A red-wash in the South

Published : Jun 04, 2004 00:00 IST

in Thiruvananthapuram

KERALA is still smugly savouring the election verdict that it delivered on May 10. For the first time since Independence, not a single Congress(I) candidate was elected as its representative in the Lok Sabha. For the first time since 1952, Manjeri, one of the two Muslim League bastions in the State, voted in favour of a secular Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The State, which is yet to elect the Bharatiya Janata Party on its own to either the Assembly or the Lok Sabha, chose a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance candidate in one constituency and gave a nearly 30 per cent share of votes (the biggest so far) to a BJP candidate in another. Kerala also refused, for the first time, to endorse the appointment of a Minister by the ruling party, by choosing to defeat him in an Assembly byelection literally imposed on the electorate. Moreover, the State thwarted the dynastic ambitions of prominent politicians by delivering the `nay' vote to their children who were locked in prestigious fights in three constituencies.

Given the option of choosing either the Congress(I) and its ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) or the CPI(M) and its Opposition LDF as an alternative to the NDA, Kerala left no room for doubt that it preferred the Left rather than the Congress(I) as an anti-BJP secular alternative at the Centre. By doing so, it also seemed to favour the LDF's campaign against the neo-liberal economic policies of both the State and Central governments led by the Congress(I) and the BJP respectively. Irked and betrayed by the way the Congress party-led UDF had squandered the 100 (out of a total 140)-seat mandate that it got in the 2002 Assembly elections, by neglecting governance and indulging in a debilitating group war centred around the personal and dynastic ambitions of a handful of top party leaders and functionaries, Kerala voted against all the 17 Congress(I) candidates in the fray this time around.

Veteran Congress(I) dissident K. Karunakaran's son K. Muraleedharan, appointed Electricity Minister three months earlier as part of an election-eve ceasefire formula, lost to a relatively obscure CPI(M) candidate in the Wadakkancherry Assembly byelection. Karunakaran's daughter Padmaja Venugopal conceded defeat to former Minister and CPI(M) candidate Lonappan Nambadan by a whopping 1.17 lakh votes, over 51 per cent of votes polled in the Congress(I) stronghold Mukundapuram. Similarly, in Muvattupuzha, a UDF stronghold, veteran Kerala Congress(M) leader and Revenue Minister K.M. Mani suffered a humiliation when his son Jose K. Mani, the ruling UDF's candidate, was relegated to the third position. Union Minister of State for Law and NDA candidate P.C. Thomas notched the BJP-led alliance's first-ever significant victory in Kerala in Muvattupuzha by defeating his nearest rival, the CPI(M)'s P.M. Ismail, by a squeaky margin of 529 votes. Former Assembly Speaker V.M. Sudheeran in Alappuzha, former Union Minister Mullappally Ramachandran in Kannur, AICC(I) secretary Ramesh Chennithala in Mavelikkara, sitting Members of Parliament A.C. Jose in Thrissur, V.S. Sivakumar in Thiruvananthapuram and Kodikkunnil Suresh in Adoor, all Congress(I) candidates, lost to CPI(M) or CPI candidates.

The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent in the ruling UDF, which has never lost a Lok Sabha election in its two north Kerala strongholds of Ponnani and Manjeri, also got the shock of its life when the predominantly Muslim Manjeri chose a CPI(M) candidate, T.K. Hamsa. Manjeri was the icing on the cake for the LDF. Along with neighbouring Ponnani, this Lok Sabha constituency had been claimed as a stronghold of the IUML. The LDF stormed the green citadel through impressive tactical electoral positioning. A group of Sunni Muslims openly declared its support for the CPI(M) candidate, and so did the People's Democratic Party (PDP) of Abdul Nasser Mahdani, the Indian National League (INL) of former Muslim league president Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, and some extremist groups such as the National Democratic Front (NDF). The results indicate that the CPI(M) candidate would have won the votes of Congress workers too, who are clearly frustrated at the continuing domination of the Muslim League in the region. The CPI(M) also benefited from the support of traditional IUML workers who are resentful about several recent decisions, if not the increasingly pro-rich orientation, of the Muslim League leadership.

Compared to the results in the 1999 elections, among the constituencies that switched sides to the LDF were Thiruvananthapuram, Adoor, Mavelikkara and Alappuzha in south Kerala, Ernakulam, Mukundapuram and Thrissur in central Kerala and Manjeri and Kozhikode in the north. The LDF won an unprecedented 18 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats, most of them with margins of over 50,000 votes. The CPI(M) won all the 13 seats it contested, eight of them with high margins of between 60,000 and 1.2 lakh votes. Its ally, the Communist Party of India, won three of the four seats it contested. Victorious CPI candidates included former Chief Minister P.K. Vasudevan Nair, who won with 37.45 per cent of the votes polled in a tough three-cornered fight in the capital Thiruvananthapuram against the Congress(I)'s Sivakumar (30.39 per cent of the votes) and the BJP candidate, Union Minister of State O. Rajagopal (who won nearly 2.28 lakh votes, a never-before 29.86 per cent in any constituency in Kerala by the BJP).

The other notable victory for the CPI was in Thrissur where former M.P. and Member of the Legislative Assembly C.K. Chandrappan defeated the 1999 winner, the Congress(I)'s A.C.Jose, by 45,961 votes. The Kerala Congress (Joseph), another LDF partner, retained its seat in the hilly Idukki constituency. In Kozhikode, former Union Minister and Janata Dal-Secular State president M.P. Veerendra Kumar defeated V. Balaram (the MLA who vacated the Wadakkancherry Assembly seat for Muraleedharan) by 65,376 votes. The UDF's only victory was in Ponnani, where Muslim League leader E. Ahmed won with a margin of 1.02 lakh votes, nearly 27,000 fewer than the League's victory margin in 1999.

Significantly, (from preliminary figures) the ruling UDF's vote share dropped nearly eight percentage points and the Congress(I) lost over 12 lakh votes, when seen in the light of the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. In contrast, the LDF's vote share increased only by about 2.5 percentage points. The NDA gained nearly 5.5 percentage points in its vote share. The BJP has continued to exhibit the trend of incremental increase in its vote share in Kerala, winning over 18.23 lakh votes in the State and coming first in the previously UDF-held Assembly strongholds of Thiruvananthapuram East, Thiruvananthapuram North, Pala and Kanjirappally and the LDF-held Poonjar constituency in Muvattupuzha. O. Rajagopal won over 70,000 votes more than he did in 1999 in Thiruvananthapuram and lost to the second place Congress(I) candidate by just 3,402 votes. The BJP also won over 1.47 lakh votes in Palakkad (87,948 in 1999) or 18.05 per cent of the votes polled, registering the third highest tally for the party in 2004. In 1999, the UDF had won 11 and the LDF nine Lok Sabha seats. A gauge of the UDF's fall from the people's grace in a short span of nearly three years is that of the 140 Assembly segments within the 20 Lok Sabha seats, LDF candidates won the highest number of votes in 111; the UDF was ahead only in 24 seats; and, for the first time, the BJP-led NDA came first in five Assembly segments of Thiruvananthapuram and Muvattupuzha Lok Sabha constituency. In the Assembly segments now held by 14 (of the total 20) State Ministers, including Chertala, Chief Minister A.K. Antony's constituency, UDF candidates failed to win. Only one of the nine Assembly constituencies now held by Congress Ministers stayed with the UDF this time.

Verdict 2004 in Kerala, which pooh-poohed the election-eve compromise camaraderie in the State Congress(I) between Antony and Karunakaran and his children and their warring supporters and detractors, is a lesson well-taught. But more than the disgust at the unending `group' tamasha within the Congress(I), the election results reflected the anger of Kerala voters at the near-paralysis of the State administration because of it, and the belying of the rosy promises that the Antony-led coalition had extended to the people in the days before the 1999 elections.

As they faced one of the worst droughts in the State's history in the months before the elections, and the government failed miserably to extend help except immediately before the polls, the full impact of the half-baked neo-liberal policies implemented by the Congress(I)-led government too had hit the voters. Added to this, was the clear drifting away of the substantial Christian and Muslim minority voters for various reasons ( Frontline, May 21).

Alongside, the changing contours of communal, caste and religious equations and the dilemma of the minority communities following the slow spread of the saffron coalition in the State combined to make the emphatically pro-Left verdict in Kerala not such a surprising out-of-the-box one.

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