Whiff of change

Print edition : April 22, 2011

Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan arriving at a campaign meeting at Cheriyathura in Thiruvananthapuram on March 31. - C. RATHEESH KUMAR

The opposition UDF in Kerala seems to have lost the momentum in an election whose outcome had seemed fairly decided until recently.

THE venue was the compound of a demolished village cinema, barely a kilometre away from the sprawling Technopark campus within the Kazhakkoottam Assembly constituency in south Kerala. A crowd of over a thousand people, none of them from the IT park, had been braving the summer heat for over an hour on a Sunday evening on March 27, a week after V.S. Achuthanandan had won the mandate of his party to lead the ruling Left Democratic Front's (LDF) election campaign in the State.

The audience seemed to know very well what the Chief Minister was about to say. In the seven days that had passed, people had watched him on television connecting with similar crowds in nearly six districts of the State, condemning errant opposition leaders and promising to throw them into prison, and extolling his government's virtues.

The crowd seemed to know even his rationale for arriving late for the 2011 campaign meetings. That morning he had addressed enthusiastic supporters at two other constituencies and apologised, pointedly: I am sorry for being late. Nowadays, it appears that the Congress leaders, PCC president Ramesh Chennithala and Opposition Leader Oommen Chandy, are so flush with funds that they can drop down thud! from helicopters into their constituencies. However, as you know, we in the LDF cannot afford such luxury and have to travel by road.

Unlike in 2006, Achuthanandan had lost no time in hitting the campaign trail, taking full advantage of the factional drama within his own party, the sporadic street protests that followed, and his emergence from it all, once again, as the champion of the LDF election machine. He had already received a hero's welcome in Kollam, one of the many districts from which he had got unstinted support during the controversial candidate selection process within his party, and in Palakkad and Kannur districts, where hundreds of people were waiting to welcome him even at the railway station, and at several constituencies in Kasargod, Kozhikode and Alappuzha districts, on his way back after filing his nomination papers at Malampuzha in Palakkad district.

At Kazhakkoottam, as elsewhere, the atmosphere was electric as he arrived, and supporters clapped and roared with laughter as he repeated his litany of charges against opposition leaders, ridiculed them for their criminal indulgences and toyed with the possibility of seeing more of them at the Central prison, like Kerala Congress leader R. Balakrishna Pillai (Rash of scandals, Frontline, March 11).

Finally, at the end of his carefully calibrated speeches, sprinkled with trademark theatrical gestures, Achuthanandan would deliver his punchline: Oommen Chandy and his friends claim that I am behaving in a spiteful and revengeful manner when I say that many opposition leaders will have to follow Balakrishna Pillai to prison very soon. I am merely stating the truth. I have no compromise with certain kinds of people those mighty chieftains who gulp down public money and those who rape young girls.

The significance of his statements and his targets, including, perhaps, those within his own party, were not lost on the electorate in Kerala. Even while the opposition campaign remained stuck on controversies over seat-sharing and candidate selection, Oommen Chandy was countering the Chief Minister at every other press conference: The people will see through this game of merely holding out threats against opposition leaders before the elections and doing nothing about them while being in power. The five years of LDF rule have seen nothing but controversies and disputes.

Meanwhile, however, a leaner LDF, bereft of some of the partners whose quarrels had cost it dearly in the two major elections since 2006, had completed a comparatively smoother seat-sharing exercise, and because of the early campaign tours undertaken by Achuthanandan, could create an initial impression that it was much ahead of the UDF in the electoral race.

But even on March 30, the last date for withdrawing nominations, while the opposition campaign seemed to lag behind still, a question was being raised everywhere: Would the re-emergence of the Achuthanandan factor on the eve of yet another election and a series of allegations against opposition leaders suffice for the LDF to overcome the negative factors that had done it in so badly in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the local body elections in 2010?

Until a few months earlier, in the context of the destructive factionalism within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the anti-incumbency issues that came up in its wake, many had believed that the advantages were all on the side of the UDF.

But, with the smell of an easy victory wafting in, the UDF bared its darker side, once again reminding Kerala of the factors that made it vote decisively five years ago to throw out the UDF government.

POLITICAL PARTIES IN Kerala are inclined to use street play and other art forms to woo voters. A scene from such a street play staged in Kozhikode for an LDF candidate.-S. RAMESH KURUP

The troubles within the UDF were already in evidence at the time of the local body elections five months earlier. They were apparent even during the delimitation exercise in Kerala that preceded those elections. It saw many constituencies disappearing altogether, new ones appearing and the boundaries of several others being redrawn drastically, with yet-to-be-tested electoral implications.

For example, though the total number of constituencies remained the same at 140, there was a decrease of seven constituencies in the southern districts of Kerala and an increase of seven in the north. Redrawing of the boundaries in a large number of other constituencies had potentially altered the prospects of a number of political parties and individual candidates.

In a State where coalition equations are touchy, this meant havoc within the UDF, which believed itself to be on the verge of regaining power and in which two prominent partners, the Kerala Congress (Mani) and the Indian Union Muslim League, with their support bases in the south and the north respectively, were already vying with each other for more prominence.

The recent merger of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) with the Kerala Congress (Mani) had behind it the attraction of more bargaining power for veteran leader K.M. Mani and his party within the UDF. For the Muslim League and its general secretary P.K. Kunhalikkutty, on the other hand, the 2011 election was a do-or-die battle. The party had to ensure a UDF victory in order to come back to power, increase its strength of MLAs to have its decisive say within any UDF government, and, importantly, make sure of a victory for its discredited leader Kunhalikkutty (one of the important targets of Achuthanandan's two-decade long political crusade in Kerala), whom it had refused to disown despite allegations of his involvement in several murky affairs.

To make matters worse for the coalition, a splinter group of the Janata Dal (Secular) the Socialist Janata Dal-Secular (SJD-S) under the leadership of M.P. Veerendra Kumar that had left the LDF to join the Congress-led coalition, had to be rewarded, especially after it played a major role in the LDF's debacle in some north Kerala constituencies in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The expanded KC(M), too, was demanding additionally the seats that its new merger partner, the KC (Joseph), had been contesting while it was in the LDF.

Eventually, what Kerala saw were attempts at one-upmanship and a power struggle among the UDF partners initially and within all major partners subsequently for seats and the party ticket. On the one hand, there was pressure on all existing UDF partners to sacrifice some seats to accommodate the new partners. The Congress, which contested 94 seats in 2006, eventually had to confine itself to 82 seats. The Muslim League more or less retained its number of seats at 24. The Kerala Congress(M), which contested in 11 seats in 2006, bargained hard for 22 and eventually got 15, while the SJD-S got six. The lesser partners were left with far less: the JSS, four seats; the Kerala Congress (Jacob) and the Communist Maoist Party (CMP), three each; the Kerala Congress (B), two; and the RSP (Baby John), one.

Power struggle

Meanwhile, even as the State watched the factional war within the CPI(M) and the devastating effect it had on the LDF government, a curious power struggle was developing within the State Congress between Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy.

After the UDF debacle in the 2006 elections, largely the result of the decades-long group war led by K. Karunakaran on the one hand, and A.K. Antony on the other. The Chandy-Ramesh leadership duo was a welcome unifying force and was quickly seen as consolidating their grip on the State party, much to the discomfiture of several other prominent leaders. The unity achieved in the State party, with Oommen Chandy as the legislature party leader and Ramesh Chennithala as the head of the PCC, was a major reason for the UDF's impressive performance in the parliamentary and local body elections.

POSTERS OF RIVAL candidates in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency share space on an abandoned vehicle in the State capital.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

But since then, there were frequent signs of disquiet among the two leaders and their supporters. Despite denials by both the leaders, the division now seems to be in the open, with the surprise announcement that the PCC president will also contest the Assembly elections, and not just the Opposition Leader.

This unusual decision came, significantly, after an anti-corruption court in Kerala accepted the State Vigilance Department's claim that there were sufficient additional reasons to investigate the controversial palmolein import case further, in what seemed was a perfect political trap laid out for Chandy by unseen hands. The suggestion was that Chandy, as the then Finance Minister, too may have been aware of the details of the import deal and hence could be included as an accused, if the inquiry proved it to be so, subsequently.

The State party was in turmoil very soon, as the final list of candidates was announced, with 44 per cent of them being fresh faces, including reportedly the nominees of Rahul Gandhi and the Youth Congress, some of whom were total strangers to the State leadership. There were shrill complaints that several deserving members of the party and traditional group equations in the Congress were ignored during candidate selection and that both Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala had meanwhile tried to ensure that the legislature party after the elections would have enough numbers of their own supporters to back their respective claim for the top post.

Payment seats

At the time of writing this report, it was not clear what the election-eve disquiet within the State Congress and the UDF would lead to eventually. Several rebel candidates have filed nomination papers and even senior leaders have expressed displeasure and raised allegations of payment seats in the candidate lists. There have been accusations of corruption against both Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala.

As the quarrels dragged on until the last day for withdrawal of nominations, the number of supporters in each camp were being counted and speculation was rife on how the others, who did not belong to the two camps, would become crucial in any decision about the new legislature party leader. There was also much speculation on what position the UDF constituents, especially the KC(M) and the Muslim League, would take on the issue eventually, making any new UDF government, if at all, an exact replica of the one that left office in 2006.

Perhaps having learnt their lessons from the LDF's poor showing in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, both the fronts have refused to enter into open alliances with controversial parties like the PDP. The antipathy of the Church leaders towards the LDF, a crucial factor in 2009, with pastoral letters requesting the laity to vote against the ruling front, was also not so evident in this election.

All this seemed to provide the ruling LDF with a boost. It also gave the leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party enough reason to argue that Kerala badly needs an alternative to the two coalitions that had ruled it for over five decades. The BJP is once again trying to open its account in the State this time in earnest, from two constituencies in the north and the south.

Despite the anti-incumbency factors and the factional fights within the CPI(M) that led to its poor showing in the two major elections since 2006, the campaign-eve political context seemed to offer the ruling LDF hope in an election whose outcome was, until the other day, considered a forgone conclusion. For the UDF, however, the crucial question was whether it would be able to regain lost ground in the two weeks that it was left with and convince voters that it could indeed prove to be a better option.

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