Assembly elections: Kerala

Uncertain state

Print edition : May 27, 2016

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy arrives in Aruvikkara near Thiruvananthapuram to campaign for his party candidate. The next day he filed his nomination papers at Puthuppally, which has elected only him since 1970. Photo: S. Gopakumar

CPI(M) veteran V.S. Achuthandandan campaigns in Dharmadam in Kannur district for party colleague Pinarayi Vijayan. Photo: S.K. MOHAN

Pinarayi Vijayan campaigns for V.S. Achuthanandan in Malampuzha constituency in Palakkad district. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

In Kerala, the ruling UDF and the opposition LDF realise that this round of election is like no other as the BJP seeks to break fresh ground with new allies.

PERHAPS one of the best campaign speeches in this round of Assembly elections in Kerala was made by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy at a nondescript junction in Aruvikkara, a rural constituency bordering Thiruvananthapuram, the night before he filed his nomination papers at Puthuppally, a constituency in central Kerala that has been electing him to the State Assembly continuously since 1970.

The Chief Minister had pointedly taken the detour to Aruvikkara to thank the people there “for giving the ruling UDF [United Democratic Front] its last morale-boosting byelection victory in 2015” and seek support once again for the young man whom they had elected then—K. Sabarinath, son of former Speaker G. Karthikeyan, a popular local MLA who died in office.

“How can I ever forget the voters of Aruvikkara? How can the UDF ever forget you? No amount of praise would be high enough for your political wisdom that ensured our victory in that byelection when an entire army of forces had hatched a conspiracy to bring the UDF to heel. Was it just a political battle? All the forces that were aggrieved at the government for closing down 730 liquor bars were here in that election. Do you know how powerful they are? They were people who faced a loss of income of over Rs.100 crore a day after the closure of the bars. Then there were the raising of those controversies, solar scandals, bar bribery allegations and what not. Forces determined not to let the UDF move forward an inch were at play in Aruvikkara in that byelection. But the voters of Aruvikkara ignored and defeated all of them. They made the two-line UDF campaign slogan—‘Grow it must, this State; Continue it must, this Government’—so deep-rooted in Kerala’s psyche,” he said.

The Chief Minister’s brief speech was littered with references to the development achievements of the UDF government, and he said that right from the beginning the opposition targeted him and demanded his resignation. “Now, at the end of our five-year term, when I seek your blessings once again, when they find that there is no public ill-will towards this government, they are once again resorting to false allegations. Now they say there are 31 cases against me. Although there are allegations against all UDF Ministers, the Leader of the Opposition V.S. Achuthanandan has shown me ‘mercy’ in this issue as well. He has made me the ‘chief minister’ in this respect too. But the truth is that there is not a single case against me. That is what I am going to declare before the Election Commission when I file my nomination papers tomorrow. If my declaration is wrong, my nomination will be rejected. They are raising baseless allegations because they have nothing else to say against the government. But our faith is in the thinking people of Kerala, who hear and know everything, and see through such games as the voters here at Aruvikkara did last year.”

The Chief Minister’s appeal was not the only one that set the tone of the stretched-out election campaign in Kerala. Right at the beginning, Achuthanandan of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) asked voters in the north Kerala constituency of Dharmadam in Kannur district to present a “proud victory” for the party’s former State secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan. The rivalry in the party between factions owing allegiance to the two leaders dominated Kerala politics in the past two decades and decided the fate of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in all elections held in the State during that period.

Two days before the Chief Minister’s speech at Aruvikkara, Kerala waited eagerly to see what Pinarayi Vijayan would say as he campaigned at Malampuzha in Palakkad district, where Achuthanadan is seeking another term. Pinarayi Vijayan said: “Malampuzha is a constituency that has stood strongly with the LDF forever. Many would like to try and do some kind of a miracle here. There is such a talk in some inner circles. But people take decisions on the basis of their experiences. There is no need to introduce V.S. Achuthanandan to the people of Malampuzha. They have accepted him like a member of their family. His activities have gained much acceptance among society.” There was also a note of caution at the end of the speech: “An election is a political battle. It has its own ethics and principles. In this battle there should be no laziness, negligence or overconfidence. It will all weaken our struggle. We should work without mistakes and present a bright victory for ‘V.S.’ by voting for the hammer and sickle symbol.”

It was a sign that the constituents of both the LDF, widely tipped as favourites to form the next government, and the UDF, the besieged ruling coalition, had recognised the lethal cost of inner-party fueds.

Rivalries put on hold

Within the Congress, the group rivalries that came to the fore during the selection of candidates have been effectively put to a halt by the party high command. In the LDF, the pre-election harmony, especially between the two top leaders of the CPI(M), has become its trump card, which is a dramatic change from the situation that had weakened the party’s, and the Front’s, prospects in earlier elections.

Both fronts know that this election is like no other in the past, when the two regularly got the chance to replace each other in government every five years. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has put an unusual focus on achieving a breakthrough this time in the State Assembly, where it has so far drawn a blank. At the behest of its central leadership and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), which is driving its campaign, the BJP has formed a motley coalition of forces that are subtly aiming to change its image as a party of just the upper caste segments in Kerala society.

On May 6, hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived to launch an unprecedented three-day campaign, BJP president Amit Shah told an election rally near Kochi that Kerala was not “electing” the UDF or the LDF in the past 50 years, but was “only voting out one to make way for the other”. In reply to Congress leader A.K. Antony’s statement asking the people to beware of the BJP’s “hidden agenda” as evident in the massive campaign involving even the Prime Minister, Amit Shah said the BJP had only an “open agenda” and “that is to throw the UDF and the LDF into the Indian Ocean”

BJP offensive

The “NDA-BJP alliance”, as it likes to describe itself in posters and hoardings, has fielded candidates of four partners, the newly formed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS, claiming its support from among the largest backward caste group in the State, the Ezhavas, which forms nearly a quarter of the State’s population), tribal leader C.K. Janu’s Janathipathya Rashtriya Sena (JRS), the Kerala Congress (P.C. Thomas group) and a splinter group of the Janathipathya Samrakshana Samiti (JSS).

By embracing this fresh card of inclusive caste politics, which the two established fronts have so far cleverly kept at a safe distance by accommodating caste interests within their own peculiar coalition set-ups, the BJP’s central leadership hopes to create an exclusive opportunity for the party in Kerala. “This time there is a third alternative. So far, both fronts played vote-bank politics and gave step-motherly treatment to the vast majority of people,” Amit Shah said.

The alliance has fielded candidates in all 140 seats, with the BJP itself contesting 97 seats, the BDJS 37, the Kerala Congress (Thomas) four and the JSS (Rajan Babu) and the JRS one each. The new president of the State BJP, Kummanam Rajasekharan, nominated directly by the party’s central leadership, declared that his party’s intention this time was “to win sufficient number of seats to rule Kerala”. Even his party members do not give credence to such a claim, though the BJP demonstrated its best all-round performance in Kerala in the local body elections held a few months ago ( Frontline, November 27, 2015).

In this election, if history is any guide, the party can only hope to increase its share of votes and perhaps win a seat (or two) at best, if all its plans go well. But to win anywhere in Kerala, even in constituencies such as Nemom or Manjeswaram, for example, where the party has come second in elections held in the past, the BJP would need the two established coalitions to play straight and not join hands to defeat it with an intent, as they are often accused of doing. The only other possibility, in the absence of sufficient breakthrough votes of its own, is for a BJP candidate to get support from an opposing camp in return for similar gestures in another constituency as part of what is often alleged as an “unholy alliance”.

There is, however, a reason why the BJP and its allies have caused the two established fronts some nervousness this time. The UDF and the LDF have obtained more or less an equal share of the votes in past elections, and the question of who will rule the State is often decided on the basis of a difference of one or two per cent, and by a small section of voters who remain uncommitted until the very end.

In the last Assembly elections, which saw the UDF coming to power by a thin majority, the margin of victory in eight constituencies was less than 1,000 votes; the LDF won in three of them and the UDF in the others. In 18 constituencies the margin was between 1,000 and 5,000 votes; and in 40 constituencies it was between 5,000 and 10,000 votes. Therefore, the question uppermost in the minds of poll pundits and commoners alike during the campaign this time is not about the possibility of BJP opening its account, but which of the two fronts will be affected the most by the increase in “spoiler votes” gained by the BJP and its new alliance.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP, contesting on its own, came first in the votes polled in four Assembly segments of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, including Nemom, Vattiyoorkavu, Kazhakkoottam and Thiruvananthapuram. (All four have more than 70 per cent Hindu population, with Nemom, where its veteran leader O. Rajagopal is contesting, having the highest share of 80 per cent Hindus.) It came second in three other Assembly segments—Parassala (in Thiruvananthapuram), and Manjeswaram and Kasargod (both in Kasargod district). In all these constituencies, and in other places such as Kattakkada, Chengannur, Aranmula, Manalur, Palakkad, Tripunithura and Mavelikkara, the BJP has made the fight extremely tricky for the ruling and opposition fronts, narrowing further that thin line between victory and defeat.

Similarly, in constituencies where the BDJS has fielded candidates, such as Kovalam, Kuttanad, Vaikom, Ettumanoor, Ranni, Udumbanchola, Kodungalloor and Kaipamangalam, the BJP-led alliance claims it can make or mar the prospects of prominent front candidates.

Traditional wisdom is that minority votes, in general, go in favour of the UDF (especially because of the presence of the Muslim League and the major Kerala Congress factions in it) and a large chunk (over 70 per cent) of Hindu votes are often polled in favour of the LDF. But with the BJP alliance seriously getting into the fray, this election could see the strengthening of the trend that was evident in the local body elections, where the minority vote seemed in general to favour the candidate who has the best chance of defeating the BJP in any given constituency. In many local body seats, this favoured the LDF, which also, unlike the UDF, succeeded in its efforts to check the BJP from eroding its traditional vote bank.

The LDF’s consistent and firm stand against the Hindutva agenda vis-a-vis the UDF has over the years gained a lot of admirers, especially among the minority communities in the State. The BJP/RSS’ untested claim, however, is that their alliance has the potential to win at least 18 seats in Kerala and offer a strong triangular fight in 69. The result of such well-publicised theories could be a possible secular/minority mood against it, and a section of the minority voters, traditional UDF supporters, may decide to vote in favour of Left candidates, except in places where there are Muslim League or Kerala Congress candidates. But with the recent spilt in the Kerala Congress (Mani), one section, named the Democratic Kerala Congress, has now joined the LDF and its candidates are fighting their former colleagues in many Christian stronghold constituencies.

Clearly, within the UDF, only candidates of the Muslim League are perhaps in a comparatively secure position, with the party’s continuing domination of the Muslim vote bank.

The BDJS factor

Hindus form about 56 per cent of the total population in Kerala, and Ezhavas, among them, are estimated to be about 27 per cent. The BJP’s alliance with the BDJS is aimed at drawing a a chunk of the traditional Left supporters from the Ezhava community to its side.

But surely, neither Vellappally Natesan, the guiding force behind the BDJS and general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, the social organisation of the Ezhava community established by the reformer-saint Sree Narayana Guru, nor his son Tushar Vellappally, the leader of the fledgling party, can claim the support of all the Ezhavas in the State, or of even all the members of the SNDP Yogam. Left leaders like Pinarayi Vijayan have insisted at every other campaign venue that the guru’s teachings about a casteless society are in sharp contrast to the very rationale behind the BJP-RSS-BDJS alliance.

But the BDJS’ possible strength is reportedly the network of nearly 1.5 lakh self-help groups that the SNDP Yogam launched at the initiative of Natesan in 2003 “for the economic and social development of Ezhavas”. But since then the movement has been mired in corruption scandals and its electoral power has remained a matter of speculation.

An interesting aspect of the campaign, as it entered its final days, is the allegation by all three fronts of secret deals by the other two in many constituencies to keep the BJP out or, in some constituencies, to help the BJP win in a few seats in return for keeping either the LDF or the UDF out, as the case may be. However, the campaign by LDF leaders in most constituencies seemed focussed equally against the BJP and the UDF. In contrast, at least in the initial stages, the State leaders of the Congress and other UDF partners seemed more absorbed in attacking the CPI(M) than the BJP. But with the BJP making allegations against Congress leaders in Parliament about the AgustaWestland helicopter deal, the focus of the UDF campaign too turned against the BJP, with A.K. Antony declaring emphatically that “the UDF’s aim is an Assembly without the BJP”.

Despite statements to the contrary by the BJP’s national leaders, the party’s campaign seemed targeted more against the LDF than the UDF. Clearly, many see the wisdom behind the BJP’s hopes to keep the LDF out of power for one more term, and its likely preference for a UDF seemingly weakened by serious allegations of corruption and scandals that threaten the fortunes of many of its prominent Ministers and MLAs in this election (See Frontline issues dated April 15 and April 29).

There are a lot of undercurrents this time that assume a strength of their own when seen from this perspective.

They include, for example, the eager crowds that gather to hear V.S. Achuthanandan and Oommen Chandy, perhaps more than other State leaders; reports about unprecedented flow of money into Kerala in the weeks preceding the election; the stand of a number of small parties, including rivals to the Muslim League, claiming the allegiance of the Muslim mind; the varied positions of the churches that often claim to speak for the 18 per cent Christians in the State; the proclaimed equidistance of the Nair Service Society (NSS), the social organisation of the other major Hindu caste group, the Nairs; the political travails of parties such as the Kerala Congress (Mani) and the RSP, which saw some of their prominent leaders joining the LDF on the eve of the campaign and being fielded against their own candidates in their strongholds; parties and persons left high and dry in the seat-sharing exercise; the presence of a lot many (mainly UDF) rebel candidates; the presence of an unusual number of actors, media personalities, independents, or individuals from other fields contesting as party candidates; and the strange cases of weak, unlikely UDF/LDF/BJP candidates contesting in constituencies supposedly witnessing prestigious three-cornered fights.

As this report went to press, the campaign had just entered its last 10 days, and several national leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, were about to campaign in the State, setting the final agenda for what is surely an election that defies easy prediction.