Close race

Published : Apr 21, 2006 00:00 IST

In Kerala the main contest is between the traditional rivals, the UDF and the LDF, with the BJP nowhere in the picture.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

UNCERTAIN electoral prospects can bring out the best and the worst in political parties. This time, the smartest and the clumsiest pre-election political decisions were announced in Kerala by the Opposition and the ruling coalition respectively, on March 24, signalling a change in their prospects in the three-phase elections to the 140-seat Assembly to be held on April 22, April 29 and May 3.

In a way, the announcement of early elections caught the rival coalitions on the wrong foot. The ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was unsure about its prospects after suffering serious setbacks in all the elections held in the State since it came to power in 2001. The Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF), on the other hand, faced a threat to its otherwise rosy future because of a long-drawn strife within the State unit of the alliance leader, the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

On March 24, as growing crowds of CPI(M) supporters were uncharacteristically becoming restive in the streets of Kerala over the denial of the ticket to veteran leader V.S. Achuthanadan, the party announced that he would contest, thus revising its Polit Bureau's controversial decision. Such a review of a Polit Bureau decision in the light of an outpouring of support from within and outside the party favouring a leader is unprecedented in the CPI(M). But, with the decision, in one stroke, the CPI (M) stole the thunder from its rivals who were hoping for the inner-party strife on the leadership issue to intensify and facilitate the return of the UDF to power.

All on a sudden, what was until then the CPI(M)'s biggest worry - the hijacking of Achuthanandan's carefully nurtured image as an anti-corruption crusader and a leader of the masses uncompromising in his commitment to issues affecting their daily lives and his portrayal as a "victim" of inner-party strife by the party's political rivals - became its biggest advantage.

Thus, thanks to the unprecedented media hype that made him a champion of the common man in the struggles he chose to undertake as the Leader of the Opposition on issues as wide-ranging as kidney trade and sex rackets and land sharks, forest mafias, illegal sand mining and corruption in government (and portrayed him also as a victim of inner-party conspiracy), Achuthanandan became the USP that any political party would have loved to present before the voters.

The result, as the CPI(M) found during the initial days of the campaign were too good to be true, with supporters from within and outside the party flocking to the campaign meetings that Achuthanandan addressed, and LDF candidates vying with one another to seek shelter under his new image as a crowd puller.

Paradoxically, on the very day the CPI(M) announced its decision to field Achuthanandan, the UDF seemed to blunder once again into a pact with a party that spelt trouble in Kerala politics, the Democratic Indira Congress (K) of former Congress rebels K. Karunakaran and son K. Muraleedharan. The DIC(K) was floated on May 1, 2005, with the sole intention of teaching the Congress leadership a lesson through what the father-son duo then believed would be a sure electoral alliance with the CPI(M). But after a brief period of camaraderie during the 2005 elections to the local bodies, the DIC(K) was shown the door by the CPI(M), encouraged to a large extent by its coalition partners who did not want to share seats with a party whose leaders were until the other day their worst critics. The DIC(K)'s only option for survival was to scurry back either to the Congress or to join the UDF. But it was not an easy option. The Congress had only barely started to breathe easy without factional feuds, a curse during the initial four years of its rule, and its new State leadership under Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala and Union Minister Vayalar Ravi was against inviting known trouble-makers into the party before a crucial election.

But, worried as they were about their prospects in their traditional strongholds in the northern and central districts (the CPI(M) and the LDF made impressive gains in Muslim and Christian heartlands in the Lok Sabha elections), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress groups in the UDF put pressure on the Congress high command to include the DIC(K) in the coalition to shore up traditional UDF votes, in an election that was likely to see many a candidate winning or losing with narrow margins.

An electoral alliance with the DIC(K), the one factor that could have cast a dark shadow on the LDF's prospects, thus became an uneasy burden on the ruling UDF. Eventually, given the strong opposition within the State unit of the Congress to its potentially disastrous return to the party, the DIC(K) was made to sign a humiliating "written agreement" that allowed it a mere 17 seats with meagre prospects of victory. The IUML donated one more seat, Koduvally in Kozhikode district, for Muraleedharan to contest. Another clause in the agreement, which allegedly commits the DIC(K) into a merger with the Congress after the elections, has been denied by Karunakaran as "non-existent". The results of the Assembly elections is likely to revolve around these two significant decisions - of the CPI(M) to field Achuthanandan and of the Congress and the UDF to open the doors for the return of Karunakaran.

In the initial days of campaigning, Achuthanadan started drawing huge crowds even in constituencies where his known party rivals are contesting. But his candidature, nonetheless, was announced by the central leadership, ignoring opposition from a sizable section within the State unit of the CPI(M). It remains to be seen whether the CPI(M) will close ranks as it has traditionally done after inner-party struggles or whether the entire burden of leading the LDF to victory will now fall on the shoulders of Achuthanandan.

But a major factor that would gladden the UDF campaign managers is the ill-will within the LDF following the CPI(M)'s decision to contest in 91 seats with five smaller coalition partners together being given only 18 seats. (The CPI(M) had contested only 74 seats in the 2001 elections.) Only the Communist Party of India retained its earlier share of 24 seats. The loudest grumble was heard from the Kerala Congress (Joseph), which despite its impressive performance in the local bodies elections, has been given only six seats instead of 10 in its strongholds of Kottayam and Idukki districts and was threatening initially to field rebel candidates in 20 constituencies.

In comparison, seat-sharing among UDF partners was more or less trouble-free. But the Congress' electoral understanding with the DIC(K), signed under the initiative of the IUML and the Kerala Congress groups, is more likely to help the latter than either the Congress or the DIC(K). The DIC(K)'s decision to go back to the Congress camp has caused a virtual rebellion in both parties. Several prominent leaders of the DIC(K) are up in arms at the father-son duo's political trapeze acts. Some have already left in disgust. The Congress saw many rebels entering the fray, a number of prominent party leaders being denied seats, and the party machinery virtually paralysed in several constituencies.

The Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be a spent force in Kerala in this election, after a disastrous squabble following the Lok Sabha byelection in Thiruvananthapuram in which former State party president C.K. Padmanabhan faced a humiliating defeat. Its most prominent candidate, former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, is contesting not in Thiruvananthapuram where he came second in the previous Lok Sabha elections but in Palakkad, his home district.

In a State notorious for narrow margins of victory and a flip-flop preference for the two fronts, the dice could fall either way this time, though the crowds that gather around Achuthanandan and his fellow candidates seem to suggest otherwise.

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