Kerala's choice

Published : Oct 21, 2005 00:00 IST

The Left Democratic Front's near-total victory in Kerala's local body elections has the added significance that it has come just seven months before the next Assembly elections.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

IT was ironic that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy chose the fag end of his term, and the day the ruling coalition was convincingly defeated in the local bodies elections, to announce that a new development programme would be unveiled in Kerala on November 1.

`Kerala Vision 2010', he said, was to mark the golden jubilee of the formation of the State and was meant to guide Kerala's development in the key sectors of knowledge, education, research, health, industries and tourism during the next five years.

Even as he made this announcement, cadres of the Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) were rejoicing all over the State for its thumping electoral victory in the panchayats, municipalities and corporations, which consituted a sort of people's stage upon which an interesting drama of conflicting visions of development of the ruling and Opposition coalitions has been enacted over the past nine years (Frontline, October 7).

Now, seven months before the next Assembly elections, the Opposition coalition has scored a near-total electoral victory at the grassroots, winning over 700 of 998 gram panchayats, 110 of 152 block panchayats, 11 of 14 district panchayats, 34 of 52 municipalities and all five city corporations (some results were yet to be announced at the time of writing).

Kerala, which ushered in a Congress-led government five years ago byelecting the United Democratic Front (UDP) in 100 out of 140 Assembly seats, seems to have thoroughly repainted the signs, heralding a probable return of the LDF to power through the Assembly elections due in May 2006.

Since the local bodies elections in 2000, the LDF, which won only nine district panchayats, has now raised its tally. In all the 11 districts that supported the Left, the UDF won less than 10 seats. The LDF won with record majority in all the five city corporations in Kerala, including the Thrissur Corporation which was considered a UDF stronghold. In Thiruvananthapuram, another corporation where the UDF got a bad deal, the LDF-Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) alliance won 73 of the 86 seats. Of these, Karunakaran's new party won eight seats, the same as the Congress. The UDF coalition as a whole was able to get only 10 seats. The rest were won by independent candidates, one of them with the support of the BJP.

It was certain that LDF presidents would rule in at least 65 per cent of the block panchayats and municipalities. While the LDF had won only 540 gram panchayats in 2000, it now emerged victorious in over 700. The UDF won a mere 224, the BJP won five and the election failed to provide a clear winner in 115 gram panchayats. The sweep of the LDF victory has been total this time, covering both rural and urban areas.

The covert electoral understanding that the UDF struck with the BJP has more or less proved to be to the sole advantage of the BJP, the party always waiting in the wings in Kerala to gain from the weaknesses of the two Fronts. The BJP, though with only a minority of seats, became the deciding factor in about 60 local bodies that faced a hung result. The BJP is set to rule four or five panchayats and is the biggest party in nearly 10. It also won double the number of seats it did in 2000. Its most impressive victories have been in Palakkad, Kasaragode, Thrissur and Pathanamthitta districts. In Palakkad municipality, it won 17 seats to become the largest single party in a 50-member council. The UDF, which ruled the municipality, got only 16. The LDF won 16 seats and one seat went to the DIC(K). Palakkad municipality, where evenly matched forces are going to run the administration with such a truncated mandate, will become a laboratory for studying coalition dynamics.

The "tactical alliance" Karunakaran's party struck with the LDF as a matter of survival proved to be an embarrassment for the cadres of both groups in many constituencies where they had been staunch rivals before. But riding piggyback on the LDF has helped the DIC(K) claim that people have accepted the party's foray into the fold of the Left, a claim clearly aimed at forging a similar do-or-die alliance with the LDF in the Assembly elections.

What Karunakaran's party gained for the LDF in this election remains a matter of debate. Preliminary results suggested that the alliance had helped the LDF in a few pockets of influence in of the DIC(K) in Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Ernakulam districts. However, in the Lok Sabha elections the LDF had registered a near-total victory in Kerala, even though Karunakaran was then in the Congress, albeit as a dissident.

The UDF seeks consolation in the claim that though the LDF has emerged a clear winner it won 5,329 gram panchayat wards as against the LDF's 8,154, while the DIC(K) got only 589 and the BJP 312. Oommen Chandy claimed that people had now understood which party was the "real Congress" in Kerala, and PCC president Ramesh Chennithala said that while his party secured 37.5 per cent of the votes and the LDF 56.69 per cent, Karunakaran's party won a mere 4.9 per cent votes and the BJP 2.17 per cent (when results were not fully announced).

The election also proved that the LDF's foray into the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) stronghold of Malappuram district(where the IUML lost one of its two traditional Lok Sabha seats to the LDF in the 2004 election) continues. However, the LDF could not win any seat in the Manjeri municipality, which is part of the Manjeri Lok Sabha seat it won in 2004. Malappuram, however, was one of the three districts (the other two being Kottayam and Kasaragode) where the Left's performance was not so inspiring.

For the Opposition Front, it is surely a sweet victory. Kerala did not reward the LDF well for its achievements in the elections to the local bodies in 2000, even though it was held barely four years after the then LDF government had devolved vast powers and resources downwards, legally empowering the panchayats and urban bodies as effective institutions of self-government (perhaps as no other State government had done before). Despite the good intentions of the managers of the decentralisation campaign, only about 200 of the over 1,045 panchayats in Kerala did then sing the praises of decentralisation as they were expected to do. The rest failed to do so for a variety of reasons, including shortcomings in the implementation of the plan, inefficiency, corruption and misuse of funds in the majority of local bodies under both the Fronts. In the run up to the 2000 local bodies polls, the UDF, which was in theOpposition then, was able to paint these failures as the shortcomings of the LDF government rather than of individual panchayats and urban bodies where both Fronts were in power. The State therefore gave a mixed result and the overall people's verdict tilted towards the UDF. Seven months later, the verdict was reaffirmed, with the UDF winning an unprecedented 100 seats in the Assembly, mainly on the theme of an "unsuccessful", "party-controlled", "corruption-tainted" development-through-decentralisation experiment which "destroyed the State economy".

The UDF was voted to power in the Assembly on the promise that it would remedy such problems by doing the opposite. It implemented a policy of development through privatisation and liberalisation, inviting private and voluntary agencies to replace the government in development work, announcing mega infrastructure and development projects (mostly in urban centres) that never took off, and neglecting local development, and refusing to consolidate the gains of the decentralisation experiment, which it fervently believed to be an inconvenient project promoted by the enemy Front for political reasons. In the five years of UDF rule, the local bodies in Kerala drifted away from the people, and vast powers and resources that ought to have been controlled by the people of a locality flowed into the hands of local politicians and officials.

With an acrimonious group war in the ruling Congress and petty quarrels of ruling front partners as an unseemly background theme, the UDF destroyed the gains of nascent decentralisation, neglected local-level development, failed to deliver on its promises about bringing in private investments, mega projects and investment, and proved to be more corruption-tainted both at the local and at the State level.

The LDF won two byelections held since the new government came to power and swept a record 18 of the total 20 Lok Sabha seats from Kerala in May 2004. This defeat split the Congress formally: the veteran leader Karunakaran and his son Muraleedharan launched their new party and sought an alliance with the LDF in the local polls. The Lok Sabha verdict also resulted in the replacement of Chief Minister A.K. Antony by Oommen Chandy for the remainder of the UDF's term in office. However, with more corruption charges and broken promises plaguing the Oommen Chandy administration, pretending to be a new government was a trick that, as the results now indicate, did not go well with the people.

Kerala will be keenly watching the performance of the UDF government in its last seven months in office. The State has clearly punished it for its penchant for mega projects, broken promises and corruption. During a post-election review meeting organised by the State party on September 30, some Pradesh Congress Committee members argued for "smaller projects that would be beneficial for the common man" . But, clearly, the UDF government has lost the mandate for deciding Kerala's development agenda for the next five years, the Chief Minister's announcement about `Kerala Vision 2010' notwithstanding.

On the other hand, the LDF's triumph puts the onus on the Opposition coalition to streamline the course of decentralisation in the majority of local bodies where it will be in power for the next five years. It was perhaps with this in mind that Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan wrote a note of caution to the newly elected members of the Left in a post-victory article in the CPI(M) newspaper Deshabhimani. Reminding everyone that the majority of the newly elected representatives would be first-time councillors, he cautioned them against indulging in corruption and favouritism and asked them to involve members of opposing political persuasions in local-level development in the true spirit of decentralisation. Hopefully, true grassroots democracy has won a fresh lease of life in Kerala.

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