Assembly Election: Kerala

The election-eve political climate in Kerala has changed little from when the LDF won the local body elections last year

Print edition : April 09, 2021

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan arriving for a campaign rally at Koduvally in Kozhikode on March 17. Photo: K. Ragesh

Congress leaders Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala and Mullapally Ramachandran with Ivan D’Souza (standing), the party’s central observer, in Thiruvananthapuram on March 2. Photo: Mahinsha S

K. Surendran, BJP State president, filing his nomination papers in Konni on March 16. Photo: By Special Arrangement

The ruling LDF, with its governance and development record, is confident of getting another term in office in Kerala even as the Congress-led UDF is racked by widespread dissension over candidate selection. In between, the BJP is trying to dent the dominance of the two fronts in the State’s politics.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has been trying hard to increase its vote share in key constituencies, win over new sections of voters through political manoeuvres and thus achieve a breakthrough in Kerala, is unlikely to accomplish anything dramatic in terms of seats in the Assembly elections to be held on April 6. But the party seems to be hopeful of turning what has all along been a trial of strength between two coalitions into a triangular fight in at least 67 of the 140 constituencies where it won between 12 per cent to 47 per cent of the votes in the 2016 elections.

The 2016 Assembly elections saw the triumph of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) with 91 seats, the rout of the Congress coalition with just 47 seats and the joy of the BJP cadres over the party winning its first-ever seat in the State at Nemom (in Thiruvananthapuram district). In 29 constituencies the victory margins of the two major fronts were below 5,000 votes. The LDF won in 17 of these and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in 12. The margin was below 100 votes in two constituencies, just 314 votes in another, between 500 and 1,000 votes in three seats, and between 1,000 and 2,000 votes in eight others.

In 28 constituencies, the margin of victory was between 5,000 and 10,000, in 38 seats between 10,000 and 20,000, and in 37 constituencies between 20,000 and 40,000. In eight constituencies the margin of victory was above 40,000.

Also read: LDF confident of second innings in Kerala

The highest victory margin of 45,587 was that of Kerala Congress leader P.J. Joseph in his home turf, Thodupuzha, and the lowest margins were in Vadakkancherry (47 votes) in Thrissur district and in Manjeswaram (89 votes) in Kasargod, where a Muslim League candidate won by a whisker over the BJP’s current State president K. Surendran in what could well have been the second BJP seat in Kerala in 2016.

The BJP and other constituents in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) got between 20,000 and 30,000 votes in 42 constituencies in the last election. In 25 seats it got over 30,000 votes; in five of these seats it got over 40,000 to 50,000 votes and in three others it got over 55,000 votes.

Significantly, in 49 of the 67 constituencies where the BJP got above 20,000 to 55,000 votes or more in 2016, the CPI(M) and its partners emerged victorious. The votes that the BJP won proved disastrous for the Congress and the UDF in a majority of constituencies. The Assembly elections this time thus becomes a crucial battle that has the potential to change the traditional electoral dynamics in the State and decide whether the BJP has indeed become a serious contender for power in the State at the expense of the Congress and the UDF.

Turmoil in the Congress

Yet, in spite of some early signs of realisation within the Congress of the critical need to work unitedly for a victory in these elections, especially in the context of the drubbing the UDF received in the local body elections held in December 2020, the Congress entered the arena with a shameful but familiar internal turmoil following its candidate selection process.

Barely a couple of days ahead of the last date for filing nominations, candidate selection continued to be a riotous affair for the UDF, and especially in the Congress, which failed to find a balance between the selection process based on group equations and the aspirations of local party workers.

There was widespread dissension in the Congress as partymen felt that candidates were selected on the basis of the interests of the dominant groups led by Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala. Just as the selection process was going on, veteran Congress leader and former Member of Parliament P.C. Chacko announced his decision to quit the party raising this issue and claiming that the party no longer recognised merit but supported a system of group leaders dividing the posts among themselves. “One cannot be a Congressman in Kerala. One can only be a group member. I have decided to resign because the party high command too is supporting such a scheme of things,” he said.

Also read: LDF achieves trailblazing win in Kerala local body elections

Congress leaders say in private that Chacko who had enjoyed many benefits in the party chose to leave it at a critical juncture with such adverse remarks and that his quitting will not make much of a difference to the party’s prospects. Within a week, Chacko announced his decision to join the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), a minor constituent of the LDF, and begin campaigning for the LDF in the State. It was a sort of homecoming for Chacko for he was part of the Congress (S) led by Sharad Pawar earlier.

In several constituencies, the Congress saw severe opposition to the official candidates from party workers and prominent leaders. Congress MPs K. Sudhakaran and M.K. Raghavan, too, publicly expressed their resentment about the way the leaders went about the selection process.

Despite several rounds of discussions in New Delhi and elsewhere, even on March 17, the Congress had not put its house in order and was finding it difficult to select a candidate at Dharmadam constituency in Kannur district to fight against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Women’s representation

On March 14, no sooner had State Congress president Mullappally Ramachandran announced the first part of the Congress’ candidate list than the front courtyard of the party headquarters in Thiruvanantha-puram witnessed shocking scenes of the State Mahila Congress president Lathika Subash tonsuring her head and announcing her resignation from the women’s wing of the party as well as the All India Congress Committee. She and some of her colleagues were protesting against what she described as “the continuing discrimination of women by the Congress party and denial of a seat to her”.

In the final list the party announced with 93 candidates, there were just 10 women, even though Mullappally Ramachandran had proudly said the list indicated a “generational change” in the State Congress, that it gave prominence to “experience as well as youth”, and that 55 per cent of the candidates were “fresh faces”. Lathika later announced that she would contest as an independent candidate from Ettumanoor constituency, a seat the party had denied to her despite her specific request and 35 years of dedicated service in the party.

Also read: Stiglitz tells Kerala to go its own way in development strategy

Lathika’s protest in the Congress, and the political drama within the BJP after the party’s State vice president Shobha Surendran was denied a seat until the last minute as a result of factional tussle, touched a raw nerve and found support from women politicians in several political parties, among them Congress leader K.C. Rosakkutty (former chairperson of the State Women’s Commission); Shobhana George, former MLA; K.K. Shailaja, State Health Minister and CPI(M) leader; and Annie Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Annie Raja did not blame the Congress or the BJP alone, but expressed disappointment at the Communist parties too denying proper representation for women while selecting candidates.

The 14th Kerala Assembly, whose term is ending soon, had just eight women MLAs out of 140. In this election, the Congress has just 10 women in its final list of 93. In the 86-member CPI(M) list there are only 12 women. The CPI has just two women candidates in its list of 25. The Muslim League, which has never in its history considered a woman as a candidate except once in the past 25 years, however, chose to ignore traditional religious opposition this time and has fielded its women’s wing leader Noorbina Rasheed in Kozhikode South constituency.

Protest by cadres

Unusually, all three fronts, including the ruling LDF, witnessed street demonstrations and social media protest by its cadres and supporters following the candidate selection process. The CPI(M)’s objective of “bringing about a generational change in leadership, ensuring a second term for its government and strengthening the party structure” and the party regulation that MLAs who have completed two terms will not be allowed to contest again meant that 33 MLAs were out of the list this time. This included five Ministers, E.P Jayarajan, Thomas Isaac, G. Sudhakaran, C. Raveendranath and A.K. Balan, and Speaker P. Sreeramakrishnan, some of whom had excelled in their roles as members of the Cabinet.

There are 38 fresh contestants, including nine Independents and 12 women candidates. In 2016, the CPI(M) contested in 92 seats, but it gave up seven seats this time in order to accommodate the Kerala Congress (M) and the Loktantric Janata Dal which had joined the LDF from the UDF. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Ministers T.P. Ramakrishnan, K.K. Shailaja and M.M. Mani are contesting, along with the party’s State secretariat members M.V. Govindan, K. Radhakrishnan, P. Rajeev and K.N. Balagopal.

The announcement by the party that Ministers who held key portfolios and prominent leaders such as P. Jayarajan will not be contesting this time led to sporadic demonstrations, protests and posters—similar to the ones that happened when V.S. Achuthanandan was denied a seat some years ago—but they quickly died down with the leaders themselves issuing statements clarifying that they had nothing to do with the demonstrations. The result of the unusual reaction among party cadres in the coming election is yet to be seen. Resentment within the CPI(M) cadres came into the open in the seats the party had decided to share with its coalition partners too.

In Kuttiyadi constituency in Kozhikode district, however, the CPI(M) bowed to pressure from the cadres who demanded that the seat, which the CPI(M) had offered to the Kerala Congress(M), should be taken back for a party candidate to contest there. Eventually, the party decided to field its own candidate, Kunhammed Kutty, former Kozhikode district panchayat president, at Kuttiyadi after the Kerala Congress decided to return the seat to the CPI(M).

Also read: Kerala’s Left Democratic Front government launches a welfare fund for farmers

The Congress, too, witnessed similar protests over seat sharing with allies. For instance, at Malampuzha in Palakkad district, where the BJP has a strong presence, the party was forced to take back the seat it had offered to the Bharatheeya Rashtriya Janata Dal following intense pressure from party workers and allegations that the party was trying to orchestrate a BJP victory in the constituency by giving the ticket to a weak coalition partner.

In the 2016 elections, at Nemom, where the BJP won its first seat in the State, party veteran O. Rajagopal got 67,813 votes (47.46 per cent of the total), the highest any BJP candidate had won so far in the State, against the CPI(M)’s V. Sivankutty, who got 59,142 votes (41.39 per cent). In one of the most controversial acts that has haunted it ever since, the Congress left the key contest to a UDF ally, the Janata Dal (U), which had hardly any support in the constituency. Moreover, Congress workers had totally withdrawn from the election campaign and the JD(U) candidate V. Surendran Pillai managed to get just 13,860 votes (9.70 per cent) that eventually led to a BJP victory at Nemom.

It is to get over the shame of the LDF’s allegation that the BJP got its first seat in the Assembly in 2016 as a result of a trade-off with the Congress that the Congress leadership made a song and dance about finding a “strong candidate” at Nemom this time. It considered the names of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala but finally announced that K. Muraleedharan, former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran’s son and MP from Vadakara, will be its candidate at Nemom. Against him are pitted Sivankutty of the CPI(M) and Kummanam Rajasekharan, former Governor of Mizoram and former BJP State president, in what is to be one of the most prestigious battles in the State.

Muslim League candidates

Though the Muslim League had announced a norm that MLAs who had completed three terms will not be given an opportunity to contest again, former Ministers P.K. Kunjalikkutty (who resigned his Lok Sabha seat from Malappuram) and M.K. Muneer and former chief whip K.P.A. Majeed have found a place in the candidate list. The Muslim League has 12 sitting MLAs contesting this time.

In Malappuram district, the Muslim league’s stronghold, and other northern constituencies, the CPI(M) has fielded six independent candidates, those who were earlier associated with the Muslim league or the UDF, as part of its strategy to break the League’s sway in the region.

The CPI, which had contested in 27 seats in the last two elections, gave up two seats for the new LDF partners this time.

The BJP, too, had its share of internal rivalries among leaders coming to the fore during candidate selection. There were widespread complaints within the party about Union Minister V. Muraleedharan and State party president K. Surendran dominating decision making in the party, including on the issue of the candidature of firebrand leader Shobha Surendran.

Unprecedentedly, R. Balasankar, a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) leader and former editor of its mouthpiece Organiser, made a scathing attack against the “lack of democracy” within the State party. He alleged that the party denying the Chengannur seat to him, “despite having a good chance of winning there”, could be the result of a “deal struck by the BJP leaders with the CPI(M)”. According to him, “the deal could be to help the CPI(M) win in Chengannur and Aranmula in return for similar support for the BJP State president K. Surendran who was contesting from another central Kerala constituency, Konni”.

The BJP has announced that it will be contesting in 115 seats and that the remaining 25 seats will be left for its four alliance partners in the NDA. K. Surendran is to contest in two constituencies, Manjeswaram in Kasargod, where he came a close second in the 2016 elections, and Konni in Pattanamthitta district, where he gained a substantial share of votes in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, following his involvement in the party’s Sabarimala agitation.

‘Metroman’ E. Sreedharan is the BJP’s candidate in Palakkad. Other prominent party candidates include former Union Minister Alphonse Kannamthanam in Kanjirappally, actor Suresh Gopi in Thrissur, former Director General of Police Jacob Thomas in Irinjalakuda and former Kozhikode University Vice Chancellor Abdul Salam in Tirur. Other contestants include TV actor Krishna Kumar in Thiruvananthapuram Central, C.K. Padmanabhan (against Pinarayi Vijayan) in Dharmadam, P.K. Krishnadas in Kattakkada, M.T. Ramesh in Kozhikode North and M.N. Radhakrishnan in Manalur.

Also read: ‘I want to bolster the BJP’s chances of coming to power in Kerala’, says ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan

At the time of writing this report, the LDF was well on its way into the election campaign, having completed the candidate selection process at least a week earlier, but the two other Fronts had barely completed the process and were immersed in dealing with its repercussions. After the shock of its poor performance in the local body elections held only in December, the UDF had barely begun to collect its wits around with a new-found unity among top leaders and fresh campaigns raising a litany of old and new allegations against the LDF government when the candidate selection process proved to be a disruptive experience. Will it have enough time to put up an effective campaign against the ruling LDF, which is seeking a second term? Will there be a change in the traditional voting patterns of castes and communities that have favoured either the LDF or the UDF in the past elections? How will the BJP sway the verdict in the key constituencies witnessing close fights?

In 2016, it was indeed the Congress and the UDF that faced a drubbing in a large number of constituencies where the BJP gained a substantial number of votes. But with both the Congress and the BJP rekindling issues such as Sabarimala once again, how will the traditional supporters of the LDF behave in this election? In spite of many such imponderables, the election-eve political climate in Kerala seems to have changed little from what it was at the time of the local body elections. The ruling LDF, with its governance and development record of the past five years, an enlarged but compact coalition and a firm leadership, still stays confident of getting yet another term in office.

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