Losing ground

Print edition : November 19, 2010

In the local body elections in Kerala, the LDF fails to make political gains out of its government's programmes.

in Thiruvananthapuram

UNITED DEMOCRATIC FRONT supporters celebrating the Front's return to power in Kochi Corporation after three decades, in Kochi on October 27.-PTI

POLITICAL interpretations of election verdicts often tend to fudge the writing on the wall, especially in Kerala, the cradle of frosty, bipolar coalition politics. This time, even as the first clear voting trends in the local body elections emerged, the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), began to claim that it had improved its position in the State, making a comparison of its performance this time with that in the Lok Sabha elections held a year earlier. But the opposition, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), with its sights set on the Assembly elections barely six months away, was elated, comparing the new results with its own dismal record in the elections to the local bodies held in 2005.

At the time of writing this report, when the results from Kozhikode district (where polling in a grama panchayat was postponed to October 30) alone were left to be announced, the LDF had won only in two of the five corporations, 14 of the 57 municipalities, five of the 14 district panchayats, 48 of the 152 block panchayats and 311 of the 978 grama panchayats. (The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won two grama panchayats; no coalition could win a majority in 49 grama panchayats and three block panchayats.)

In comparison, in the 2005 local body elections, the LDF, then in the opposition, had won all the five city corporations, 33 of the (then) 53 municipalities, 12 of the 14 district panchayats, 123 of the 152 block panchayats, and 721 of the 999 grama panchayats. The 2005 verdict had clearly predicted the imminent defeat of the UDF government in the Assembly elections that were to follow seven months later.

A coalition led by a cadre-based party like the CPI(M) had traditionally held on to its strengths in the rural areas of the State even on occasions when it had lost a majority of the urban local bodies. Significantly, this time, the UDF won the majority of village panchayats as well. The most impressive performances of the opposition Front were in the central and northern Kerala districts. Only Kollam in the south and Kannur in the north stood against the trend and in favour of the LDF. The UDF scored emphatic victories in the south, and in the central districts of Kottayam, Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Ernakulam, Idukki and Thrissur, which have large Christian populations, and in the predominantly Muslim Malappuram and other northern districts of Wayanad and Kasargod.

In the Kochi Corporation, the UDF ended the over-three-decade-long monopoly of the LDF, winning 46 of the 74 seats. In the Thrissur Corporation, it trounced the LDF by winning 44 of the 55 seats. The LDF barely managed to hold on to power in its traditional stronghold, Thiruvananthapuram, winning 51 of the 100 seats. It was in Kollam Corporation alone that the LDF had a comfortable victory, winning in 34 of the 55 wards.

The LDF failed to win even a single seat in the Idukki district panchayat and lost all the eight block panchayats. In Palakkad district, where CPI(M) rebels had their strongest presence, the LDF failed to win a majority in all the four municipalities. In Chittur, the UDF won in 26 of the 29 wards; in Shoranur, though the LDF won 13 of the 33 wards, the Congress and the Janakeeya Vikasana Samiti (a confederation of CPI(M) rebels) won eight each, while the BJP got three. In Palakkad, the LDF found itself in the third place with just nine seats, after the UDF (23) and the BJP (15). At Ottappalam, though the CPI(M) won in 15 of the 32 wards, the party rebels won in six and the UDF in 11.

Significantly, the BJP won a majority on its own in two grama panchayats in Kasargod. It also won in six seats (and came second in 12 others) in Thiruvananthapuram and two seats each in Kochi and Thrissur Corporations. It won over 79 seats in the various municipalities and will play a crucial role in deciding which coalition will rule five others. (The BJP won 73 municipality seats in the 2005 elections.)

Similarly, this election also saw the fundamentalist Popular Front of India's (PFI) political arm, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), winning two municipality seats in Kannur and Thodupuzha in Idukki district (where PFI activists are the prime accused in the attack against a college professor, an incident which had caught national attention recently. The winning candidate in the municipality ward is also an accused in the incident.)

Several factors form the backdrop of this verdict in Kerala. A revision of the voters' list and a comprehensive redrawing of the boundaries of the various constituencies had taken place in the State just before the election. Moreover, the LDF government had also decided to raise the seats reserved for women in all the local bodies in the State from 33 per cent to 50 per cent and to reserve 50 per cent of the posts of president, chairman or mayor (in three of the five corporations) respectively, and 50 per cent of the posts of vice-president, vice-chairperson or deputy mayor (in two of the five corporations) respectively, for them.

The ruling Front launched its campaign with much more confidence than it displayed during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. The LDF government had initiated a series of welfare measures aimed at the underprivileged sections, among them distribution of rice at Rs.2 a kg to over 35 lakh people, a scheme that provided houses to over three lakh families, a health insurance scheme for below-poverty-line (BPL) families, a number of pension and other welfare programmes, and an Asian Development Bank (ADB)-assisted sustainable urban development programme.

Most importantly, because it was in power in the majority of local bodies, it had hoped to consolidate the goodwill generated through all these programmes into political capital. Moreover, it seemed confident that the LDF's (especially the CPI-M's) grass-roots party machinery had been greatly strengthened by the network of highly motivated and efficient neighbourhood groups of women, called Kudumbashree (a microfinance-linked poverty alleviation programme launched by the LDF government through local self-governments), which had become key links in the process of democratisation and decentralisation in the State in the last 12 years. This too was widely seen as a factor that would favour the LDF in an election where women candidates were to have an important role (see Frontline dated November 5, 2010).

Factors against the LDF

However, factors against the LDF were also at play in the State, simultaneously. The issues that had led to the poor showing of the LDF in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections remained a lingering presence over the ruling coalition since 2009. The most virulent and obvious manifestations of the factional feud within the CPI(M) had seemingly been controlled, but, with their sporadic public sparring, the leaders never left anyone in doubt that the bad blood within was still the biggest threat to the party and the government it led.

An example of how seriously things went wrong for the LDF in Kerala was the outcome of the CPI(M)'s running battle with the Catholic Church, which originally began with the motive of serving a public cause, in curbing the blatant commercialisation of the self-financing professional education sector. But with each step forward in this direction, as the church-run college managements began to resort to ingenious methods to protect their commercial (and not religious) interests, including frustrating the government's authority through legal means, the arguments on both sides acquired shrill and hostile overtones.

The church leaders thereafter cleverly manipulated this situation to portray it as an attack by the CPI(M) against the minority Christian community itself, a campaign that seems to have won votes for the UDF in many parts of the State, especially in a string of central Kerala districts. In the run-up to the elections, a series of pastoral letters had been circulated during Sunday mass in local parishes, warning believers about the dangers of such a government continuing in power. The last in the series was a thinly veiled appeal to vote against atheist (read CPI(M) or LDF) candidates, on the eve of the local body polls.

The church allegedly also played a subdued role in the merger of the two prominent Kerala Congress factions, led by K.M. Mani, a prominent partner in the UDF, and P.J. Joseph, the only Christian party in the LDF, which had remained as the CPI(M)'s coalition partner since 1989. The fallout of the Church's rift with the CPI(M) and the departure of the Joseph group from the LDF and its merger with the K.C. (Mani) were evident in all the districts where the verdict went largely in favour of the UDF. In retrospect, three major issues had dominated the 2009 Lok Sabha election campaign and had worked to the LDF's disadvantage since then: the controversial CPI(M) decision to seek the support of Abdul Nasir Maudany's (now in jail as an accused in the Bangalore bomb blasts case) People's Democratic Party (PDP) to try and break into Ponnani, then the last Muslim League stronghold constituency in the State; the unilateral decision of the CPI(M) to wrest the Kozhikode seat from the Janata Dal (S), then a prominent LDF partner; and the rancour between the CPI(M) and the CPI that continues even now, following the former's decision to take over the Ponnani Lok Sabha seat from the CPI (in order to field an independent candidate acceptable to the PDP there).

Confusing picture

The experiment failed miserably and the support extended to Maudany has haunted the CPI(M) ever since, especially on occasions when it was required to declare its secular commitments. On the one hand the party was seen appealing to religious sentiments purely to win votes; on the other, as in the case of its quarrel with the Catholic Church, it was seen as arguing against religion interfering in politics a confusing picture that would only appear incredulous to Kerala voters.

After the Lok Sabha elections, while the CPI(M) succeeded in retaining a faction of the JD(S) in the LDF, former JD(S) president M.P. Veerendra Kumar and his supporters formed a new party, the Socialist Janata Dal, which too then drifted to the opposition UDF.

A third group that moved away from the LDF just before the local body elections was the Indian National League (INL), a party formed in the immediate aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition by a faction of the Indian Union Muslim League (ML) then led by its former president Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait. Though the INL had supported the LDF in all the elections until now, it was always kept at a distance by the LDF, perhaps for want of impeccable secular credentials. The INL too therefore broke its nearly 16 years of association with the ruling Front and supported UDF candidates in this election, as a first step towards merging with the Muslim League or going back to the UDF.

Similarly, following the resignation of former MPs A.P. Abdulla Kutty (Kannur) and Dr K.S. Manoj (Alappuzha) from the party earlier protesting against the insulting treatment meted out to them by the CPI(M) leadership, the CPI(M) also saw the exit of the party-backed independent MLA from Malappuram district, Manjalamkuzhi Ali, just before the recent elections.

Malappuram, a predominantly Muslim district which the CPI(M) and the LDF had been trying to influence, and many other northern districts this time voted emphatically for the Muslim League/UDF candidates, as a result of all such developments.

The fact that the CPI(M) rebels had won a handful of seats in a few local bodies in Kerala will also remain a nagging worry for the CPI(M) in the run-up to the Assembly elections.

Thus, while the good deeds of the LDF government remained buried in public perception, alienation of coalition partners, communities, and even individuals who had until the other day worked ardently for the CPI(M), incrementally drained large chunks of voters away from the LDF in many areas of the State. No doubt, given the bipolar nature of Kerala politics, all of them were eventually delivered at the doorstep of an eager opposition coalition that had surprisingly kept its house in order and its quarrelling constituents together, this time around.

Anti-incumbency factors have played a role in this election in a large majority of local bodies where the LDF had been in power, and against the State government as well. But the repeated electoral setbacks that the CPI(M) and the LDF have been facing in Kerala points to a deeper malaise within the unpleasant feuds in the party and the coalition and the growing weaknesses in the party's organisational structures, especially evident in their failure to judge and respond promptly to ground realities.

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