Verdict 2016

The Voters' Dilemma in Kerala

A boy displaying special umbrellas with party flags and carrying election symbols at a shop in Palakkad on April 19, 2016. Photo: K. K. Mustafah.

KERALA, PALAKKAD, 19/04/2016. A boy displaying special umbrellas coloured with colours inimical to party flags and carrying election symbols at shop in Palakkad on Tuseday. While the campaigning works as part of Kerala assembly elections are picking up momentum, where election campaign materials are displayed in shops for bulk purchase by political formations with different ideological background. the demand for materials is getting a steady increase. Photo: K. K. Mustafah. -   -  The Hindu

The 2016 Assembly election is crucial for the three fronts in Kerala. While the United Democratic Front (UDF) is making all efforts to continue in power, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is engaged in a critical battle to wrest power from UDF, and the Bharatiya Janata Party/National Democratic Alliance is struggling hard to open its account in the State Assembly. In view of the intensity of the contest, even a minor swing from either the UDF or the LDF would decide the outcome in Kerala in 2016, writes K.V. Thomas.

Kerala is going to polls on May 16, 2016, to elect members of 140 Assembly constituencies. Over 2.56 crore voters, including 6.18 lakhs new voters in the age group 18-21 years, are eligible to exercise their franchise. Female voters (1,33,01,435) outnumber male voters (1,23,26,185) 1 .

Over three dozen parties – national, regional/state level and splinter groups – mainly under the banner of Indian National Congress (INC)-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M) headed Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)- led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are in the fray. With the entry of the NDA, the bipolar contest between UDF and LDF, which the State has been witnessing during the last six decades, has come to an end. Riding high on the wave of the sterling performance of BJP/NDA during 2014 Lok Sabha (LS) polls, the BJP is striving hard to open its account in the State Assembly. However, obviously the contest is mainly between the INC and the CPM-led fronts.

The above fronts are contesting all the 140 seats. The seat-sharing among the constituent parties is as follows:

Dissent within the INC

Confronted by inter- and intra-party differences, seat-sharing and finalisation of candidates was a serious challenge common to the three fronts. This was more glaring in the UDF camp in which the INC, scarred by group rivalries and intransigence of senior leaders on fixing the criteria of candidates for contesting the polls, had to hold marathon discussions to settle the issue. The main controversy was due to the divergent stand taken by Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president and Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, on the inclusion of Ministers and Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) facing allegations of corruption and scandals, in the list of contestants. Finally, the party president, Sonia Gandhi, had to intervene to end the deadlock. Conceding to the stubborn stand of the CM, controversial Ministers and MLAs found place in the party’s candidate list.

However, the list approved by the party high command created dissent and resentment in the party’s front organisations such as the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), the Mahila Congress, the Youth Congress, and other similar bodies, paving the way for further changes in more than half-a-dozen seats, leading to the emergence of rebel candidates in such constituencies. Meanwhile, small parties in the front publicly aired their differences on the number of seats allotted to them as well as their ‘winnability’. To pacify a minor partner like the Janata Dal United (JD/U) which has been threatening to return to LDF which it had left in 2009, the INC was forced to allot one vacant Rajya Sabha (RS) seat to the party’s chief in Kerala. Similarly, the chairman of the Kerala Congress (KC - Jacob), who walked out of the UDF on being denied a party-ticket in a particular constituency, was mollified by accommodating him as the secretary of the UDF. Such pre-electioneering developments have considerably eclipsed the image of UDF.

Factionalism mars the field for the LDF

For the LDF, the main challenge was the factionalism in the CPI-M and the divergent stand taken by the State and central leaderships on the candidature of the octogenarian leader, V.S.Achuthanandan. The timely intervention of the party’s general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, defused the crisis. Yechury’s formula that both Achuthanandan and the state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, should contest the polls and the question of who becomes the Chief Minister would be decided later, was acceptable to the bulk of the rank and file of the party. Moreover, a majority of the alliance partners were keen on Achuthananthan contesting the polls as they felt that his presence would further boost the chances of LDF.

The LDF also faced difficulties to cobble together small parties in the front, which came up with tall claims and demands. Denied of any seat, the Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) led by veteran Communist leader, K.R.Gowriamma, which recently joined the LDF camp, declared that it would work against LDF. Meanwhile, the NDA tried to woo her to their camp, but ultimately the LDF succesfully pacified her. Similarly, leaders from small parties such as the Kerala Congress (Skaria) have joined the UDF camp after they did not get seats to contest under the LDF. However, the LDF, to a great extent could control such damages through tactical moves.

Social re-engineering by the BJP

The situation was not different in the NDA camp. Plagued with leadership issue, the State BJP has been, for long, under considerable stress and strain. Meanwhile, the RSS with its well organised grass-roots level set-up of over 4,500 s hakhas according to reliable inteligence reports, has been exerting pressure over the central leadership to set right the party in Kerala on Hindutva lines. The result was the appointment of Kummanam Rajasekharan, a Hindutva protagonist as the new Kerala chief of the BJP. The differences simmering within the party have now considerably come down: Kummanam, who is seen as one without any aggressive personal agenda or ambition, has been accepted by different factions for now ,and the party has started a serious exercise to broaden its mass base by attracting like-minded parties and groups.

When its strategy to establish rapport with Nair Service Society (NSS) – a body of caste Hindus – apparently failed, its next priority was to woo the Sree Narayana Dharma ParipalanaYogam (SNDP), a social organisation of backward Ezhava caste. After many rounds of negotiations and parleys with central BJP leaders including the party president, Amit Shah, the SNDP agreed to extend support to the BJP. However, confusion continued in SNDP on the question of forming a political party and entering into an alliance with the BJP. After weeks of hesitation, a new party, Bharath Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS) was floated. It has now become the major alliance partner of BJP contesting in 37 constituencies.

Similar confusion existed on the question of C.K. Janu’s entry into the BJP camp. Janu, a prominent woman Adivasi leader of Kerala, who launched a series of historic struggles on issues like restoration of alienated tribal land, had reservations to publicly identify with the BJP, particularly given her association with a number of progressive anti-fascist bodies/fora. Therefore, she too floated a new party the ‘Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha’ which has become a partner of BJP-led front. In short, the process of ‘social re-engineering’ initiated by the BJP to make inroads into those communities or groups hitherto dominated by Congress, CPM or other regional parties could not meet with any major success in Kerala.

Religion and caste continue to be deciders

Though Kerala has almost 100 per cent literacy rate and the highest Human Development Index (HDI) in India, religion and caste play a decisive role in the electoral politics. Fully aware of this reality, the political parties chalk out their strategy and tactics to keep various religious/caste groups in good humour.

According to the demographic profile 2 of the State, around 55 per cent of the population are Hindus, followed by Muslims – 27 per cent and Christians – 18 per cent. Among Hindus, the backward Ezhava caste, constitutes around 23 per cent, Nairs [who do not enjoy the benefits of reservation] – 14 per cent, upper caste Brahmins and others – three per cent, Scheduled Castes – 10 per cent and Scheduled Tribes – one per cent.

The UDF draws its support mainly from Christians, Muslims, upper castes and sections of Dalits and Adivasis, of which support from Christians and Muslims was crucial for its victory in the polls. In fact, such support especially from Muslim-dominated Malappuram district and Central Travancore districts led to a wafer-thin majority for the UDF in the 2011 polls. There is no noticeable erosion in the support of Muslims to UDF, thanks to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Muslim appeasement policies by the UDF government. In the case of support from the Christians, however, things are not as rosy for the UDF as it is from the Muslims.

The formation of Janadhipathya Kerala Congress, which enjoys the blessings of a section of Catholic Church hierarchy, has taken a sizeable chunk of voters of this community away from UDF camp. Aggrieved over the omissions and commissions of the UDF government on various issues, other Christian denominations such as Latin, Orthodox, and Marthoma, and others, do not extend as much support to UDF as in the 2011 election. Similarly, there is marginal erosion in the support for the Congress/UDF among upper caste Hindus, especially against the backdrop of the organised campaigns by the BJP to placate them to their camp.

In the case of the LDF, their traditional vote banks constitute backward caste Ezhavas, Dalits and sections of Christians and Nairs and progressive bodies among Muslims. The formation of BDJS and its tie-up with the BJP poses a serious challenge to CPI-M/LDF in retaining their influence among Ezhavas. The CPI-M cadres working among the members of the community are optimistic that ideologically committed Ezhava supporters would not desert the LDF/CPI-M in this crucial electoral battle. On the other hand, the LDF anticipates a clear shift of minorities from UDF to LDF in view of the apprehensions of the BJP’s rise in Kerala and anti-incumbency factors. Such a marginal shift of Dalits and adivasis in favour of LDF is expected.

The BJP/NDA, no doubt, could make inroads into upper castes, sections of backward Ezhavas, Dalits and adivasis through their orchestrated campaign focussing on the minority appeasement policies of the UDF and LDF. Its tie-up with SNDP/BDJS - socio-political formations of backward Ezhava caste - would help the alliance to improve its support base especially in Alappuzha, Kollam, Pathanamthitta and Thirivananthapuram districts. Dalits and Adivasis are the other two demographic groups systematically targeted by BJP/NDA.

Generally, the caste/community base of political parties or the fronts had a considerable sway in deciding the outcome of Assembly and LS polls in Kerala. However, there were exceptions as manifest during 1991Assembly polls when the sympathy-wave created due to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi eclipsed all such equations and gave a decisive mandate in favour of Congress/UDF, upsetting all pre-poll assessment in favour of the LDF. Similarly, in the 2006 Assembly polls, the citadels of IUML in Malappuram district fortified by the Muslim vote-bank were battered and senior party stalwarts were defeated in the aftermath of Ice-cream Sex Scandal in which a senior IUML leader was involved. However, such mass-psyche was short-lived, as all the defeated leaders who successfully played the community card were re-elected with thumping margins in 2011 Assembly polls.

Rocked by scandals

Over that last three years, there were series of allegations of corruption, malpractices, scams and sexual scandals against half a dozen ministers including the Chief Minister and a number of UDF MLAs. The Bar Licences Bribery case, solar scam, Pattoor land case and civil supplies’ corruption are a few of such scandals that rocked the State. The bar bribery case cost Finance Minister K.M. Mani his job, while another Congress Minister suo motu stepped down but withdrew resignation under pressure.

The solar scam engulfed many ministers and numerous UDF MLAs because of the repeated disclosures made by Saritha Nair, one of the key accused of ‘Team Solar’ (a venture started by Biju Radhakrishnan and Saritha) which cheated the public in the name of supplying solar panels. The worst of it all were the numerous decisions 3 taken by the cabinet in the fag-end of their tenure helping big plantations, real estate lobbies, and big businesses by way of transferring land/estates or sanctioning projects in contravention of the provisions of Kerala Land Reforms Act, Kerala Conservation of Paddy field and Wetland Act.

These decisions that invited severe criticism by section of Congress leaders including the KPCC president, considerably tarnished the image of UDF. Though some of the decisions were subsequently reversed, the hangover of the controversy still remains alive among large sections of uncommitted voters. Similarly, the overt and covert means and methods adopted by UDF to come out of such controversies and scams by scuttling the due process of law by influencing august institutions such as bureaucracy, law enforcement or even judiciary have not been appreciated by the large segments of right-thinking people.

The attempt of the UDF camp is to camouflage the scams and scandals by using the slogan of development. ‘Let Kerala grow, let this government continue’ is the poll slogan coined by UDF. No doubt, on the development front the UDF could justifiably claim credit for significant contributions especially in the infrastructure sector. For example, Kerala’s gross state domestic product was higher than the national average during the last three financial years. A number of ambitious projects such as Smart city, Kochi Metro, Kannur Airport, Vizhimjam International transhipment terminal, and IT parks, to name a few, could show partial progress during the last five years. Yet, the voters do not seem to overlook the reality that these projects were initiated by the previous governments.

In the social sector, though the UDF attempts to take the credit for enforcing total prohibition, a large segment of voters take this with a pinch of salt in view of the differences that cropped up among senior INC leaders before arriving at the decision. Moreover, the bar bribery case has created genuine doubts in the minds of people, on its actual intentions more on political lines than the overall welfare of the masses. Above all, liquor consumption in the State has not noticeably declined in view of the presence of the outlets of the State-owned Beverages Corporation in every nook and corner of Kerala.

Moreover, the policy of the State government granting bar licences to five star hotels, defeats the spirit of the liquor policy. The attempt by the UDF to tell the electorate that sections of the CPI-M/LDF were also patrons of the liquor lobby and that the present liquor policy would be reversed if the LDF came to power was checkmated, to a large extent, by the statement of CPI-M general secretary, Yechury, that the bars that were closed would not be reopened. Thus, the UDF is unlikely to reap rich harvest in the polls out of its liquor policy.

The promise of ‘setting things right’

The election strategy of the LDF is focused mainly on the issues of corruption and mal-governance. Simultaneously, their endeavour is to demolish the UDF’s tall claims on development, highlighting the point that they had left the State in a debt-trap with per capita debt on each citizen touching Rs. 46,700, and the State's total debt rising to Rs. 1.58 lakh crores. They paint a dismal picture of the State under the UDF: almost every industry is in recession; agri-sector is the worst-hit; rubber growers are in acute crisis; many public sector units have gone red; and unemployment is on rise. They have brought out a blue-print to eradicate corruption and streamline systematic development of the State in which the main emphasis is careful evaluation of projects/their online clearance, time-bound schedule for the commissioning of projects ensuring more accountability of bureaucracy, properly planned investment for employment generation. The poll slogan of the LDF, ‘LDF will come, everything will be alright’ reflects their confidence and their promise to set right the system and polity.

The consistent and uncompromising stand taken by the CPI-M/LDF in upholding secularism and opposing the communal and xenophobic agenda of fascist forces has created much goodwill for the front among secular minded people. On issues like beef ban, intolerance amounting to the ban of freedom of expression in the name of pseudo-nationalism as manifest in renowned academic institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and the University of Hyderabad, the Left parties and others such as the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) and the Students Federation of India (SFI), the All India Youth Federation (AIYF) and others were in the forefront of various struggles and campaigns. Incidentally, a couple of activists of such bodies associated with the JNU movement are in the fray.

A tedious task for the BJP

The BJP/NDA has a tedious task of countering both the UDF and the LDF for which they tactfully play up the theme of minority appeasement. the BJP had built a strong case that both the CPI-M and the INC, despite their high-decibel slogans on secularism, followed a strategy of minority appeasement as a result of which the majority Hindus had become backward in almost all spheres. A resurgence of Hindus, according to them, is possible only through the BJP or other sangh parivar organisations.

Deploring the politics of violence allegedly practised by the CPI-M, the BJP and the RSS glorify the ‘rich sacrifices’ made by their cadres in Kerala. Branding both the UDF and the LDF as a group of incompetent, opportunist and corrupt leaders who ‘looted Kerala’ for decades, they make an appeal to the voters to ‘liberate the State from their clutches’. The campaign had created some impact in Kerala, especially after the impressive victory of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

There were attempts to woo community organisations such as the NSS, SNDP, and the Pulaya Maha Sabha. The recent tie-up of the BJP with the BJDS, a new political outfit floated by SNDP, a grass-root level social movement of backward caste Ezhavas, has broadened the electoral base of BJP in Kerala. The crucial question is as to what extent the new outfit BDJS now in alliance with the BJP will erode the vote share of the UDF and the LDF as a majority of the SNDP followers in the past exercised their franchise in favour of these fronts.

How they fared in past elections

A brief analysis of the vote-shares of the UDF, the LDF and the BJP/NDA in the last five elections in Kerala will give some indications on their present electoral prospects. The vote share of the UDF, which won 42 seats in the 140-member Kerala Assembly in the 2006 polls was 42.26 percent as against 48.11 percent of the LDF with a tally of 98 seats. In 2009 LS polls, the UDF's vote share increased to 47.74 per cent, whereas the share of the LDF came down to 41.9 per cent.

In the 2011 Assembly polls, the difference in vote-share between the UDF and the LDF was 0.9 per cent (UDF- 45.8 per cent; LDF - 44.9 per cent) when the former was voted to power with a wafer-thin majority of 72 seats as against 68 of the LDF. This nominal increase in the UDF's vote share was mainly due to the joining of Kerala Congress (Joseph) and JD/U which were in LDF camp during 2006 polls. However, in the 2014 LS polls, the UDF improved its position with 42.07 per cent of votes as against 40.17 per cent of the LDF.

Therefore, between the last Assembly and LS polls (2011 and 2014) in Kerala, the LDF vote share has declined around five percentage points, whereas the decline in the UDF’s vote share was around four percentage points.

However, in the 2015 civic polls, which can be considered as a prelude to the 2016 Assembly election, the LDF had an upper hand by winning four Corporations, 43 Municipalities, seven District Panchayats, 90 Block Panchayats and 550 Gaon Panchayats as against two Corporations; 42 Municipalities, seven District Panchayats; 61 Block Panchayats and 365 Gaon Panchayats by the UDF.

At the same time, the BJP/NDA vote share went up from 4.75 per cent in the 2006 Assembly elections to 6.06 per cent in the 2011 Assembly elections, to 10.3 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and an all-time high of around 14 per cent in the 2015 civic elections. The BJP for the first time won one Municipality, besides a number of wards in Corporations, Block/ District/ Gaon Panchayats.

A crucial election for all three fronts

The 2016 Assembly election is crucial for the three fronts. While the UDF is making all efforts to retain power, the LDF is locked in a critical battle to wrest power from the UDF, and the BJP/NDA is struggling hard to open its account in the State Assembly. In view of the intensity of the contest, making it a dilemma for the voter, even a minor swing from either the UDF or the LDF would decide the outcome in Kerala in 2016.

For all practical reasons, the trump card is with the BJP/NDA. Already there is whisper campaign in the air that the UDF has entered into a clandestine understanding with the BJP in a half-a-dozen Assembly constituencies, to divert a share of their votes to ensure the victory of the UDF candidates; in return the UDF would fulfil the long cherished dream of the BJP to open its account in the Assembly.

In fact, all the three fronts appear to have bid adieu to their ideologies or value-based electoral politics. They are now guided by the sole criteria of ‘winnability’ in respect of selection of candidates or the mode of electioneering. Thus, the UDF Ministers and MLAs against whom there were serious allegations of corruption and sex-scandals were retained as candidates, despite severe internal objections. Film stars, media personnel, former bureaucrats and others devoid of any political background or ideology are fielded as candidates.

Low representation of youth and women

The result was that women and youth active in various parties find less representation in the candidate list. There are only 38 women candidates in the fray. (LDF-17, BJP/NDA-12 &UDF -9). The number lower in the case of young candidates.

Another major trend is the entry of digital or electronic media into the field of electioneering with a big bang. The social media is flooded with comments, views and slogans on the polls. The fronts have engaged the services of reputed corporate establishments with mammoth expenditure ranging from Rs. 10 to Rs. 15 crores. They coin catchy poll slogans; man the blogs and sites flooded with election-related stories and comments, and create a world of fantasy flooded with the images and views of the popular leaders and candidates in the fray. The catchy slogans and appeals by popular political leaders constantly fill the air at railway stations, bus terminals and other public place. The final say, however, rests with the people, who are going to decide the fate of these fronts, and not the corporate giants which run the show.



References:

1. ^ Kerala Final Voter List 2016 Electoral Roll Published on 14/1/2016, accessed on April 16, 2016

2. ^ Kerala's Religious Population Source : Census India 2010

3. ^ These controversial decisions included a) handing over 750 acres in Peerumed panchayat that comes under surplus land, to the Hope Plantation in Idukki district; b) order permitting acceptance of tax for 833 acres of land currently under the possession of the controversial Karuna Estate at Nelliampathy in Palakkad district; c). order for the reclamation of 378 acres of the 'Methran Kayal backwaters' wetland at Kumarakom village in Kottayam district for an eco-tourism project by private company d) allotment of 47 acres of paddy fields at Kadamakuddy in Kochi for setting up a multi-super-speciality hospital in private sector and e) order for handing back around 118 acres of land in Ernakulam and Thrissur districts which the Government had attached from controversial godman, Santhosh Madhavan to a private form RMEZ, under the guise of setting up an IT project.



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