Rarely does a Legislative Assembly byelection create much ripples, that too when an elected State government has just completed a year in office with a comfortable majority of 99 MLAs in a House of 140. This conventional expectation was turned on its head by the Thrikkakkara byelection in central Kerala, where the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) could not wrest the seat from the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
The LDF had, perhaps rashly, projected the byelection as a referendum on its governance over the past six years. The Congress, which is the main opposition in Kerala, picked holes in the development story and also highlighted the sensational scams that have come to light in the recent past, including the UAE gold smuggling case.
The election was necessitated by the death of the Congress MLA P.T. Thomas. The Congress chose a safe candidate, his wife Uma Thomas, for the May 31 byelection. The Congress has held the seat with decent margins—by Kerala standards—since it was created in 2011.
CM led campaign
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan led the high-powered election campaign for the LDF. He made it a point to spend his birthday in the constituency and returned to campaign there at least three times. His campaign speeches made it clear that the LDF government’s showcase project, the Rs.63,941-crore K-rail (Kerala Rail Development Corporation project), which is expected to run from Kasargod in the north to Tiruvananthapuram in the south, would be made a reality. Vijayan projected the LDF as the party for the development of Kerala and the Congress as BJP’s “B” team.
The problem with pitching K-rail in Thrikkakkara is that this central Kerala constituency will be a sort of multi-modal hub for Kochi Metro, K-rail, and mass transport systems. This will mean that many property owners in the densely populated area will have to give up their land for the project.
K-rail has generated a lot of heat in Kerala, as many property owners across the State have been affected; the project needs 1,383 hectares of land, of which 1,198 hectares are with private individuals. (For details, see “Kerala’s SilverLine: Putting a project on track”, Frontline, print edition dated January 14, 2022,).
The byelection defeat has become an embarrassing talking point for the LDF, particularly because of the way the media presented the election as a sort of plebiscite on Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s one year of governance in his second term. A second consecutive term is unprecedented in Kerala, and LDF leaders walked into the trap in their eagerness to seize what appeared to be a chance to break the Congress stranglehold on Thrikkakkara. In the process, they gambled away their government’s reputation.
The LDF lost the seat by a bigger margin than in the 2021 Assembly election. Pinarayi Vijayan is being forced to reconsider the mammoth Silver Line project. There are signs that the LDF might be changing tack. Just as it had done in 2019 after it managed to win only one seat in the Lok Sabha election. Before that election, the State government had said it would provide security for any woman wishing to visit Sabarimala, pursuant to a Supreme Court order. After the election, it changed its stand.
Having lost the byelection, LDF leaders now say a call on the K-rail project must be taken by the Union government. Survey work for the project has also come to a halt. Though there is no threat to the government, given its vast majority, the defeat gives the opposition the chance to put the government on the mat even though the next major election (the Lok Sabha election) is two years away. While the Chief Minister has refused to comment, his Communist Party of India (Marxist) colleague M.A. Baby has said that both the party and the LDF will discuss the defeat. Pressed further during a press meet in Kasargod on June 5, he asked if the BJP candidate losing his deposit in the byelection could be seen as a mandate against the Narendra Modi government.
It is not just Silver Line project that has put the LDF government on the back foot. It has a new headache, as a series of new allegations have been levelled by Swapna Suresh, the prime accused in the July 2020 gold-smuggling-via-diplomatic-bags scandal and a former employee of the UAE Consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.
Swapna has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking him to institute a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry against the Chief Minister. This follows her sensational charge on June 15 that the Chief Minister sought favours from a UAE potentate. (The Chief Minister himself had, on an earlier occasion, asked for a probe by Central agencies to clear his name.)
One political analyst who has followed the case said that Swapna would not have initiated the fresh set of allegations had the Chief Minister’s former Principal Secretary, M. Sivasankar, also an accused in the case, not written an “autobiography” in a bid to exonerate himself and implicate Swapna.
In the book, titled Aswathathmavu Verum Oru Aana (Ashwathama is Only an Elephant), released in February, the senior IAS officer makes some allegations against Swapna. Sivasankar and Swapna are currently out on bail in the case. Swapna met journalists the day the book was released, and began her offensive.
On earlier occasions, Swapna had denied that the Chief Minister was aware of the smuggling. It appears from her new allegations on June 15, after she joined a right-wing non-governmental organisation, that she is getting back at the Chief Minister for allowing Sivasankar to go ahead with the book.
On June 20, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) managed to obtain a court order to access Swapna’s confessional statement in the gold smuggling case. As seen in many cases across the country, in States ruled by opposition political parties, the ED works in mysterious ways.
Social media stance
None of these issues, however, find space on Pinarayi Vijayan’s social media, where he continues to pitch Kerala as a State that practises model governance.
LDF leaders say they are focussed on the needs of the people and are on track to deliver sustainable development for all, no matter what the opposition says. In their opinion, the people of Kerala had chosen them for a reason, and that reason is equitable economic transformation at a time when livelihoods are vanishing.