Keen tussle

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

In Kerala, the battle this time is mainly between two "alternative visions" of development.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

IT is typical of elections 2006 in Kerala that one of the most forceful and persuasive campaign speeches by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was delivered not in Puthuppally in central Kerala, where he is seeking re-election for the eighth time, but in Malampuzha in the north where Opposition Leader and CPI(M) candidate V.S. Achuthanandan is contesting.

Surprisingly, the response in the constituency, a traditional Left stronghold that elected Achuthanadan in 2001, seemed to be equally passionate and positive for both the leaders. Between hectic campaigning in other districts as the LDF's star crowd-puller, Achuthanadan was in his constituency frequently to address small gatherings of supporters and to caution voters: "There are powerful, dark forces that oppose me today, but they are not from within Malampuzha. They are all from outside this constituency."

At most places his speech was brief: "You know I have been waging a continuous battle generally on development issues and specifically to expose the development policies of the UDF [United Democratic Front] government that are being influenced by profiteers and mafia gangs. Moreover, I have strongly opposed the growing activity of sex racketeers in the State, including those involved in the notorious `Kozhikode ice cream parlour case' who are roaming free after successfully muffling witnesses in courts. The effective struggle that I launched against such scoundrels to protect the dignity of women in the State have caused me their extreme enmity. ... such people may try to dump money in this constituency and influence a lot of poor souls. Similarly, multinational soft-drink makers and the sand mafia in the State may try to buy voters against me. But I am sure such inducements will be like dry leaves in a strong wind at Malampuzha."

It seemed to be a simple but sound electoral strategy - the most popular one in Kerala in these elections - to pinpoint your enemies to your voters and to say what your real concerns are about them. Frontline saw it being experimented by campaigners. Their innate concerns and fears provided a means to judge the trend of campaigning in many constituencies.

Nearly a week into the campaign UDF leaders began to celebrate the absence of CPI(M) State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan from the LDF campaign scene as a sign of inner-party struggle (Frontline, April 21). But Vijayan told voters in Pattanamthitta district, who were eager for at least a gesture from him that would reflect the real mood in the CPI(M): "The UDF is a spent force today. But an electoral contest is a political game. Every battle has its own ethics, rules and laws. As such we cannot ignore any of our opponents, however weak that opponent may be. The UDF is weak, but we must be aware that it is a bag full of dirty tricks waiting to pounce on you."

Within the UDF, former Congress rebel K. Karunakaran continued to inform voters that Oommen Chandy would not be the natural choice for chief ministership. His worried son, K. Muraleedharan, began addressing "family meetings" at Koduvally in Kozhikode district, the safest seat the Indian Union Muslim League, a constituent of the UDF, could find for him. And Muraleedharan's main concern at these meetings: "Beware of the communists. They may want to have a look at your identity cards and you may not get them back. And, remember, our symbol this time is the Television, an old-style TV [and not the Hand]."

No Congress worker accompanied Muraleedharan during his tour of Koduvally. At other constituencies the Congress was facing a rebellion for its election-eve decision to include Karunakaran's Democratic Indira Congress(K) in the UDF.

In Palakkad, the constituency on which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pinned all its hopes to make its debut in the Kerala Assembly, former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, braving a drizzle, told a gathering consisting of artisan communities: "Do you know why the media are here in our midst in this remote corner of Palakkad? The BJP had been declared a political untouchable by both the communist and Congress parties and yet they find it win the largest number of seats in the Palakkad municipality in the local body elections held six months earlier.

"Untouchability, which had been abolished from the social sphere, still exists in Kerala in the political sphere. So these people are concerned. Despite their opposition, is the BJP growing in Kerala? Will it win from Palakkad this time? That is why many people are here, to observe the growth of the party, to see its growing influence, and if possible to try and prevent it."

But, perhaps the most impressive display of this strategy of identifying the enemy for your voters and its immediate positive effects was in evidence at Kuttippuram in the Muslim heartland of Malappuram district, where the CPI(M) succeeded in extending its influence and where one of the most controversial figures in Kerala politics today, Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikkutty, was locked in a battle of wits with the LDF. The LDF decision in this League fortress was to support a former League youth leader, K.T. Jaleel, as a CPI(M)-supported Independent against Kunhalikkutty.

But despite reports that he was facing a formidable LDF campaign that was riveted on his alleged involvement in the `ice cream parlour sex scandal case' and described him as a representative of an obnoxious "mafia, sex-racket culture in Kerala", Kunhalikkutty was his suave, supremely confident self and was smugly telling enthusiastic supporters (a whole lot of them traditionally attired Muslim women) in his constituency: "Unlike in other States, Muslims in Kerala have achieved a lot, whether it be in terms of freedom of religion, educational and employment opportunities or prominent roles in government. Do you know why? It is only because we managed to stay together in our hours of crisis. But for some time now, certain forces have been trying to destroy our unity, in the hope that if they can demolish the leadership of Panakkad Shihab Thangal [Muslim League president], they can easily make an entry into our parts of the world. They think that once the elders are gone, this movement would fizzle out. But they are alarmed at the influx of youth holding aloft the green flag and have now unleashed all the tricks in their book to destroy our unity. Their targets are the very people who are in the forefront of this unity, humble persons like me who have been in Kerala politics for years, as MLA, Minister and so on. It is their usual strategy to launch personal attacks against our leaders, to hijack people from our midst giving them false hopes and then try to destroy our unity using them. To even think that they can borrow people from amongst us and destroy our unity... that is the importance of this election, to prove that it is an absolutely foolish idea."

Surely, the League seemed to face a bigger threat in many of its stronghold in north Kerala than it is used to, especially after the surprising victory of the CPI(M)'s T.K. Hamsa from Manjeri in the last Lok Sabha elections. This time the fight has become too close for comfort, especially after the other Muslim forces in Kerala, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) of Abdul Nasser Mahdani and the Jamaat-e-Islami, unilaterally declared support for the LDF.

The battle in Kuttipuram will perhaps be a sure trial of strength, even if the beleaguered Kunhalikkutty wins eventually by shrewdly transforming his personal troubles into a grave threat against the unity of Muslims and their future in Kerala.

However, the real significance of Campaign 2006 is not in the troubles and fears of individual candidates, the diverse local factors in each constituency or the major issues that are going to make or mar the fortunes of the two fronts in general - namely, the impact within the CPI(M) of its decision to field Achuthanadan; the impact within the UDF of its decision to admit the DIC(K); the decision of the PDP, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the prominent community organisation Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) to support the LDF; and the troubles within the LDF over seat-sharing, with the CPI(M) insisting on fielding its own candidates in 91 constituencies (in 2001 it contested 71 seats) to the disappointment of its coalition partners. Campaign 2006 marks a turning point in Kerala's electoral history, because for the first time, perhaps, the Congress-led UDF is seeking a mandate for what it describes as an "alternative vision" for the development of Kerala, albeit with many of its elements borrowed from the agenda that the Left has been proposing for over a decade now, peppered with elements of criticism that the UDF leaders have found to be hugely popular among the anti-Left sections in Kerala society.

In fact, this is the reason why Oommen Chandy chose to deliver his forceful "pro-development" speech right inside the tiger's lair, Malampuzha, where he portrayed Achuthanandan as the "symbol of the policies and programmes that create bottlenecks for the development and economic progress of the State".

"Henceforth we will not allow people to scuttle development activities by raising unnecessary controversies. We will not let job opportunities be destroyed by controversies. It is time Kerala took a practical approach to development. We believe in creating wealth first and then distributing it while the LDF is merely trying to distribute poverty and unemployment," he said.

It was a cleverly crafted speech blaming the CPI(M) entirely for the failures of successive governments in Kerala and portraying Achuthanadan as the symbol of policies that halted Kerala's march to progress. In a State with the largest number of educated unemployed in the country, Chandy was quite aware of the pulse of a large section of people when he blamed the pro-poor, pro-peasant, pro-worker programmes and policies of the LDF for the lack of economic progress and investment opportunities in the State.

On the eve of the first phase of elections on April 22 in the southern districts, Chandy delivered a political masterstroke by announcing that despite a High Court order favouring it, the UDF government will not sign the controversial deal with the Dubai Internet City to set up a Smart City IT mega project in Kochi, because the CPI(M) had opposed the signing of the deal just before the elections. "Let the people now decide whether they want the project or whether they support the negative approach of the CPI(M) in opposing all such development proposals," he said.

But perhaps unknown to the Chief Minister, the alternative view of development of the LDF that sought "to improve the living conditions of the vast majority of people rather than trying to maximise profits by imposing greater burden on them", the record of the faction-ridden UDF during its five years in office, the trail of corruption charges and scandals that followed its Ministers, "the agenda of the Congress that led to the suicide of hundreds of farmers, killed existing jobs, traditional industries and livelihood of lakhs of people", the "caste and communal gangup", the "attacks on women", and the "commercialisation of the education system" under the UDF government too were a huge draw among the electorate, as the Left leaders painted them repeatedly at every election platform in the 140 constituencies.

As in Malampuzha when Oommen Chandy spoke against the CPI(M)'s policies, there was similar enthusiasm and empathy in the crowd that gathered under the summer sun to listen to Achuthanandan at Kallooppara (near Puthupally) and elsewhere or to CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat who was on a whirlwind tour of the southern districts. At several venues in Kollam district on April 18, for example, Prakash Karat spoke to overwhelming gatherings about the importance of a Left victory in Kerala at a time when "there are forces working internationally to see that the Left is weakened and isolated because it is the only obstacle to getting their agenda implemented in India".

He said: "The Oommen Chandy government and the UDF are claiming that they initiated the development of Kerala in the past five years. What we want to know is what type of development is this when there is an agrarian crisis that has led to the suicide of about 1,500 farmers; when it does not generate jobs and kills existing employment; when the crisis in traditional industries is affecting the livelihoods of lakhs of people; when small and medium factories are being closed down? This is the type of development that the people of Kerala do not want."

It is this zestful debate that makes elections 2006 different and crucial in a State that is struggling to find solutions to its economic underdevelopment despite its achievements.

The choice, as CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechuri described, is between "the Congress' concept of development that aims at maximising profits by imposing greater burden on the people, and that of the Left that seeks to improve the living conditions of a vast majority of people".

It was the Chief Minister himself who said at Malampuzha, "This election is one that is going to decide what Kerala should be from now on."

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