeed for the Oommen Chandy government.

But curiously, within a couple of months, almost all the factors that stood the UDF in good stead at Piravom seems to have turned sour for it at Neyyattinkara. The south Kerala constituency, near Thiruvananthapuram, has never been politically loyal to either Fronts, and for various reasons had preferred candidates from both the UDF and the LDF in previous elections. Furthermore, the UDF's unity, which was much in evidence at Piravom, seemed to have evaporated and at best had only been skin deep. The choice of an opportunistic CPI(M) MLA as the Congress' candidate, ignoring several long-standing party workers, and the Muslim League's crude but successful bid to induct a fifth nominee of the party in the State Cabinet, among other reasons, have untied the knots that had held the divergent interests within the Congress and the UDF together at Piravom.

The induction of the League Minister and the subsequent portfolio reshuffle undertaken by the Chief Minister which was perceived as a blatant attempt to appease communal interests that had risen in protest against the League's upper hand in the coalition opened a Pandora's box. The Chief Minister's move seemed to have turned almost all the major communal organisations that had supported the UDF at Piravom against it. And, Oommen Chandy himself became a target of criticism by leaders of his own party, who had been resenting the lesser role they were forced to play ever since he emerged triumphant as the leader of the Legislative Party after an understated contest with Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala following the 2011 Assembly elections.

There is no doubt that the performance of the Muslim League in the Assembly elections was a crucial factor in the UDF government coming to power. The Congress, the coalition leader, with its inner rivalries, could manage to win in only 38 of the 82 seats it had contested, in what initially had appeared to all as a cakewalk election for the UDF.

But the Muslim League saved the day, winning 20 of the 24 seats it contested, mostly in its stronghold Malappuram district, and that tally helped the UDF form the government with just 72 seats. The Kerala Congress (Mani), the other important partner, could win only nine of the 15 seats it had contested. The Socialist Janata (Democratic) got two seats and the Kerala Congress (B), the Kerala Congress (Jacob) and the RSP (Bolshevik) one each.

Perhaps, since the Congress with 38 seats could lay claim to 12 ministerial berths, the Muslim League with 20 seats, it could be argued, was well within its right to demand five seats in the UDF Cabinet. But the party erred in trying to push its demand in an uncharacteristic and crass way, with the Muslim League president Hyderali Thangal unilaterally announcing the name and portfolio of his party's fifth Minister also before such a proposal was discussed in the UDF or within the Congress.

Once the Piravom hurdle was crossed, the League emphatically demanded that the decision of its president be implemented and that both Anoop Jacob and Manjalamkuzhi Ali (a prominent businessman and former CPI(M)-backed independent MLA who joined the League in 2007) be sworn in as Ministers on the same day.

In communally sensitive Kerala, it meant that 12 of the 21 members in the expanded Cabinet would be from minority communities enough ground for protests from several other organisations, especially those claiming to represent the prominent Nair and Ezhava communities.

Oommen Chandy eventually decided to include Manjalamkuzhi Ali in his Cabinet, along with Anoop Jacob. To the surprise of his own party colleagues, he then took the unilateral decision to relinquish the Home portfolio (long held by Congress Chief Ministers as their fief) and reshuffled the Cabinet indicating to his critics that within his limitations as the leader of a shaky coalition government, he was trying his best to address complaints that the major caste groups did not have proper representation in his Cabinet. But not surprisingly, such an action only left the Chief Minister open to attacks from his own partymen and leaders of almost all the major communal organisations.

Prominent Congress leaders too rose in open revolt, especially against the Muslim League and what they termed as its unjust demands. They warned that if such a trend was allowed to continue, it would eventually end the Congress' leadership role within the coalition.

It was as if one faltering step from the Chief Minister was all that was required for re-igniting the pent-up frustrations and inner-party rivalries in the Congress. Concerns often expressed about a government with a weak coalition leader and stronger coalition partners were finally coming true, it was argued. Besides, unabashed discussions about caste and communal equations seemed to be dominating coalition politics and the UDF government in the State once again. The honeymoon seemed to have ended for the Oommen Chandy government and there was concern in the UDF camp on how all this would affect the Neyyattinkara election.

But that was when the news of the ghastly attack on RMP leader Chandrasekharan came, and it dominated political discussions in Kerala. It became yet another overwhelming factor that was certain to affect the Neyyattinkara election.

As the campaign began in earnest, therefore, the contest seemed to be evenly poised. With the BJP fielding O. Rajagopal as an antidote to the personalities and problems in the UDF and LDF camps, the contest looks tough. At one level, the election was also being fought on extremely communal lines. Neyyattinkara is one of the few constituencies in Kerala where the Nadar (Christian and Hindu) community constitutes a majority of the voters, and where the church and organisations such as the Vaikunda Swamy Dharma Pracharana (VSDP) Yogam, among other communal organisations, hold sway among the voters.

If the UDF candidate loses the battle at Neyyattinkara, it is pretty likely to be interpreted as the failure of the unilateral action of the Chief Minister and, therefore, could signal a shift in the balance of power within the Congress and, possibly, a change in its attitude to its partners in the UDF. A victory for Selvaraj, on the other hand, would further strengthen the hands of the Chief Minister and, at least for a while, keep his detractors at bay.

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