Neck and neck

Published : May 06, 2011 00:00 IST

The Achuthanandan factor transforms what would have otherwise been a drab election into an intense and close contest.

in Thiruvananthapuram

IF one expected the arrogance that had been his trait for long, not a tinge of it was evident in the man, the beleaguered general secretary of the Muslim League P.K. Kunhalikkutty, that day. Or, it was all very well concealed. Every 10 minutes or so, his motorcade would reach a village junction that instantly came alive with pilot vehicles, eulogies over the mike and a crowd of curious onlookers. A genial leader would emerge from his vehicle and a campaign ritual would follow: smiles all around, a row of handshakes, an occasional hug, promises about new roads or drinking water, a brief speech, and a private word, at times, as he got ready to leave. In between, among other things, he told Frontline, in a matter-of-fact manner: Those who said Malappuram had turned red will not make that claim any longer.

This time, it was tempting to believe the man even though a few days earlier, right at the heart of his constituency, Vengara, an unprecedented crowd had gathered to hear his bte noir, Chief Minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader V.S. Achuthanandan, as he sought votes for ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidates in the Muslim majority district.

Achuthanandan drew the loudest cheers in Malappuram when he repeated his campaign theme that he would make no compromise with those who robbed public assets or raped young girls and, in an obvious reference to Kunhalikkutty, told voters that he had no doubt that they would keep all such people in proper check.

Three months earlier, Kunhalikkutty had set the tone for one of the most acerbic election campaigns in recent history in Kerala by pre-empting his rivals and revealing that they were out to discredit him further on the eve of the elections with new allegations linked to the ice cream parlour case (A rash of scandals, Frontline, March 11, 2011).

The scandal, or the former Industries Minister's alleged involvement in it, was one of the major reasons for the rout of the Muslim League in Malappuram, and the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala in general, in the 2006 elections.

But in the past five years, through concerted party effort, the League had regained a lot of ground in Malappuram, as the results of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and 2010 local body elections amply demonstrated. And Kunhalikkutty seemed all set to engineer a comeback for his party on its home turf and thus lay the foundation for a UDF victory in Kerala. On the very day when his supporters disrupted a press conference organised by K. Ajitha, the former naxalite leader and the president of Streevedi, at Vengara to oppose him, Kunhalikkutty told Frontline: In the Lok Sabha elections, the LDF could not win even a single Assembly segment in this district. They have managed to win only seven panchayats in the local body elections in Malappuram, where once they used to win 10 to 20 panchayats. It is a clear sign that the LDF is facing a certain defeat in Kerala.

Indeed, it had seemed so after the poor performance of the ruling LDF in the local body elections in October 2010 despite the many steps it had initiated over the years to decentralise power and strengthen the panchayati raj system in the State.

The UDF won an unprecedented 509 of the 804 grama panchayats, 92 of the 148 block panchayats, eight of the 14 district panchayats, 25 of the 37 municipalities and two of the five corporations in that grass-roots election. Earlier, in the Lok Sabha elections, too, the ruling coalition lost 16 of the total 20 Parliament seats, with the CPI(M) itself losing 10 of the 14 seats it contested.

Nevertheless, on April 13, the day of polling, no one seemed to be so sure any longer what the result would be. In the dreadfully short period that was available after the declaration of the elections, both the fronts resorted to an unusually mean, spiteful and emotionally charged campaign marked by vicious targeting of individuals and unpleasant personality-based disputes. It was an attempt at quick mobilisation, which often sidelined repeated attempts by both sides to bring significant political and socio-economic and policy issues to the fore.

Within a fortnight, an election which it was originally thought would result in a change of government, as is the traditional trend in Kerala every five years, turned out to be a very close contest that made predictions a risky affair.

Despite a possible consolidation of votes in favour of the UDF in Malappuram, where four new constituencies had been added after the delimitation exercise, and, perhaps, to a slightly lesser extent in the central districts with a sizeable Christian population, within a short span, in the rest of Kerala, the LDF was able to contrive an environment of a neck-and-neck political race. Elections in Kerala are basically bipolar contests (for 140 seats in 14 districts) between the coalitions led by the Congress and the CPI(M). Each of these parties has its own share of committed voters. Parties of the Muslim (predominantly the Muslim League) and Christian minorities (mainly the Kerala Congress groups) have their own spheres of influence and can be decisive factors in elections. So can the organisations representing various Hindu castes, among them, importantly, those of the Nairs and the Ezhavas, and various Dalit and smaller, non-Catholic Christian communities with their own exclusive pockets of influence, especially in south Kerala.

Voter turnouts are often high in the State, as it was this time too, but the decisive factor in most elections are the wavering preferences of a small percentage (about 8 per cent) of uncommitted, but mostly educated and politically aware, voters belonging to all sections. As a result, the State has gained a reputation for alternately electing the UDF and the LDF, every five years in desperation, often, as the common refrain goes. In any election, there are a critical number of seats that are decided on very thin margins. In 2006, for example, there were 16 candidates who won seats with margins between 85 and 1,886. The highest margin in the 2006 election was 47,671 votes, recorded by a CPI(M) candidate in Alathur constituency in Palakkad district.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has never won a seat in the Kerala Assembly though it comes a close second in the two north Kerala constituencies of Manjeswaram and Kasargod and, at times (especially when it fielded former Union Minister of State for Railways O. Rajagopal in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004), in Thiruvananthapuram.

A fresh element of uncertainty was added to this regular electoral framework of the State with the delimitation of constituencies. Although the total number of constituencies has remained at 140, the contours of a lot of them have changed, with important political implications. Moreover, seven new constituencies have been added in north Kerala, four of them in Malappuram and one each in Kannur, Kozhikode and Palakkad districts. Similarly, seven constituencies, nurtured for years by parties, have disappeared from the south Kerala map. They include two each in Pattanamthitta and Alappuzha and one each in Thrissur, Kottayam and Kollam.

In any electoral calculation, the northern districts of Kasargod, Kannur and Kozhikode (except Wayanad) have played a crucial supporting role in any LDF victory in the State. In 2006, the LDF won 25 of the (then) 30 constituencies in these four northern districts.

The CPI(M) and the Muslim League have a competitive presence in this region, with the League having its own areas of influence. The three constituencies in Wayanad have often shown a pro-UDF leaning, a trait common to all regions where Christian settler farmers are a major presence. But there were exceptions to this rule on several occasions. In other areas in north Kerala, the CPI(M) dominates where once the Congress too was strong.

The Congress, however, is organisationally weak in Kasargod, Kannur and (especially) Kozhikode district even though it retains committed voters in this region. The Janata Dal and, its splinter group, the Socialist Janata (Democratic), or SJD (now in the UDF), also have significant influence in parts of Kozhikode, Kannur and Wayanad districts.

Similarly crucial to an LDF victory is Palakkad (with 12 constituencies) in north-central Kerala and Kollam (with 11 constituencies) in the far south, both CPI(M) strongholds. Kollam has remained a traditional Left fortress, especially because other LDF constituents, the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), too have deep local roots in the district. In 2006, the LDF won 11 of the 12 seats from Kollam district and nine of the 11 seats in Palakkad.

Although there was no sign of any erosion of LDF support in Palakkad in the local body elections, there are a handful of constituencies in the district where the UDF too hopes it can win this time and some others where the fight has been very close. Malampuzha, of course, is a CPI(M) citadel despite all the undercurrents that Achuthanandan has brought to the constituency with his presence there as a candidate. The LDF and the CPI(M) are still the dominant political force in the district, also because of the organisational weakness of the Congress there. It is in this space that the BJP has grown over the years. For the Palakkad Assembly seat, for example, it is part of a triangular fight, which often proves to be advantageous to the UDF.

Thus, while the LDF hopes to dominate the contest (in the 52 seats) in the five districts of Kasargod, Kannur, Kozhikode, Palakkad and Kollam, the UDF hopes it can win a majority of the (65) constituencies in the seven districts of Wayanad, Malappuram, Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Pattanamthitta. The most crucial factor for the UDF in all these districts is the key element of consolidation of Muslim (in Malappuram, especially) and Christian minority votes and the impetus given to such a process by the merger of the two prominent Kerala Congress groups led by K.M. Mani and P.J. Joseph.

Strangely, in Malappuram, Kunhalikkutty and the League seem to have succeeded in projecting the ice cream parlour case as an old weapon being used again and again by their enemies to continue to isolate the party and the community. This time the victory will be almost total. The trend was against us in 2006 and we were overconfident. This time the trend is totally for us, Kunhalikkutty said.

There were indications, however, that the Catholic Church's antipathy to the LDF government may not have found expression in this election as it did during the Lok Sabha elections and that there would be voters belonging to several non-Catholic denominations for example, the Orthodox, Jacobite and Pentacostal groups who may, for various reasons, favour LDF candidates in these districts.

Achuthanandan did not campaign in Idukki district, the scene of his famous Operation Munnar against encroachers of government land, because of local opposition and differences of opinion over the issue with the district unit of the CPI(M). It is such a campaign context that makes the results in the 23 constituencies in the southern districts of Alappuzha (9) and Thiruvananthapuram (14) so important for both coalitions, in a way, and especially for the LDF.

Both the fronts have nearly equal strength in the two districts, which have often switched their preferences between the two coalitions. In Alappuzha district, the LDF hopes for more support from the coastal constituencies of Aroor, Chertala, Alappuzha and Ambalappuzha, while the UDF has an edge in Haripad, Kayamkulam and Kuttanad. The contest was a close one this time in Mavelikkara and Chengannur, two seats which otherwise often show a pro-UDF tilt, as do the constituencies in neighbouring Pattanamthitta district. Thiruvananthapuram is the seat of the government, home to a lot of government employees, and has often favoured the coalition that comes to power. In 2006, it turned pro-LDF, which won 10 of the 14 seats in the district. Although the number of constituencies has remained the same, the boundaries have been redrawn, and many constituencies have been renamed.

There are pro-LDF constituencies bordering Kollam district, such as Vamanapuram, Chirayinkil, Attingal and Kilimanoor, but out of the 10 urban and suburban constituencies that remain, a majority are likely to tilt towards the UDF. Nemom's triangular contest was only in name, and if the relatively lesser known SJD/UDF candidate fails to win a substantial share of the traditional UDF votes, then there is even a thin chance of the BJP's Rajagopal winning the seat. But communal equations in the constituency still strongly favour the CPI(M) candidate, former Mayor V. Sivan Kutty.

Such a brief survey of the 14 districts does not offer a comprehensive picture of the election scene in Kerala. It does not include the numerous local factors, including the important question of who the candidates were in key constituencies where a neck-and-neck race was on and which often becomes decisive in tilting the balance in favour of one front or the other. It merely indicates some facts that make the April 13 elections so unpredictable.

Often, however, elections in the State are decided on the basis of an overriding factor that has an all-Kerala appeal and impact and which overwhelms the numerous local issues at the constituency level. In 2006, it was a tangible antipathy against the then ruling UDF government that swept through Kerala and brought the LDF to power with a 98/140 seat victory. The 2011 election campaign was marked by the absence of any such anti-government wave even though the Lok Sabha and local body elections had offered ample evidence of the people's anger against the ongoing factionalism within the State CPI(M), the constant bickering among LDF coalition partners, and the lack of unity within the State Cabinet, which often made the government machinery a total laggard.

The results of the panchayat elections held six months ago favouring the opposition UDF was, therefore, seen as a warning that the characteristic Kerala tendency of choosing the rival front to form the government every five years was about to be repeated. The State seemed thus all set to bring the UDF back to power, when the Achuthanandan factor re-emerged as a pan-Kerala LDF phenomenon (Achuthanandan factor, Frontline, April 8, 2011).

The heavy polling that Kerala witnessed on April 13 (75 per cent, according to provisional figures available at the time of writing) clearly shows that the Achuthanandan factor transformed what would have otherwise been a drab, if not one-sided, election into an intense and close contest that defies easy predictions. But would the people who gathered to listen to the Chief Minister also have voted for the candidates of the LDF? Which front will benefit eventually from the high voter turnout, evident particularly in the constituencies where close contests took place or where prominent candidates contested?

It is going to be an agonising wait until May 13. Kerala is in such a state that it knows almost all the reasons why a particular result will ensue but has no clue as to what exactly that result will be.

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