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Print edition : April 15, 2016

Chief Minister Oomen Chandy flanked by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala (right) and Kerala Congress chief K.M. Mani during an UDF election convention in Ernakulam on March 8. Photo: PTI

BJP state President Kummanam Rajashekharan (left) with BDJS President Tushar Vellappally in Kozhikode on March 15. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and other party leaders at the concluding ceremony of Nava Kerala March led by Polit Bureau member Pinarayi Vijayan, in Thiruvananthapuram on February 15. Photo: PTI

In the face of a string of anti-incumbency factors and allegations of large-scale corruption, the United Democratic Front’s ambition of coming back to power in Kerala is not easy to achieve.

EVER since the United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power in Kerala on a thin majority in 2011, it has been the practice of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy to declare every election about to be held in the State as a referendum on his government. Even at the worst of times, when the Congress-led coalition government was being overwhelmed by crises and scandals, the Chief Minister would say boldly that if the verdict went against the ruling Front, the responsibility for it would rest on him first and foremost.

But now, as political parties get ready for the election to the State Assembly on May 16, the Chief Minister’s statements have acquired a defensive, aggrieved tone. Of late, he presents himself rather as a victim of a witch-hunt in which the opposition had tried to run him down brutally, at times preventing him from entering the Secretariat, leaving his residence or meeting people and, on one occasion, attacking and injuring him physically. He describes the opposition’s move as “the nastiest campaign ever in history against a State Chief Minister” and accuses his opponents of “hitting below the belt” by unfairly including his family members too in their politically motivated allegations.

The complaints are not entirely without merit. As the UDF government got embroiled in controversies and corruption allegations, especially in the last one year, the opposition attacks against the Chief Minister turned extremely harsh. Regardless of the earlier impression that his government would not last long, what with just 72 MLAs (initially) in a House of 140 members, the coalition he led emerged triumphant in all the elections held in Kerala in the first four and a half years of its rule. It won all three byelections to the Assembly, including the recent one held at Aruvikkara in June 2015, and managed to gain the largest share of seats in the Lok Sabha election in 2014.

In part, the UDF’s dream run was a result of the political dexterity and skill with which Oommen Chandy, a master tactician, handled the crises that besieged his party and the government. Yet, throughout this period, significantly, the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) was in disarray. The two-decade-long factionalism within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the State, which leads the alliance, was still simmering, with the majority in the State party led by former secretary Pinarayi Vijayan on one side and a minority led by Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan, with his popular image as a crusader politician, on the other.

No doubt, therefore, buoyed by the successive electoral victories it won irrespective of the many drawbacks of its government, the UDF had been nourishing the hope of being re-elected for a second consecutive term in the State Assembly in 2016. (Only once in history, in 1977, has a government been re-elected in Kerala.) During the November 2015 elections to the local bodies, the UDF even began asking the people of Kerala to vote for “development” and “continuity”.

Local body elections

But the results belied such misplaced confidence. After a gap of nearly six years, the LDF won its first decisive victory, gaining 58.08 per cent of the total seats in the three-tier local body institutions; the UDF got only 39.42 per cent of the seats and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a meagre 1.25 per cent. With this share, the LDF now rules in 551 of the 941 gram panchayats, 90 of the 152 block panchayats, seven of the 14 district panchayats, 45 of the 87 municipalities and four of the six corporations. The UDF runs only 362 gram panchayats, 61 block panchayats, seven district panchayats, 40 municipalities and two corporations.

Two reasons stood apart, among several others that saw the UDF finally losing an election in the State towards the fag end of its government’s term. One, after a long gap, the CPI(M), with new leaderships at the national and State levels, managed to fight the election unitedly, surprising its opponents and without there being any outward sign of the factional feud that had been the bane of the party and the LDF for several years. Two, for the first time, the BJP too had entered the fray in a big way, posing itself as a third force in a State which had so far remained politically bipolar, shifting its preferences only between the two Fronts led by the CPI(M) and the Congress.

Reflecting the BJP’s ambitions, there was a threefold increase in the number of seats contested by it in the local body elections this time and it gathered 13.28 per cent of the total votes polled (though much below its target), with the help of a carefully calibrated strategy that had been in the making ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power at the Centre.

As part of it, in the months that followed, and at the initiative of BJP president Amit Shah and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the party had held discussions with leaders of several community organisations. Amit Shah made several visits to Kerala. The Prime Minister himself addressed rallies tailor-made for facilitating possible alliances with several backward caste organisations. In the end, it got 13.28 per cent of the votes in the first State-wide elections after its targets were set. It won only 14 gram panchayats and a municipality, but gained a fairly decent number of seats in many other local bodies, especially in the urban areas of the State.

As Kerala gets ready for the next Assembly election, the two factors that led to the fall of the UDF in the panchayat elections—the unity in the CPI(M) and the LDF in general, and the attempts by the BJP to gain critical mass in the State—have become more prominent. At the same time, anti-incumbency factors and instances of corruption and other scandals that the UDF had cleverly managed to sidestep away from during many previous elections have come to the fore.

Within the CPI(M), the intervention of its central leadership has ensured that both Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan would contest this time, thus avoiding a conflict that would have otherwise affected the LDF’s prospects seriously. However, it was not immediately made clear who among the two would lead the election campaign or its MLAs eventually in the State Assembly. This strategy has ensured that, unlike in the past, the CPI(M) would present itself as a more cohesive force, and not a party vehemently fighting itself even as it engages with its opponents. Though it still leaves the door open for renewed inner-party struggles once the elections are over, the unity forged for now has come as a big relief for the opposition coalition as a whole and as a source of alarm for its political opponents.

Social composition

The Kerala unit of the BJP too is a divided house that is sought to be put in order with the appointment of Kummanam Rajasekharan (an RSS pracharak closely associated with the Hindu Aikya Vedi and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad) as the State president. The party’s electoral strategy is dictated mostly by the social composition in Kerala, a State with a sizeable minority population, with Muslims accounting for 25 per cent and Christians for nearly 18 per cent of the total population. Nearly 57 per cent of the population are Hindus and, according to a rough recent estimate, about 24 per cent belong to the Ezhava community, about 16 per cent to the Nair community and about 10 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes; and others form the rest.

Minority communities form a significant chunk of the voters in any constituency in Kerala and a large share of the minority votes are often claimed by well-established political parties such as the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress groups (constituents mostly of the UDF). But Kerala in general has always had a secular mind.

The Hindu vote has remained divided, for example, with the CPI(M) and the Congress being the two major claimants to it. In addition, there are several politically influential community organisations, which shift their loyalty from one front to the other depending on what their leaders perceive to be a community’s changing needs.

The majority of members of these communities, however, have independent political preferences and do not vote according to the dictates of the community leadership. It is such a situation that often restricts parties such as the BJP from gaining much ground in the State.

Last year, however, the BJP succeeded in forming a tentative alliance with the leadership of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, an organisation of the Ezhavas, the largest Other Backward Classes (OBC) group in the State whose members have been traditional supporters of the CPI(M) and the Left Front. At the same time, the BJP was rebuffed by the leadership of the Nair Service Society (NSS).

It is a moot point whether the alliance forged with the SNDP Yogam general secretary Vellappally Natesan had the support of all SNDP Yogam members or if at all it helped the BJP win more votes in the two crucial elections held in 2015: the Aruvikkara byelection in June and the local body elections in November.

However, with former Union Minister O. Rajagopal as its candidate in Aruvikkara, the party could increase its tally more than fourfold vis-a-vis its share in 2011—even though it still only came third there, after the UDF and the LDF. In the local bodies, it won 13.28 per cent of the votes as against the 6.2 per cent of votes it got in 2010.

Since then, Natesan and his politically ambitious son, Tushar Vellappally, have been thoroughly discredited, with demands being raised by Achuthanandan for a vigilance inquiry into their alleged involvement in a microfinance scam run by the SNDP Yogam.

With protests also rising against the “politicisation of the SNDP Yogam for personal gains”, after much hesitation, they have floated a new political party, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), ostensibly representing backward class interests. The new party, made up of followers mostly from the SNDP Yogam, and an assorted bunch of smaller caste and community groups, is now a part of the BJP’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Kerala, along with about five other small groups.

Leaders of both the LDF and the UDF have said that they do not take the increase in the share of votes of the BJP in the recent elections lightly, even though the party’s ability to win a seat in the Assembly still remains a matter of speculation.

BJP presence

But the BJP has the potential to play the spoiler in many Assembly constituencies. For the Congress and especially the CPI(M), the results of the 2016 Assembly election in Kerala would be a crucial factor deciding their very relevance and survival at the national level. The increasing involvement of the BJP in the electoral arena in Kerala does not allow the two established political fronts any room for complacency.

For example, the UDF leadership’s casual reading that the rise of the BJP, along with its alliance with the SNDP/BDJS, would only drain away the votes of the LDF has been proved wrong in the last two elections. In fact, the BJP’s presence affected the UDF more, as it led to secular voters, among them traditional minority supporters of the UDF, turning more towards the Left Front.

If the results of the panchayat elections are an indication, the UDF’s ambition of coming back to power does not seem to be an easy proposition. But the LDF too cannot take victory for granted, because the difference between the vote share of the two fronts has been very small in several constituencies in Kerala, and, this time, the BJP is unusually focussed on gaining a foothold in the Assembly. The BJP’s performance can therefore affect the prospects of both the Fronts, even though the LDF then stands a better chance of bringing about a consolidation of secular votes in its favour—that is if it puts its act together.

As this report went to the press, the three fronts were still engaged in their seat-sharing and candidate-selection processes. The ruling front’s trump card in this election, a list of development initiatives (a number of them inaugurated only in the past few months), is increasingly being eclipsed by a string of anti-incumbency factors and allegations of large-scale corruption, especially in the solar, bar bribery and land grab scandals. Moreover, the Congress was on the brink of a subdued factional war over many of these issues, including the selection of candidates.

The LDF appears to be a more unified and motivated force this time, and, at least initially, there has been no sign of factional feuds dominating the CPI(M)’s candidate-selection process.

The NDA is set to field candidates in all 140 constituencies of the State, with 37 seats set apart for the BDJS. But BJP leaders say the party’s special focus is on 20 select Assembly constituencies, especially in districts such as Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod where it has decided to field its most prominent State leaders.