Assembly Elections: Kerala

Old rivals and a new front

Print edition : April 29, 2016

In Palakkad on April 5, a CPI(M) worker wears a poster of V.S. Achuthanandan and tries to speak on his mobile phone attempts a conversation using mobile phone. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

In Kozhikode, supporters paint a wall for the UDF candidate’s campaign. Photo: PTI

In Thiruvananthapuram, the BJP's candidate S. Sreesanth on the campaign trail. Photo: By Special Arrangement

In Kerala, the UDF, overcoming the infighting in the Congress, and the LDF are ready with their lists of candidates to resume their age-old electoral rivalry, but much depends on the performance of the BJP-led third front.

“Practical politics" is the dominant flavour of the elections to the Kerala Assembly this time, and principles, idealism and political propriety fade into the background as the two established coalitions led by the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), fight one of the keenest electoral battles of 2016. The contest has been made complex by the efforts of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to build a third alternative in a State that has remained markedly bipolar thus far.

Even the idealist president of the State Congress, V.M. Sudheeran, was forced to admit at the end of the party’s bitter candidate selection discussions that the Congress high command may eventually find his proposals to keep out five corruption-tainted party MLAs “impractical”. His other proposal was to deny the party ticket to those who had been representing a constituency more than four times.

Sure enough, all the MLAs, including three State Ministers, whom the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president especially wanted to be left out, found their way into the final list approved by the party high command, except for Benny Behanan, a popular MLA from Thrikkakkara, who opted out.

Thus, eventually, it was the pragmatic Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, who had his way, effectively checkmating the high command and his party rivals in the State, by arguing that he too would have to step down if “unproven corruption allegations” against people in public life were to be the criterion for denying them the ticket.

The State party and the United Democratic Front (UDF) were horrified when, just before the elections were announced and even as Ministers went into overdrive inaugurating long-pending projects, the PCC president began a tooth-and-nail battle to make the government withdraw a handful of controversial last-minute notifications permitting large-scale conversion of wetlands and transfer of government land to private hands. The notifications, which smacked of blatant corruption by a government already immersed in bribery scandals, were more than what the opposition had bargained for. But with elections round the corner, Sudheeran perhaps found in it the best opportunity to at least try and improve the party’s image by forcing the government to reconsider these decisions and then possibly denying the ticket to some people.

The notifications on the land deals were withdrawn, but the decision, instead of improving the UDF’s image, only put renewed focus on the record of corruption of its government and proved to be a godsend for the Left Democratic Front (LDF). The dispute grew essentially into one over allowing Ministers K. Babu, Adoor Prakash and K.C. Joseph, representing Tripunithura, Konni and Irikkur constituencies respectively, and MLAs Benny Behanan and Dominic Presentation from Thrikkakkara and Kochi respectively, to contest again.

Sudheeran’s solution proved to be a two-edged sword, one that gave the opposition enough ground for legitimising its allegations. If, as he proposed, some people were kept out of the list, that would be as good as admitting that they were corrupt. If, on the other hand, they were included after all the recent fuss in the party, that would be seen as a move done with scant regard for probity in public life.

Congress power equations

As the CPI(M) and the other parties in the LDF quietly went ahead with their own troublesome candidate selection process, the UDF remained stuck for days over the issue. The power equations within the State Congress —with two prominent groups led by Oommen Chandy and Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala sharing most of the spoils nowadays and Sudheeran, who became PCC chief in February 2014, also gaining a few supporters —meant that the target of the corruption allegations were Oommen Chandy’s close aides in the Cabinet and the party.

At one stage the party high command had to choose between its State president and the legislature party leader. Oommen Chandy won with his argument that denying the ticket to the MLAs would appear like an admission of guilt and would be detrimental to the UDF when the party was planning to approach the electorate on the basis of the “performance of his government”. He also put forth that the Ministers and MLAs concerned were seasoned politicians with their own support base and removing them without finding equally capable alternatives would be disastrous for the UDF. He also insisted that the allegations were yet to be proved and that if the high command took the decision to drop the MLAs he too would have to step down from the leadership position.

That was an ultimatum the high command could not ignore. Despite the allegations heaped on him personally ( Frontline, April 15, 2016), and on this government, Oommen Chandy continued to be the most popular Congress leader in Kerala and a crowd-puller for UDF candidates. In the end, with the Muslim League, the second most prominent UDF partner, too throwing its weight behind him, the high command decided in the Chief Minister’s favour. There was a last-minute suggestion to drop at least one MLA, Benny Behanan, in deference to Sudheeran’s suggestions. But in a surprising move, Behanan said he was opting out of the race as he did not want to go against the wishes of his party president or put the Chief Minister or the party in a quandary.

Oommen Chandy again emerged triumphant within his party, but is now left with the onus of seeing the UDF through in this election. Though there were many who agreed with Sudheeran’s suggestions and considered them a lifeline for the discredited coalition, they also felt that his idealistic position came too late in the day and that it was silent on the issue of corruption involving others in the party and the UDF. In the end, Sudheeran withdrew, and said that though he still felt that his proposals would have helped the party improve its image, once the high command had decided the final list “every party member should fall in line”.

Even by the end of March, when the LDF announced its first list of 124 (out of a total 140) candidates, the Congress and the UDF were struggling over the exercise, with the top leaders themselves leading the tussle that eventually led to confusion and mini revolutions in several constituencies. By April 4, when the party announced its first list of 83 candidates, 33 of its 39 MLAs were in it; two Ministers, Aryadan Muhammed (Nilambur) and C.N. Balakrishnan (Wadakkanchery), opted out on their own.

Soon the Congress saw even its feeder organisations, such as the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), rising in revolt over non-representation in the list. In several crucial constituencies, such as Kollam, Palakkad, Thrissur and Ernakulam, those who were denied the ticket threatened to contest as rebels.

House in order

The political drama within the Congress had Kerala transfixed during the early phase of the 2016 election campaign and it gave the LDF an opportunity to steal a march over its main rival and to quietly tackle the early troubles within its own ranks.

There were controversial decisions in the CPI(M)’s candidate selection process, too, especially with regard to its decision to field “outsiders”, among them film actors KPAC Lalitha (who later withdrew as the candidate in Wadakkanchery ) and Mukesh (in Kollam), in addition to the controversial former UDF Minister and actor K.B. Ganesh Kumar (of the Kerala Congress-B); media persons Veena George (in Aranmula) and Nikesh Kumar (Communist Marxist Party leader M.V. Raghavan’s son, in Azhikode); and some traders and businessmen in Muslim League strongholds in Malappuram district. In all, the CPI(M) list includes eight independents, among them long-time associates K.T. Jaleel (Tavanur), who defeated the League supremo K.P. Kunhalikutty in Kuttippuram in 2006, and the former MLA P.T.A. Rahim.

There was also an undercurrent of criticism that the CPI(M)’s candidates list had subtly excluded some V.S. Achuthanandan camp followers, among them, for example, former Labour Minister P.K. Gurudasan (who represented Kollam) and former Fisheries Minister S. Sarma (Vypeen).

But, in general, the CPI(M) was able to keep its house in order at least outwardly. Most observers were expecting trouble within the Left camp, considering that in previous elections factional rivalry within the CPI(M), between its top leaders Pinarayi Vijayan and V.S. Achuthanandan, had spoilt the chances of the coalition, but it was the ruling UDF that was in such a situation this time.

Realignment of forces

A gradual realignment of political forces has happened in Kerala after the last Assembly elections, with a few UDF constituents or prominent MLAs individually leaving the ruling front in the past year or two and associating themselves with the CPI(M) and the LDF. But the CPI(M) has offered seats only to those it sees as serving its interests well in this election. The party was also able to keep its allies, including those who had crossed over from the UDF, in check, with the CPI, the second biggest constituent of the Left front, alone getting to contest the seats it had contested last time.

Thus, two of the three MLAs who switched over from the UDF (K.B. Ganesh Kumar of the KC(B) and Kovoor Kunjumon, formerly of the Revolutionary Socialist Party) made it to the list, but the third, the UDF’s controversial former Chief Whip P.C. George (who won as a Kerala Congress (Mani) candidate from Poonjar in 2006), did not. Similar disappointment awaited the Janathipatya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS) leader and former CPI(M) firebrand, Gowri Amma. Yet, the CPI(M) gave four key seats to a fledgling party, the Democratic Kerala Congress, formed by the latest group to leave the Kerala Congress (Mani), the third most prominent party in the UDF, on election eve. The CPI(M), perhaps, expects this splinter group of the Kerala Congress (Mani) to help its interests more in the Christian belt of central Kerala than the other contenders: Kerala Congress (Scaria Thomas), already an LDF constituent, which was offered only one seat, and P.C. George, who is rumoured to have engineered the defection of a CPI(M) MLA soon after the Oommen Chandy government came to power on a thin majority in 2011.

The LDF was able to complete its candidates list by early April, with the CPI(M) contesting in 92 of the 140 Assembly seats, which is one fewer than last time, and the CPI in 27 seats. The share of the others are as follows: Janata Dal (S) five seats; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Democratic Kerala Congress four seats each; the Indian National League (INL) three seats; and all the rest, including the Congress (S), the Kerala Congress (B), the Kerala Congress (Scaria Thomas) and the CMP’s splinter group, one each.

The only prominent person to leave the LDF camp was former Minister V. Surendran Pillai, who took the decision after his party, Kerala Congress (Scaria Thomas), was offered only one seat, Kaduthuruthy (a UDF citadel), where Scaria Thomas, chairman of the party, was the candidate. Surendran Pillai, co-chairman of the party, had eyes on Thiruvananthapuram Central constituency for long, where he believed he had a fighting chance against Health Minister V.S. Siva Kumar of the Congress and, lately, the BJP’s “star” candidate, the cricketer S. Sreesanth. But with the LDF giving that seat to the Democratic Kerala Congress candidate Antony Raju, who was until the other day a staunch K.M. Mani supporter, Surendran Pillai began discussions to join the UDF and contest as the Janata Dal (United) candidate in the neighbouring constituency of Nemom.

BJP hopeful

Nemom, where the BJP has fielded former Union Minister O. Rajagopal, is a miniature stage that embodies the three-cornered fight that the party’s new alliance hopes to enact to its advantage in Kerala. The BJP traditionally has a strong base in the constituency that includes parts of Thiruvananthapuram city. But with both the LDF and the UDF having a powerful presence, it could thus far be only second best there. The constituency is currently being represented by the CPI(M)’s V. Sivankutty, a former Mayor of Thiruvananthapuram.

The BJP announced its list of candidates early without trouble, with all the top State leaders in the fray in key constituencies where they believe they have a chance of victory. They include, in addition to Rajagopal in Nemom, the new State president Kummanam Rajasekharan in Vattiyoorkavu, and former presidents V. Muraleedharan and P.K. Krishna Das in Kazhakkoottam and Kattakkada respectively (all four in Thiruvananthapuram district); another former State president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai in Chengannur and general secretary M.T. Ramesh in Aranmula (both in central Kerala); former president C.K. Padmanabhan in Kunnamangalam in Thrissur district; State president of the Mahila Morcha Shobha Surendran in Palakkad; and former State general secretary K. Surendran in Manjeswaram in Kasaragod district.

The party’s main ally, the newly formed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), is set to contest in 37 seats, and has announced that it will have candidates in all the 14 districts of the State, except Kasaragod. The alliance is part of the BJP Central leadership’s strategy of changing its image as a party of upper-caste groups. On April 6, the firebrand tribal leader C.K. Janu announced the formation of a new party of Adivasis, the Scheduled Castes and other marginalised sections, raising the hopes of the BJP, which was yet to finalise the list of candidates or formally inaugurate the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Kerala.

Janu announced after talks with BJP-BDJS leaders and despite protests from her colleagues in the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha that her new party, the Janathipatya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS), would be in the fray as an NDA ally if they could meet her demands. She also said, in that case, she would contest the election from Sulthan Bathery in Wayanad district (now held by the Congress) as an NDA Independent.

In the UDF, which finally announced its nearly full list by April 6, the Congress is contesting in 83 seats (one more than in 2006), while the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (M) have candidates in 24 and 15 seats respectively. Until the very end, the much-discredited Kerala Congress (Mani) group was arguing for one seat more but to no avail. The distribution of seats for the other parties in the seven-party alliance is as follows: Janata Dal (United) seven seats; RSP five seats; Kerala Congress (Jacob) two seats; and the CMP one seat. (A decision on three more seats, Kalliyasseri, Kanjangad and Payyannur, all Left strongholds, was yet to be announced at the time of filing this report.)

Even though they are now in an unlikely alliance in West Bengal, the Congress and the CPI(M), leading the ruling and opposition coalitions respectively, have a history of nasty rivalry in Kerala. Winning the Assembly elections this time is crucial for both parties, given the dearth of States where they have influence. As the campaign begins in earnest, the LDF too, with all its advantages as a strong opposition coalition, cannot afford to take it easy, even though all parties in the UDF (except the Muslim League, which announced its candidates before the elections were announced) have lost much ground in the early phase of the campaign. But with more than a month to make up, the main question in Kerala, where a large number of seats are decided on thin victory margins, is how far the new BJP-led third front’s share of votes will affect the prospects of the two established coalitions.

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