Kerala

Evenly poised

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy addressing an election rally of the UDF in Kannur on March 24. Photo: S.K. Mohan

Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan speaks at an election meeting of LDF candidate M.B. Rajesh in Palakkad. Photo: The Hindu Archives

GIVEN the scandals that had besieged his government and the troubles in his party and the ruling coalition earlier, few would have expected Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to declare that the April 10 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala would be a referendum on the State government too, or that, if the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) fared badly in the State, the responsibility for it would rest on him primarily.

The confidence with which Oommen Chandy said this implied that the credit for a possible good showing should also be his own. This, perhaps, was the significant part of his inaugural campaign pitch.

But, regardless of his statement, both the Congress and the CPI(M), the leading partners of the two coalitions in Kerala, have decided that their principal goal will be to win the maximum number of seats from Kerala. And both sides are acutely aware of the harm that overconfidence would result in this time.

For one, Kerala’s political landscape has changed a lot since the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the UDF won 16 of the 20 Parliament seats in the State. It also won nearly 70 per cent of the seats in the local body elections held a year later. In the Assembly elections in 2011, however, it came to power in the State with a narrow margin, winning 72 of the total 140 seats, just four seats more than the Left Democratic Front (LDF).

Meanwhile, since the 2009 elections, an incremental realignment of political forces has altered the nature and sphere of influence of the only two fronts that have ruled the State.

The LDF has seen three of its prominent partners—the Kerala Congress (Joseph), a splinter group of the Janata Dal (Secular) and recently, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP)—leave its fold during this period, “displeased with the treatment they received from the CPI(M)”, and seek refuge in the UDF.

The latest and the most shocking of these departures was that of the RSP, a Left Front partner for over three decades, in protest against it being denied the Kollam Lok Sabha seat (its most influential region) for the third time in a row by the CPI(M).

The result, for the Congress (I) and the UDF, was the short-term benefit of bringing in more sections of voters under its influence (and, surely, the possibility of long-term acrimony when it comes to the sharing of the spoils).

The parties that left the LDF were among the CPI(M)’s most influential minor partners, with their own vote pockets; but those which sought to replace them were much weaker groups, such as the Janathipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS) and the Communist Marxist Party from the UDF, the Forward Bloc, the Indian National League (INL) and so on.

Second, this election is different in that faction feuds within the Congress (I) and the CPI(M) have been tamed to a large extent and have not marred the candidate-selection process, the campaign, or (according to early indications, at least) the prospects of the candidates or the coalition partners in both the fronts.

Within the Congress (I), such election-eve geniality was achieved by the decision of the party high command to appoint V.M. Sudheeran—a veteran leader with a clean image who had remained largely neutral during the long factional wars within the party—as the Pradesh Congress Committee (I) president.

In the CPI(M), on the other hand, cordiality sprouted abruptly, just as this season’s campaign was about to begin, with the opposition leader, V.S. Achuthanandan, doing a volte-face and openly concurring with the official party line on the highly sensitive issues of the murder of the Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP) leader T.P. Chandrasekharan and the SNC-Lavalin corruption case.

United face

Just as the LDF campaign was about to begin, Achuthanandan, in a television interview, surprised Kerala by speaking in defence of the conclusions of the official party inquiry into the Chandrasekharan murder (which, unlike the findings of a lower court, claimed it to be the result of “personal” rather than party-instigated “political” enmity). This was contrary to his earlier stand on this issue.

Similarly surprising was his response to a question on the SNC-Lavalin case. He said that CPI(M)’s State secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, once an accused in the case, cannot any longer be considered guilty of any act of corruption now that a lower court had exonerated him in the case.

The dismay that Achuthanandan’s volte-face generated among RMP leaders, party detractors and a section of the general public who had helped sustain Achuthanandan’s “rebellion” within the CPI(M) until now, especially against the official group led by Pinarayi Vijayan, could only be matched by the salving that followed in equal measure within his own party because of it.

Achuthanandan’s unexpected alignment with the official party line during what is obviously a very crucial election for the CPI(M) in Kerala led to even Pinarayi Vijayan describing the subsequent phase in the State party as “something which every party member and friend had been looking forward to”.

But the election-eve cordiality within the Congress (I) and the CPI(M) has the potential to create quite the opposite effect on the Kerala electorate. While the Congress and the UDF seemed to be all the more better for the unity that its leaders have achieved, the CPI(M) is likely to lose rather than gain, at least in the short term, for having co-opted Achuthanandan to the official party line on the two issues.

For, the line adopted by Achuthanandan against the State party leadership’s position on these and several other issues was exactly what made him a star campaigner for the LDF in many elections in Kerala. On several occasions, it had stood the party in good stead and helped it rally the support of not just an exasperated rank and file, but independent sections of the general public also under its banner, even as they disagreed with the party’s position.

This new unity, if it can be sustained, may prove beneficial to the CPI(M) in the long term, but it is unlikely to benefit it and the LDF in this election.

Unsettling issue

The third significant facet of this election is the threat the UDF faces in several of its traditional strongholds from an unexpected issue: the controversy that grew out of the State government’s responses to the recommendations of the Gadgil and Kasturirangan Committees for the protection of the ecology of the Western Ghats.

Genuine fears about the impact of the restrictions recommended by the committees in “ecologically sensitive areas” (ESAs) on the lives and properties of nearly 22 lakh people living in the 123 villages along the Western Ghats have been used well against the Congress and the State government by a combination of forces. They include: (a) the Kerala Congress (Mani), which used the issue as a leverage for its demand for an extra seat (Idukki) within the UDF; (b) the vested interests who fear that the proposals would affect their business interests; and (c) the opposition LDF, which saw it as a grand political opportunity to win the confidence of the settler farmers in constituencies that has been the preserve of the Congress (I) and its coalition partners.

What they have reaped together, therefore, is the large-scale disaffection among the settler farmers of Kerala, who have been the UDF’s traditional and reliable vote bank, who constitute a strong lobby of largely Catholic Christian voters, with a majority of them spread over at least five of the 20 constituencies in the State.

As the campaign progressed, the only factor that might help the Congress (I) in these constituencies was the softening of the attitude of the Catholic church towards it.

The UDF was also on the defensive over several anti-incumbency factors, especially the Team Solar corruption case that rocked the Chief Minister’s office, scandals involving some Ministers and MPs, allegations of corruption and grievances over rising prices of petroleum products and essential commodities. But how these factors would play out at the ground level in each constituency would be known only during the last phase of the campaign.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the CPI(M), then ruling the State, lost 10 of the 14 seats it contested. It squeezed through in the four seats it won then: Attingal in the south, Palakkad, Alathur and Kasargod in the north. All the four candidates that the CPI, the second largest partner in the LDF, fielded, in Thiruvananthapuram (against Shashi Tharoor), Pathanamthitta, Thrissur and Wayanad, also lost.

The UDF, on the other hand, won 10 of the 11 southern and central Kerala constituencies from Thiruvananthapuram to Thrissur (except Attingal, a CPI(M) fortress), and six of the nine others in north Kerala. The Congress (I) won 13 of the 17 seats it contested; the Muslim League won both Malappuram and Ponnani, its strongholds, and the Kerala Congress (Mani) won Kottayam, its native turf, for the first time, defeating three-time CPI(M) MP Suresh Kurup.

The April 10 election will certainly be a tougher one for the UDF and the LDF, with close contests expected in at least a dozen constituencies, including Thiruvananthapuram, Pathanamthitta and Wayanad. The Congress (I) is contesting only in 15 seats this time (instead of 17 in 2009), to accommodate the RSP and the Janata Dal, in Kollam and Palakkad, respectively.

The RSP’s rebellion in the LDF had a sobering effect on the two fronts, especially with regard to the demands and concerns of smaller coalition partners. While the RSP itself was welcomed wholeheartedly into the UDF, with the offering of the Kollam seat, the Janata Dal factions in the two fronts, whose claims were ignored initially, were offered one seat each by the CPI(M) and the Congress (I).

Thus, Socialist Janata Dal’s (SJD) M.P. Veerendra Kumar is the UDF’s candidate in Palakkad (against the CPI(M)’s M.B. Rajesh) and his former party colleague, Mathew T. Thomas of the Janata Dal (Secular) is fighting Jose K. Mani in Kottayam.

The contest in Kerala has become a close one, and for the first time in its history, the CPI(M), which is contesting in 15 seats, has invited individuals with no previous link with the Left to contest as independent candidates in five of them.

Among them are two disgruntled Congressmen, Peelipose Thomas (a former All India Congress Committee member from Pathanamthitta) and V. Abdurahiman (in Ponnani); a popular comedian in Malayalam cinema, Innocent (pitted against P.C. Chacko, the chairman of the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probing the allocation of 2G spectrum, in Chalakkudy); and Christy Fernandez, a Gujarat-cadre IAS officer who served the former President Pratibha Patel as well as in the Narendra Modi administration.

Prominent CPI(M) candidates this time include Polit Bureau member M.A. Baby (in Kollam, against the RSP’s former MP and Minister, N.K. Premachandran); all the four current MPs of the party, P. Karunakaran (Kasargod), M.B. Rajesh (Palakkad), P.K. Biju (Alathur) and A. Sampath (Attingal); a former State Minister, P.K. Sreemati (Kannur); and a former MP, A. Vijayaraghavan (Kozhikode). The CPI is contesting in four seats, and has also fielded an independent, a nominee of the Church of South India (CSI), Dr Bennet Abraham, in Thiruvananthapuram, reportedly with an eye on the substantial number of Nadar Christian votes in the constituency where Union Minister of State Shashi Tharoor is seeking a re-election and is locked in a multi-cornered fight with the BJP’s O. Rajagopal, among others.

The other players

The AAP is taking its fledgling steps in Kerala in this election by targeting mainly the sections that are sick of the corruption and the complacency of the parties that have been in power. It has attracted some attention by fielding the writer Sarah Joseph (in Thrissur), the journalist Anita Pratap (in Ernakulam), the anti-endosulfan campaigner Ambalathara Kunjikrishnan (in Kasargod) and a former IPS officer Ajith Joy (in Thiruvananthapuram). The AAP is, however, still far from making a dent in the two-coalition political tradition in the State.

The BJP has once again fielded its strongest candidates, O. Rajagopal, former Union Minister of State for Railways, and K. Surendran, a State general secretary, in Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod constituencies where it hopes to break through finally this time.

The BJP, however, is yet to break through the coalition arrangement in Kerala and win in an Assembly or Parliament election, despite gaining between 6.22 to 10.39 per cent of votes in the past five Lok Sabha contests. But its votes are spread throughout the State and not concentrated in pockets like the smaller partners of the two coalitions that use them to win elections. Moreover, the party’s divisive agenda often alienates it further from the voters and political alliances in a State like Kerala.

Narendra Modi was, however, the first national leader to visit Kerala before the election, to address a huge rally of the Pulaya Maha Sabha, which represents a prominent backward class community in the State. Last year, too, he was in the State, participating in a meeting organised by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam at Varkala, and wooing the powerful Ezhava community in the State.

In the end, it may be “Narendra Modi’s BJP” which may turn out to be the key factor in turning the vote for or against the two coalitions in Kerala. Muslim and Christian communities have a sizeable presence in the State, with the former accounting for 25 to 60 per cent of the population in the eight northern constituencies from Palakkad to Kasargod. A similar Christian concentration of between 22 to 37 per cent of the population is present in eight central Kerala constituencies from Pathanamthitta to Thrissur, as well as in Thiruvananthapuram in the south.

The Congress (I) and the CPI(M), especially the former, may be banking on the possibility of a last-minute consolidation of minority votes against the Modi factor in the northern and central districts of the State, for eventually tilting a more or less equally poised election in their favour.

By R. KRISHNAKUMAR

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