Assembly elections

Kerala Assembly election: LDF government on its path to a record second term in office as predicted by all opinion surveys

Print edition : April 23, 2021

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan being greeted by Jose K. Mani, Kerala Congress (M) chairperson and the LDF candidate in Pala, in the constituency on March 22. By the inclusion of the party, the LDF is trying to get maximum mileage of the change in electoral equations in traditional UDF strongholds such as Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Idukki districts. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi campaigning in Palakkad on March 26. Photo: MUSTAFAH K.K.

J.P. Nadda, BJP’s national president, with Kummanam Rajasekharan, NDA candidate for Nemom constituency, during a road show on March 27. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The LDF banks on its achievements on public health, education and infrastructure development fronts to weather the challenges posed by the Congress-led coalition and the BJP.

The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF)’s emphatic victory in the local body elections held in December, under the shadow of an onslaught of corruption charges by the opposition trying to eclipse the government’s record in office, continued to be a morale booster for its candidates in Kerala as the campaign for the Assembly elections 2021 entered its last lap.

Among a list of questions LDF leaders and candidates raised in almost all the constituencies were: “Are Kerala’s hospitals the same today as they were five years ago? Are our schools the same as they were five years ago? Are the roads in the State still dilapidated? Have strong bridges come up instead of the shaky structures that were built during the UDF [United Democratic Front] period? Has the State not been able to avoid power cuts and load shedding completely? Is there a backlog in payment of welfare pensions? Have title deed distribution (to the landless) reached record levels?”

In campaign meetings that he addressed across the State, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said: “The opposition cannot answer any of these questions truthfully. One specialty of this election is that the opposition and a section of the media are afraid to discuss Kerala’s development. The opposition is ashamed of comparing the Kerala that existed five years ago with the Kerala that it has become today. So, they are trying to submerge the issue of development somehow. Instead, they want to raise emotional issues. The opposition has become the producer and distributor of controversies. When the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] took over the wholesale agency of communalism, the UDF became their retail agents. They have very little to say about the issues affecting people’s life.”

The Assembly elections come just four months after the local body elections and the tangible progress made by Kerala under its rule holds the LDF in good stead. Yet as the day of the election drew near, in a politically polarised State as Kerala where victory or defeat is usually decided by thin margins and by a small percentage of uncommitted voters, the BJP’s growing presence made predictions hazardous in a number of constituencies.

As Frontline has already reported, in the 2016 Assembly elections, 29 constituencies recorded a margin of victory below 5,000 votes; in 28 others it was between 5,000 and 10,000; in 38 constituencies between 10,000 and 20,000, and in 37 seats between 20,000 and 40,000. The margin was below 100 votes in two constituencies, 314 votes in another, between 500 and 1,000 votes in three seats, and between 1,000 and 2,000 votes in eight others. Only eight constituencies had a margin of over 40,000.

The BJP and other constituents of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) won 20,000 to 30,000 votes in 42 constituencies in that election, and above 30,000 votes in 25 others. But in a number of the constituencies where the BJP won over 20,000 votes, it proved to be to the disadvantage of the UDF and led to an LDF victory.

Do-or-die battle for Congress

It is thus a do-or-die battle for the Congress-led coalition in Kerala. The BJP is striving for an “India without Congress”, and for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), it is essential to defeat the Congress alliance in Kerala if it is to retain the only State where it is ruling in India.

Indeed, UDF leaders have for some time been alleging a “political understanding” between the CPI(M) and the BJP to keep the Congress out of the fray. But if recent history is any indication, the BJP’s prospects have become brighter in places where the Congress has grown weaker. Unusually, such an allegation came from within the BJP camp itself, with R. Balasankar, the former editor of Organiser, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) publication, speaking of a “deal” struck by BJP leaders with the CPI(M) “to help the CPI(M) win in Chengannur and Aranmula, key constituencies in central Kerala, in return for similar support for BJP State president K. Surendran in the nearby Konni constituency”.

Also read: Election-eve political climate in Kerala has changed little from when the LDF won the local body elections last year

UDF leaders such as K. Premachandran, Revolutionary Socialist Party leader and MP from Kollam, too made similar allegations. He said the CPI(M)’s strategy was “to let the BJP grow, to weaken the Congress, and then to raise the bogey of the BJP becoming more and more powerful in Kerala among the Christian and Muslim minority communities [that make up 45 per cent of Kerala’s population] and thus to keep them within its fold to ensure a second term in office”.

Nemom constituency

But the only known recent example of an understanding between two rival Fronts was at Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram district in 2016. In that election, the Congress literally withdrew from the campaign scene, leaving the fight to a little-known UDF partner, the Janata Dal (United), and let the BJP’s O. Rajagopal win that party’s first-ever seat in the Assembly. The JD(U) candidate V. Surendran Pillai got a mere 9.70 per cent of the votes, an unheard-of result for the UDF in Kerala. Rajagopal won with over 47 per cent of the total votes and the CPI(M) candidate V. Sivankutty got over 41 per cent.

This time the Congress has made a hype of selecting a “strong candidate” at Nemom, with K. Muraleedharan, former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran’s son and MP from Vadakara, fighting against Kummanam Rajasekharan, former BJP State president, and Sivankutty.

Allegation of trade-off

Significantly, Pinarayi Vijayan chose first to draw the State’s attention about the trade-offs in this election at Nemom. Addressing a rally in the constituency, he said: “When a multitude of secular forces in India are joining hands to organise struggles and form common platforms against forces that threaten the country’s secular ethos, isn’t it our experience that the Congress has become a force that helps the BJP open an account in the Kerala Assembly? Is it not a shameful thing? Is it not true that there are attempts being made in this election too to forge such understandings? It is turning out to be a serious political issue before Kerala. It is not something that can be ignored. We have to be vigilant against such attempts. The LDF will certainly not forge any such pact with the BJP for a handful of votes.”

Later on in the campaign, he spoke more pointedly about the possible secret understanding at play in some northern constituencies between the Congress, the Muslim League and the BJP.

Addressing a rally at Panur in Kannur on March 29, Pinarayi Vijayan said: “Somewhere, some secret moves have taken place. It is part of a process that started quite a while ago. The Muslim League’s candidate at Guruvayoor says, now that the Central government has decided to implement the Citizenship Amendment Act, people should take care to keep their documents ready and the League cadres should help them complete the formalities of filling up the required forms. Read it together with the statement of a prominent BJP leader [actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi] who says openly that the Muslim League candidate at Guruvayoor should win; but that the CPI(M) candidate at Thalasseri should be defeated. In both these constituencies [and in Devikulam in Idukki] the nominations submitted by the BJP candidates were strangely rejected and it has become a straight fight between the LDF and the UDF. This is where we should recall the statement of O. Rajagopal, who recently talked about how he won with the help of the Congress in Nemom in 2016, and how such ‘local adjustments’ are ‘necessary’ and that they all have eventually proved ‘beneficial to the BJP’.”

As the campaign entered its final days, all three fronts made allegations of secret deals by the other two. Clearly, many see the wisdom behind the BJP’s hopes to keep the Congress and the UDF out of power so that it can gain prominence as an opposition party in Kerala. However, the BJP’s State president K. Surendran continues to say that the party’s main fight in the State is with the CPI(M) and only after that with the Congress.

Surendran is contesting from two constituencies, Konni, in central Kerala, where the Sabarimala agitation led by him gathered steam, and at Manjeswaram in Kasargod district adjoining Karnataka, where he lost in 2016 for a mere 89 votes. He has already drawn a lot of attention with his statement that “the BJP will form a government in Kerala if it wins at least 35 seats in this election”. Though an unlikely prospect, it was widely read as an indicator of the mischief the BJP would be willing to play with the disgruntled coalition partners or politicians in the two Fronts if such an opportunity arose.

The LDF’s election campaign this time has been marked by the absence of factionalism that had clouded the party’s efforts in several previous elections in the State. With the withdrawal of an ageing V.S. Achuthanandan from active politics, the reins of the CPI(M) and the LDF rested entirely in the hands of Pinarayi Vijayan, who displayed good leadership skills in taking the State through several crises in the last five years, including two mega floods and a cyclone, contagious diseases such as Nipah and COVID-19 and the financial crisis that followed in the wake of the pandemic.

LDF’s well-oiled machine

The party is approaching the election like a well-oiled machine, with a strong leadership even though, like in the two other Fronts, the LDF had witnessed street demonstrations and social media protest by its cadres and supporters following the selection of candidates.

As Frontline had reported earlier, the CPI(M)’s decision not to let those who have completed two terms contest left 33 MLAs out of the party list. Though it was done to “bring about a generational change in leadership, ensuring a second term for its government and to strengthen the party structure”, it meant that in constituencies where well-established leaders such as E.P. Jayarajan, Thomas Isaac, G. Sudhakaran, C. Raveendranath, A.K. Balan, B.D. Devassy and Raju Abraham had a sure chance of victory, the party has fielded less-popular candidates. So was the case of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which decided not to allow candidates who had contested three times to contest again.

But by and large, it looked as if the LDF was set to come back to power, though possibly with a reduced majority, as all the opinion polls held in the State predicted. Meanwhile, opposition party leaders have been telling Kerala about the “danger of power in the party, the ruling LDF and its government concentrating in the hands of one person alone”. Congress Working Committee member A.K. Antony broke his long silence on Kerala politics to say at several interviews that if the LDF government got one more term it would lead to “total destruction” and “even communists will rue the second coming of the Pinarayi government”.

The former Chief Minister’s words have often had much transformative power on election agendas in Kerala and his statements received widespread attention in this election season. In one of his interviews to a prominent Malayalam newspaper he said: “Until now, all governments had remained under the control of the party. Congress governments used to view even cruel criticism against it with tolerance. We have always tried to build consensus in society. But this government is not ready to listen to criticism and opposing views. The king will decide what the people want. And the system is such that the people will have to receive the manna as the king’s donation. Nobody can question this Chief Minister. His word is the final word.”

Also read: LDF confident of second innings in Kerala

Given the government’s track record of people-friendly policy initiatives and timely welfare measures, the criticism seemed a bit too unfair. But Antony’s argument was that the UDF would get the votes of “people who suffered misfortunes under the government, from independent people who understand the danger of a second term for the Pinarayi government, from communists who may not necessarily like the Congress and Left supporters who are aware of the danger of continuous party rule in West Bengal”. When these three factors come together, he said, “the UDF will get the majority to form a strong government in the State”.

The Congress leadership came out with a candidate list giving prominence to credible, mostly young and fresh faces, including all sitting MLAs (except K.C. Joseph), and denying seats to a number of old war horses except a handful such as E.M. Augusty (Udumbanchola in Idukki district), K. Babu (at Thrippunitura in Ernakulam) and Sivadasan Nair (at Aranmula in Pathanamthitta).

However, its good efforts were eclipsed by the dramatic way Lathika Subhash, the president of the State Mahila Congress, chose to resign her post and party membership, tonsuring her hair in front of the party headquarters in protest against the discrimination shown to women in the Congress list.

The decision of the Congress to give in to the over-ambitious demands for seats of its partner, the Kerala Congress (Joseph), may cost it dearly. After the split in the Kerala Congress (Mani), with the faction led by Jose K. Mani joining the LDF, the Kerala Congress (Joseph) is today perhaps the weakest link in the UDF, but it haggled for even the seats where it had no chance of a victory.

The UDF is also facing the possibility of at least some sections of its traditional Christian supporters, especially in the central Kerala districts, drifting away.

Both the CPI(M) and the BJP have been trying hard to make inroads into the UDF stronghold districts with large Christian populations. The campaigns against the UDF coming back to power with the Muslim League, the second major partner dominating the scheme of things in such a government, have proved to be quite effective among the leaders of many Christian denominations with huge interests in the educational and health sectors in the State.

Communal campaign

Moreover, the BJP’s long campaign in the State against “love jehad”, the tentative alliance forged by the UDF with the Welfare Party, the political wing of the of the Jamaat-e-Islami, during the local body elections, and on the stand of some Muslim League leaders in the Hagia Sophia controversy have all been aimed at raising the Christian community’s concerns about “the growth of Muslim radicalism” in the State. BJP leaders have been holding meetings with church leaders, even inviting some of them for consultations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the ongoing battle for property and prayer and burial rights between two church groups following a Supreme Court verdict. Recently, State BJP president Surendran has even been saying that “Christians in Kerala have finally lost their mistrust of the BJP”. If proved true, the success of its strategy would be a key element in the BJP’s attempts to break free of the shackles of the long-entrenched bipolar politics in the State.

The BJP’s disadvantage in Kerala has long been that one, it is not part of the two well-settled coalitions that have shared power in the State, and two, a large section of the Kerala voters has always remained beyond its possible sphere of influence, what with the two minority communities, Muslims and Christians, accounting for over 45 per cent of the State’s population.

In this election too, despite its claims, there are only about 20 odd seats where the BJP is competing seriously for at least coming to the second place. Yet it has become a significant player in many constituencies where there are keen contests between the LDF and the UDF. Such strategic voting by the BJP has been known to favour the UDF in the past, but with its new-found motivation of denying the Congress a victory this time, the BJP may want to gather all the votes it can to its side. In this case too, the LDF may turn out to be the eventual beneficiary.

Kerala Congress factor

The inclusion of the Kerala Congress (Jose K. Mani) faction by the LDF and the attempt of the CPI(M) to please its new partner by even donating its sitting seats to it is evidently to get maximum mileage of the significant change in electoral equations in traditional UDF strongholds such as Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Idukki districts following the death of its veteran leader K.M. Mani and the split in that party. Until K.M. Mani’s death, the Kerala Congress (Mani) was the third important constituent of the Congress-led coalition which, with the support of the church, always ensured that the large Christian vote bank in central Kerala remained under the UDF’s political patronage. For the first time, the LDF sees an opportunity to bring at least some of those voters under its banner through the Jose K. Mani faction.

With only a handful of days left for voting on April 6, Jose K. Mani raised a controversy by saying in an interview that “there are some issues and apprehensions about love jehad in Kerala” and that “if there were any such cases that issue should be addressed and stopped”. The statement was quite unlike one by an LDF partner, and Jose K. Mani retracted his statement immediately, but not before it served its purpose well. The Kerala Catholic Bishops Council spokesperson expressed happiness over his “practical response” to the issue. How central Kerala will vote will be one of the keenly watched outcomes of this election.

Even though their top leaders continue to speak about it cautiously, the BJP and the UDF are using to the hilt the issue of the LDF government allowing entry of women into the Sabarimala temple. It even led to the State Devaswom Minister and CPI(M) leader Kadakampally Surendran expressing regret on his own volition “over the incidents of 2018 at the Sabarimala temple” and saying that “everyone is sad at the turn of events there”. Kadakampally Surendran is locked in a tough triangular fight at Kazhakkuttom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram with firebrand BJP leader Shobha Surendran, who has become the symbol of the BJP’s Sabarimala campaign in this election, and S.S. Lal, a medical doctor, of the Congress.

Kadakampally Surendran’s statements put the LDF on the defensive, but CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said there was no change in the party’s policy and that the government was duty-bound to implement the verdict of the larger Bench of the Supreme Court. Pinarayi Vijayan also clarified that when the apex court announced its verdict the government “will discuss with all stakeholders about its implementation”. Despite such explanations, the BJP and the other opposition parties have kept the issue burning all through.

In his campaign speech at Palakkad on March 30, Prime Minister Modi attacked the LDF government for “betraying the people for a few pieces of gold” (referring to the gold smuggling controversy) and both the LDF and the UDF for their “vote-bank politics and shared commitment to making money”, and for engaging in “match-fixing”. He also said, without mentioning Sabarimala by name: “They have no pride in the culture of this land. Leaders are insulting traditions. The Left government should be ashamed of the police lathi-charge against believers. And the UDF should be ashamed about their subservient silence against the atrocity.”

Undercurrents triggered by issues such as love jehad and Sabarimala have the potential to turn the verdict against the popular narrative of an LDF victory in a number of constituencies witnessing keen triangular contests. Otherwise, and shorn of last-minute miracles, it looked as if the LDF government was definitely on its path to a record second term in office as all opinion surveys have predicted in this election season.

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