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Loss by self-goal

Published : Jul 13, 2012 00:00 IST

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The outcome of the Neyyattinkara byelection in Kerala was not entirely a surprise.

in Thiruvananthapuram

Considering the events that preceded yet another crucial byelection to the Kerala Assembly, this time from the southern constituency of Neyyattinkara on June 2, the 6,334-vote victory of R. Selvaraj, the Congress candidate who was formerly an MLA of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), was not entirely unpredictable.

Selvaraj was elected as a CPI(M) MLA from Neyyattinkara in the Assembly elections held in April 2011, and his sudden resignation in March this year, clouded by the accusations of possible horse-trading indulged in by the Congress-led ruling coalition, imposed yet another byelection on the State. It was a decisive opportunity for the one-year-old United Democratic Front (UDF) government to improve its skinny majority in the Assembly. The UDF now has 73 members against the opposition Left Democratic Fronts (LDF) 67 in the 140-member Assembly after the morale-boosting victory for the ruling coalition and the government.

In the 2011 Assembly elections, the UDF had come to power winning 72 of the 140 seats. Subsequently, the death of Minister T.M. Jacob, the leader of the Kerala Congress (Jacob), exposed the vulnerability of the new government in the numbers game in the Assembly and posed the first challenge to the ruling Front. But Jacobs son, Anoop Jacob, now a Minister, comfortably won the Piravom seat back for the UDF.

However, a few days before the Piravom byelection in March, a disgruntled Selvaraj had resigned from the Assembly and from the CPI(M) party itself. Though he had initially declared that he would rather commit suicide than consider joining the UDF, what he did thereafter was to join the Congress, giving rise to much speculation about possible foul play by the ruling Front to add one more MLA to its ranks.

In 2011, Selvaraj won the seat for the CPI(M) with 54,711 votes (48.97 per cent of the total votes polled). The Congress candidate, Thampanoor Ravi, got 48,009 (42.97 per cent) votes, and a relatively unknown Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate managed to gain 6,730 votes (6.02 per cent).

In the byelection held on June 2, however, Selvaraj, now as Congress candidate, won with 52,528 votes (39.98 per cent). The CPI(M) candidate, F. Lawrence, got only 46,194 votes (35.20 per cent). Even though it came third, the BJP was the biggest gainer. Fielding its prominent leader, former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, it managed to benefit from the losses of both the Fronts, with a surprising 30,507 votes (23.21 per cent).

With one additional seat in the Assembly, the Oommen Chandy government now seems to have set itself on to the task of relaunching its development agenda, more secure than it was earlier vis-a-vis potential threats from the opposition in the Assembly and, hopefully, from the unfair demands of smaller coalition partners.

The UDFs victory in Neyyattinkara follows an unusually fierce three-cornered fight, despite several anti-incumbency factors and political troubles within the Congress and the UDF. The choice of a turncoat CPI(M) MLA as the Congress candidate, ignoring the claims of seasoned party workers, had angered a large section within the Congress. The embers are yet to die down, much after the elections.

Moreover, the Muslim Leagues crude but successful bid to introduce a fifth party nominee in the State Cabinet following Anoop Jacobs induction as Minister and the subsequent portfolio reshuffle undertaken by the Chief Minister as a measure to appease rival communal interests had made matters worse for the UDF just as the campaign was being launched.

The election was, therefore, held in the context of allegations that the UDF was bending over backwards to please the minority communities in the State and at a time when almost all the factors that stood it in good stead at Piravom a few months earlier had disappeared. Moreover, the south Kerala constituency had not been politically loyal to any one party or Front and had preferred candidates from both the UDF and the LDF in previous elections. (The BJP had never earlier displayed signs of having any reliable support in the constituency, with which it could erode the fortunes of either Front.) Even then, the Congress victory at Neyyattinkara was not entirely out of the blue.

Though there were several factors originally in favour of the CPI(M) candidate, the two factions within the CPI(M) had been vying with each other, as it were, to mar the campaign entirely with their rivalry and self-imposed troubles.

The murder of former CPI(M) rebel and Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) leader T.P. Chandrasekharan on May 4 near Onchium (an incident that the State read together with persistent media reports of the arrest of several of his former CPI(M) party colleagues along with the key members of the gang that allegedly killed him) and the controversial speech of the CPI(M)s Idukki district secretary M.M. Mani that followed ( Frontline, June 1 and June 15) had contributed a great deal to the victory of Selvaraj at Neyyattinkara. The actions of the Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan, the rival power centre within the State CPI(M), long at war with the official group led by party State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, contributed in no small measure to the defeat of the CPI(M): his statements describing Chandrasekharan, whom the party secretary had earlier called a traitor, as a brave communist, and his high-profile visits, first to Kozhikode to lay a wreath on the RMP leaders body even as his own party was widely being accused of the murder, and, later, to Onchium to offer condolences to his wife and other family members on the very day of polling at Neyyattinkara.

At the time of writing this report, on June 20, the CPI(M) State committee was still fiercely debating the actions of which two factions had actually led to the defeat of the partys candidate. Yet, strangely, the verdict has left the CPI(M) to claim that, despite the negative forces that pulled down its chances, and the adverse media blitz that followed the killing of the RMP leader, the CPI(M) has more or less retained its core political support in the constituency.

But compared with the number of votes it received in 2011, the party lost 8,517 votes this time, taking into consideration the fact that there was an increase of 19,728 voters and nearly 10 per cent increase in polling in this election. The Congress gained only 4,519 votes more than what it got last year. There is no doubt where the anti-CPI(M) votes and the anti-incumbency votes against the Congress would have eventually reached: the most significant facet of the byelection was the huge increase in the number of votes for the BJP in the constituency.

BJPs gain

For the first time in history, the BJP won 30,507 votes in Neyyattinkara, an increase of 23,777 votes from what was polled for the party barely a year earlier. A major reason for it may be that the BJP this time had fielded the most promising candidate it could in the State, the personally untainted O. Rajagopal, and hence stood well-placed to benefit from the weaknesses of the two Fronts especially the most adverse political climate that the faction-ridden CPI(M) had created for itself in recent times.

In a constituency where the majority of voters belonged to the backward (Hindu and Christian) Nadar community, both the UDF and the LDF had fielded candidates from within that community itself. The campaign against the UDFs communal and minority appeasement, therefore, seems to have led to a consolidation of a large number of politically uncommitted other-caste votes, too, in favour of Rajagopal a factor that, in retrospect, seems to have unusually affected the CPI(M) candidate more than that of the Congress.

However, the BJP, which had a lot of tailor-made factors going for it in this election a good candidate, the support of several communal organisations, and a campaign that ensured communal consolidation of votes still could not outwit the restrictions of bipolar coalition politics and open its account in the Kerala Assembly.

The verdict is a blow to an already troubled CPI(M) in Kerala and offers a respite for the ruling UDF, which had been surviving on an uncomfortable majority ever since it came to power.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 13, 2012.)

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