Kerala elections

Thumping victory

Print edition : November 27, 2015

An LDF victory parade in the Kottayam municipal area. Photo: By Special Arrangement

BJP and LDF activists in a road show during the final phase of campaigning in Palakkad on November 3. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Photo: K.K. Najeeb

Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan addressing an election campaign meeting in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo: S. MAHINSHA

The Left Democratic Front romps home in the Kerala local body elections under a united leadership, running a successful campaign against a discredited UDF and a desperate BJP, which made hollow attempts at playing caste politics.

The results of the local body elections in Kerala have turned out to be a delight for the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) and a shock for the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress party, coming towards the tail end of its term, after it had consistently been the biggest winner in all elections held in Kerala since 2009.

There has been some consolation for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose long and desperate attempts to break the stranglehold of the two prominent political coalitions in the State finally resulted in some decent electoral gains at the local level.

The UDF was shaken by the outcome, as the elections held on November 2 and 5 were being described by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy as a referendum on his government. On the contrary, the elections paved the way for the emphatic return to dominance of the LDF at the grass-roots level. The LDF won 546 of the 941 grama panchayats and 89 of the 152 block panchayats, while the UDF won 367 grama panchayats and 62 block panchayats, according to preliminary results announced on November 7.

The results in the 14 district panchayats, 87 municipalities and six corporations were more even. The LDF won 44 of the 87 municipalities, seven of the 14 district panchayats and two of the six corporations, while the UDF bagged 41 municipalities, seven district panchayats and two corporations. In Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur corporations, neither front could gain a majority.

It was a clear reversal of fortunes for the two fronts from the previous elections in 2010, when the UDF won 540 of 978 grama panchayats then, 92 of 152 block panchayats, 39 of 60 municipalities, eight of 14 district panchayats and two of five corporations. The LDF had bagged 322 grama panchayats, 56 block panchayats, 21 municipalities, six district panchayats and three corporations then.

The victory has boosted the morale of the LDF, which, following its defeat in the Assembly elections in 2011 by a thin margin, had lost all three byelections held since 2011 and failed to win majority of seats in the Lok Sabha elections held last year.

The victory in the local body elections, coming just a few months before the Assembly elections, is a badly needed shot in the arm for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), and the lean coalition it leads. There was no outward sign of the factional feud that has been the bane of the party for over two decades and had affected the LDF’s prospects in all recent elections. The LDF approached the electorate under a united leadership, in sharp contrast to the UDF.

The LDF initially approached the elections with some serious concern over the newly forged alliance of the BJP with the leadership of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a social organisation of the prominent Ezhava community that has traditionally supported the LDF. But serious questions raised by the LDF leaders led by Opposition Leader V.S. Achuthanandan about the credibility of such an alliance soon cast a shadow on what was the BJP’s trump card, and allegations of personal ambition, of corruption in the affairs of a microfinance movement launched by the SNDP Yogam, and even of the murder of a prominent sanyasin were used in the LDF’s successful counter campaign aimed at exposing the hollowness of such an alliance.

Also, a Vigilance Court direction for further inquiry into serious allegations of corruption against Kerala Congress (M) leader and Finance Minister K.M. Mani in the sanctioning of liquor bars in the State, issued a few days before the elections, came as a windfall for the LDF. It was thus a discredited UDF, already tainted by corruption charges and scandals, that finally found itself facing a crucial election with a lot of disaffection in its ranks over candidate selection, troubles over seat sharing among coalition partners, and a widespread rebel menace that spoiled the chances of its candidates in many districts.

The LDF was a picture of unity and faced the electorate with much more confidence than on previous occasions. The upshot of this election, the performance of the BJP, its best ever at the local level in the State, must be gauged against the backdrop of its previous meagre presence and the brute hold that the two fronts continue to have on Kerala.

In 2010, the BJP won just three grama panchayats in Kasargod district and became the single largest party in the Palakkad municipal council, apart from winning a few panchayat and municipal wards, including six seats in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation council.

This time, however, it has 51 corporation councillors and was victorious in 236 municipal, 931 grama panchayat, 21 block panchayat and three district panchayat wards. It also won a majority in 15 grama panchayats and became the second biggest force in three municipalities —Thodupuzha and Tripunithura in central Kerala and Tanur in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district. The party’s best performance came in Thiruvananthapuram corporation, where it surprised even its own leaders by winning 34 of the 100 seats and pushed the UDF coalition (with 24 seats) to third place. The LDF, which had been ruling the council, won 42 seats, nine short of a majority. The BJP also opened its account in all corporations except Kannur, winning seven seats in Kozhikode, six in Thrissur and two seats each in Kollam and Kochi, and emerged as the single largest party in Palakkad municipality by winning 24 of the 52 seats.

The BJP’s performance and rise in confidence is being keenly watched, with Achuthanandan describing it as the result of the UDF’s soft attitude towards the party’s blatantly communal agenda.

At a press conference soon after the announcement of the results, he said that the outcome was proof that only the LDF could effectively counter the BJP’s communal and fascist politics. According to an estimate during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, nearly 57 per cent of the voters in Kerala are Hindus, with about 24 per cent belonging to the backward Ezhava community, about 16 per cent to the Nair community, about 10 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the rest belonging to other communities.

The State also has sizeable Christian and Muslim populations, with the former constituting nearly 18 per cent and the latter accounting for roughly 25 per cent of the total voters. The political importance of such sizeable minority populations, each with its own separate geographic domains, can also be gleaned from the fact that Christians account for 14 per cent to 37 per cent of the population in 10 of the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies, while Muslims account for 15 per cent to 63 per cent of the population in the other 10. Hence, the enduring significance of the various Kerala Congress parties (representing Christian interests) and the Muslim League and other new claimants to the Muslim mind, in the peculiar scheme of “secular” politics in Kerala.

It was well known that the BJP’s only route to gaining influence in Kerala politics, especially as a late entrant, lies in bringing together the diverse Hindu communities, whose individual dalliance with politics in the past almost always ended in failure. But each of the prominent communities today has its own politically influential social organisation, which aligns with either of the two coalitions as the occasion demands. However, it is also true that these Hindu caste/social organisations could never claim the support or loyalty of all their community members, with a majority of the members taking independent political positions, in favour of the LDF or the UDF, irrespective of community affiliations. It is to the credit of the general secular culture of Kerala that this has been true regarding a large section of people belonging to the minority communities as well. In the case of the Ezhavas, over 80 per cent of the community’s members have traditionally been political supporters of the Left .

Ever since the Modi government came to power, the BJP’s national leadership has been making efforts to bring together the backward communities and the caste Hindu groups on a single saffron platform. These moves culminated a few months before the local body elections in the announcement of an imminent alliance with the SNDP Yogam leadership’s proposed new party.

But such crafty attempts at “social engineering” for political gains, which may easily succeed in States where caste is the main platform of political mobilisation, can have unexpected consequences in a State like Kerala, where the communist movement has deep roots and secular consciousness in society is very high.

The BJP, which has so far remained on the margins of electoral politics in the State, has certainly managed to gain some attention in this election. It has extended the nature and scope of its solo challenge from a few pockets in some districts to most corners of the State and reaped some rewards, not because it presents a credible political alternative but because it made deft use of the weaknesses of the two fronts.

It is easy to read too much into the BJP’s rise from a political nonentity to a party that wins some seats in the local body elections. But Kerala’s real response to the present atmosphere of intolerance and hatred has, significantly, been the unambiguous mandate it has given in favour of the LDF after a long gap of six years, which has consistently posed a stiff challenge to the BJP’s divisive national agenda.

In hindsight, the lack of effective response from UDF leaders to the challenge posed by the BJP-SNDP alliance hurt the front much more than the scandals and allegations of corruption against its Ministers all through the campaign.

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