A record of sorts

Print edition : May 26, 2001

In Kerala, the United Democratic Front wrests power from the Left Democratic Front, which was bogged down by, among other things, the anti-incumbency factor.

R. KRISHNAKUMAR in Thiruvananthapuram

IT is in victory rather than in defeat that Kerala's political leaders become really articulate about the rationale of election verdicts. In May 1996, after the Congress(I)-led coalition was defeated in the elections to the State Assembly, an angry Chief Minister A.K. Antony fudged questions on the reasons for his United Democratic Front's (UDF) debacle. Kerala voters had then shrewdly seen through the UDF ploy of hiding a host of anti-government truths, communal and casteist antagonisms and conflicts within the Congress(I) and its UDF partners behind the clean image of Antony whose continuation in office was projected as the single most important issue before the voters.

At the swearing-in ceremony in Thiruvananthapuram on May 17, A.K. Antony with Governor S.S. Kang.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR

Five years of Left Democratic Front (LDF) rule later, on May 15, just before he was to be "unanimously elected" legislature party leader and Chief Minister-designate by the new lot of Congress(I) MLAs, a beaming Antony was a study in contrast. He needed no prompting to tell the media why the UDF had won a decisive victory over the LDF or to see far into the future and caution partymen that the very same factors could come back to haunt them in the long run and spoil the sweetness of their victory five years hence.

The UDF had triumphed not on the votes of UDF supporters, Antony said. According to him, the coalition won "so unambiguously" because one, the Congress(I) was able to create a certain confidence among the voters about the "genuine unity" achieved by its leaders, even though it materialised only a few weeks before the election; two, the large number of "uncommitted voters", who exercise their franchise on the basis of issues rather than political affiliation, this time voted en masse for the UDF; three, "with no strings attached", many "forces" in Kerala society (read, the Bharatiya Janata Party-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine and communal and casteist forces) had voted firmly against the LDF "for their own individual reasons"; and four, there was a groundswell of opinion against the LDF government, which its leaders had failed to notice.

ANTONY'S was a comprehensive view of the verdict. The two-thirds majority that the UDF won this time is the largest any coalition in Kerala had achieved since 1977. It won 99 of the 140 seats, while the LDF got only 40. One seat went to a Congress(I) rebel who fought the candidates of both Fronts and the BJP and on winning the seat said he "continued to be a Congressman". So for all practical purposes, Antony, who was sworn in Chief Minister on May 17 along with the representatives of seven other coalition constituents, has the support of 100 MLAs. The Congress(I) alone got 63 seats, its largest haul in 41 years.

The LDF lost half the seats it had in the previous Assembly. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) found its tally reduced from 40 in the previous Assembly to 23, the Communist Party of India from 18 to seven, and the Kerala Congress (Joseph) from six to two.

Other smaller LDF constituents too found their strength eroded. The undivided Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) was a constituent of the LDF in 1996 and had five seats in the previous Assembly. It split subsequently, and the faction with the LDF now could win only two seats. The other faction, which joined the UDF, also won two seats; it found a berth in the new Ministry. In Chavara and Kollam, traditional RSP seats, it was the RSP (Baby John) faction, which is in the UDF, defeated candidates of the other RSP. The Janata Dal (Secular) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) too lost one seat each.

Only seven Ministers of the 14-member E.K. Nayanar Cabinet contested the elections. Three of them won, but not with encouraging margins of victory. Of the seven CPI(M) Ministers, six, including Chief Minister Nayanar, did not enter the fray. The party's only Minister who sought re-election, K. Radhakrishnan, was successful but with a reduced victory margin.

The two CPI Ministers who contested, K.E. Ismail and Krishnan Kaniyamparambil, were defeated. CPI leader E. Chandrasekharan Nair, who perhaps held the best record in the Nayanar Cabinet, as Civil Supplies and Tourism Minister, had opted out on his own. Education Minister P.J Joseph of the Kerala Congress(J), who was the butt of criticism for his several controversial policies in the highly sensitive education sector, suffered a disgraceful defeat in his home turf of Thodupuzha.

Among the LDF's unsuccessful candidates were Speaker M. Vijaya Kumar (CPI(M)), Deputy Speaker C.A. Kurien (CPI) and CPI(M) Central Committee member P.K. Gurudasan. One consolation for the CPI(M) was the twin victories of its Polit Beauro member V.S. Achuthanandan from Malampuzha in Palakkad district and State Committee member T.M. Thomas Isaac, one of the architects of the LDF government's decentralisation programme, from Mararikkulam in Alappuzha district (where Achuthanadan suffered a humiliating defeat in 1996). In Achuthanandan's case, this time too the sheen of victory was missing as he could gather a margin of only 4,703 votes. This was surprising in a constituency considered a CPI(M) citadel and where former Finance Minister T. Sivadasa Menon had won in 1996 with a margin of 18,774 votes. The LDF strategy of replacing nearly 40 of its MLAs with younger candidates, failed to produce the desired results.

THE LDF suffered severe setbacks in at least eight of the 14 districts. In Thiruvananthapuram district, it won only four (in place of nine in 1996) of the 14 seats, in Kollam three (10 in 1996) of the 12 seats, in Pathanamthitta one (three) of the seven seats, in Alappuzha three (five) of the 11 seats, in Kottayam two (four) of the 10 seats, in Idukki one (three) of the five seats, in Ernakulam one (four) of the 14 seats, in Thrissur two (nine) of the 14 seats, and in Palakkad six (nine) of the 11 seats. In Malappuram district, a Muslim League stronghold, it won only one (two) of the 12 seats; in Wayanad it lost in all three seats (in 1996 it won one seat); in Kozhikode six (10) of the 12 seats; in Kannur district seven (eight) of the 10 seats and in Kasaragod, where the BJP had high hopes this time of winning its first seat ever in the State Assembly, three (three) of the five seats.

The UDF's vote-share increased from 44.84 per cent in 1996 to 49.05 per cent, while that of the LDF plunged from 45.88 per cent in 1996 to 43.70 per cent. The BJP's share fell from 5.48 per cent to 5.04.

The BJP's hope of "opening its account" in the Assembly was dashed this time too. Its State unit president C.K. Padmanabhan and general secretary P.K. Krishnadas finished second in the northern constituencies of Manjeswaram and Kasaragod respectively. In both constituencies, the LDF campaign machinery regularly transfers a large share of its votes to the UDF candidates in order to deny the BJP a victory. Only in 14 did the BJP get more than 10,000 votes.

However, the BJP confirmed its ability to mar the prospects of the LDF in several constituencies. The saffron party's tactic of using a part of its votes to alter the fortunes of certain targeted candidates was evident in constituencies such as Thiruvananthapuram West, which went in favour of M.V. Raghavan, the CPI(M)'s bete noire, and Kozhikode II, where a last-minute shift in RSS votes found the CPI(M) lose by just 787 votes. In 10 constituencies, including Chertala, Pala, Thiruvananthapuram West and Aryanad (from where prominent UDF leaders like Antony, K.M. Mani, M.V. Raghavan and G. Karthikeyan respectively won), the BJP did not field candidates.

But this is not the first time that the BJP has employed such tactics, and therefore the LDF's undoing was certainly not engineered by the BJP alone. The alienation of communal and caste forces, along with the estranged Muslims after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, played a crucial role in the defeat of the UDF in 1996. This time around those forces worked against the LDF. The Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, organisations representing the Nair and Ezhava communities which together account for nearly 50 per cent of the State's population, had obviously drifted away from the LDF.

The result was a vindictive consolidation against the LDF of traditionally pro-CPI(M) Ezhava votes. Riding this wave was the Ezhava-dominated party, the Janathipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS), led by K.R. Gouriamma. A minor partner in the UDF, the JSS managed to get four of its candidates elected from constituencies such as Kodungalloor, Karunagappally and Pandalam, long considered Communist bastions. In its short political history, the JSS had displayed its strength thus far only in one constituency - Aroor, in Alappuzha district, Gouri Amma's home turf.

A significant facet of this election was the increasingly blatant tendency of the two Fronts to enter into "unholy alliances" with parties or groups whose secular credentials were once considered highly suspect. If the UDF wholeheartedly accepted the support of the People's Democratic Party or PDP (whose leader Abdul Nasser Mahdani is in detention in connection with the Coimbatore blast case) and reaped rich benefits, especially in the southern districts, the LDF supported candidates of the Indian National League (INL) in three constituencies. Neither the LDF nor the INL benefited from this exercise. The results have once again established the supremacy of the Muslim League over the other Muslim parties in Kerala. The Muslim League's reaction to the PDP too claiming credit for the UDF victory is yet to be ascertained.

The elections also saw voters in many constituencies turning a deaf ear to allegations of corruption, sexual harassment, parental patronage and monopolisation of power and instead voting for candidates on the basis of other factors, especially personal or caste allegiances. In Kottarakkara, Kerala Congress(B) leader R. Balakrishna Pillai (now on bail after being convicted in the 'Graphite Industries corruption case') was re-elected with an increased margin. In Kovalam, Janata Dal (S) leader and former Minister A. Neelalohitadasan Nadar (facing serious charges of sexual harassment from two women officials belonging to all-India services) too was re-elected, though with a reduced margin. In Pathanapuram, a constituency neighbouring Kottarakkara, K.B. Ganesh Kumar, film actor and Balakrishna Pillai's son, wrested the seat from the CPI. In Puthuppally, where Cherian Philip, a Congress(I) rebel fought senior Congress(I) leader Oommen Chandy, claiming that it was a fight against the monopolisation of power by a few leaders within the party, Oommen Chandy won with an increased margin.

The host of anti-incumbency factors that plagued the LDF, especially in the last six months, became an effective weapon in the hands of the UDF. Prominent among these were the resentment against the government's policies in the education sector, its election-eve change in the liquor policy (allowing the sale of liquor only through public sector outlets or cooperatives of toddy tappers), the frequent CPI(M)-RSS/BJP clashes and the CPI(M)'s handling of the police machinery, and the financial crisis that the State found itself in.

Of these the LDF was perhaps hurt most by the Opposition attack in connection with the poor state of Kerala's finances. With the State's public debt at an alarming Rs.21,000 crores, curbs on even routine treasury transactions had become the order of the day in the past six months, and the government was resorting to increased borrowings. The effect of the lifting of import restrictions on Kerala's agricultural economy has been devastating, and the UDF succeeded in directing the people's anger in this regard against the LDF government rather than on the BJP-led government at the Centre.

There were three or four sectors in which the LDF excelled in its five-year rule - in making a power-deficit State self-sufficient in power generation, in making it a major tourist destination of the world, in maintaining an excellent public distribution system despite the threat from Central government policies and, especially, in the decentralisation programme that it implemented. But, as the poll results indicate, the LDF failed to obtain the popular support that should have come with these policy initiatives, either because it failed to create proper awareness about their impact or because they had drawbacks which the Opposition exposed and gave wide publicity to.

ALL these problems are now bequeathed to the new government. The chickens have finally come home to roost for A.K. Antony and his team of Ministers were sworn in on May 17 (a Cabinet team of at least 19 will soon take office, after further expansion).

The Antony Cabinet's first decision was to take up austerity measures immediately. But even as it tries to give new policy directions, its response to the previous government's incomplete-yet-welcome initiatives such as the decentralisation campaign are eagerly awaited. If the UDF manifesto is any indication, the new government is already veering towards the traditional Kerala pattern of discarding everything initiated by a rival government and replacing them with alternative programmes, starting from scratch.

Despite requests to the contrary from different quarters, in the choice of Ministers Antony had not been able to do justice to his position as chairman of the Congress(I)'s ethics committee. However, Antony's hand is seen in Balakrishna Pillai making way for his son Ganesh Kumar as the party's nominee in the Cabinet,

Other members of the Cabinet include leaders of other coalition constituents - P.K. Kunhalikkutty, T.M. Jacob, K.M. Mani, Gouriamma, M.V. Raghavan and Babu Divakaran.

If there is one factor that won such a sweet victory for the UDF it was certainly the show of unity, that Congress(I) leaders, especially Antony and K. Karunakaran, were able to demonstrate before the voters, though barely a fortnight before the election. After pushing the party and the UDF to the brink on the seat allocation issue, Karunakaran backtracked on the basis of an understanding reached at the initiative of the party high command - that if the chief ministership went to the Antony group, the KPCC(I) presidentship would go to the Karunakaran group, that is to Karunakaran's son K. Muraleedharan.

Surprisingly, the understanding held good. Congressmen put in their best behaviour all through the election campaign, and there was not a trace of rebel menace or backstabbing anywhere. In the three constituencies of Vadakkekkara, Peravur and Aranmula, over which the entire seat-sharing exercise had at one time come to a halt, Karunakaran's nominees won without any trouble.

The selection of Antony as the legislature party leader too passed off uneventfully. To the people of the State so used to wranglings in the State Congress(I), the announcement of the party's central observer, Ghulam Nabi Azad, that Muraleedharan had been appointed new PCC(I) president (until organisational elections are held), therefore came as an anti-climax.

In the Congress(I) Legislature Party, the Karunakaran group has 26 MLAs, the Antony group 29, the Reformist group led by G. Karthikeyan and Ramesh Chennithala three, and the Vayalar Ravi group two. Soon, as Antony and his legislators get bogged down in matters of state, it will be left to the Karunakaran group under Muraleedharan to strengthen the party in Kerala - or should one say, the 'I' group? - before the organisational elections are indeed held.

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