Verdict 2016

Kerala: A Verdict against Corruption and Degeneration of Values

Kerala Chief Minister-designate Pinarayi Vijayan met the Governor P. Sathasivam at Raj Bhavan in Thiruvanthapuram and submitted the list of Ministers. Photo: S. Mahinsha.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: KERALA: 25/05./2016: :: Kerala Chief Minister designate Pinarayi Vijayan met the Governor P Sathasivam at Raj Bhavan and submitted the list of Ministers to him, in Thiruvananthapuram..........Photo:S_Mahinsha -   -  The Hindu

True to form, voters in Kerala have changed their government. The incumbent United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Indian National Congress (INC) lost power to the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)]. However, as The Hindu Centre’s former Public Policy Scholar and retired Intelligence Bureau officer, K.V. Thomas, points out, the gains made by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are a precursor to the changing electoral choices for a State in which bipolar politics has been the norm.

Upholding its electoral pattern, Kerala voted out the incumbent – a scandal-ridden Indian National Congress (INC)-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government – and elected the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPIM (M)]-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) with a handsome majority. In the 140-member State Assembly, the LDF won 91 seats and the UDF 47 seats. One seat each was won by the National Democratic Alliance/Bharatiya Janata Party (NDA/BJP) and an independent. The number of seats contested and won by the individual parties of the UDF, LDF and the NDA/BJP is furnished in Table I:

Table I – Number of Seats Contested and Won by Political Parties

There was a sharp decline in the vote share of the UDF, which stood at 38.8 per cent, falling by nearly seven percentage points from 2011 (45.7 per cent). The vote share of the LDF showed a nominal decrease of 1.1 percentage points (from 44.5 per cent in 2011) to 43.4 per cent in 2016. The BJP vote share, which was 6.03 per cent in 2011 Assembly polls, has increased to around 15 per cent. The difference in the vote share between the UDF and the LDF was 4.6 percentage points 1 . Numerically, the LDF could poll around 10 lakh votes more than the UDF.

Significantly, the UDF ‘s vote share has come down in all the districts, including Malappuram, Kottayam, and Ernakulam, where the Front won the most number of seats. Thrissur district, once the citadel of the INC/UDF, showed the highest fall of over ten percentage points. On the contrary, the fall in the LDF vote share was nominal in a majority of districts except in Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta and Palakkad. But, the NDA/BJP could substantially increase their vote share in all the districts. Except in Malappuram, their vote share in all other districts was between 10 per cent and 23 per cent. Table II gives the district-wise vote share of the UDF, the LDF and the NDA/BJP.

Table II – District-wise Percentage Vote Share of the UDF, LDF and NDA/BJP 2

(Note: Figures in bracket show the vote share of these fronts in 2011 assembly elections)

Source: Compiled from figures released by the Election Commission of India

Splinter groups bite the dust

Both the Janata Dal United (JD/U) and Revolutionary Socialist party (RSP), which left the LDF in 2009 and 2014, respectively, on the issue of seat sharing and joined the UDF, failed to win any seat. Same was the case with the Kerala Congress (Democratic), a breakaway group of the Kerala Congress (Mani), which was formed on the eve of the Assembly polls and contested four seats under the LDF’s banner.

Individual-centric splinter parties operating under the canopy of the major fronts were virtually rejected by the voters. Two Kerala Congress groups led by P. C. Thomas and Skaria Thomas (both former MPs) and the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) led by dissident Communist leader C.P. John could not win any seat. The Revolutionary Marxist Party (RMP), which caused discomfiture to the CPI (M) in a couple of northern districts on the issue of the political murder of comrade C.P. Chandrasekharan, also met with the same fate. Perhaps, the only exception was P.C. George, the sole independent candidate who won from Poonjar Assembly Constituency with an impressive margin defeating the candidates of all the three Fronts.

Despite much rhetoric and blistering campaign under the banner of the NDA, the newly formed Bharatiya Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS), representing the backward Ezhava community, and the Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JSS), floated by Adivasi leader C.K. Janu, could not open their account in the State assembly.

Strong Pro-LDF wave in northern and southern Kerala

The LDF swept the polls in Kannur, Kozhikkode, Palakkad, Thrissur, Alappuzha, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, and Thiruvananthapuram districts and improved its overall performance in Kasargod, Wayanad, and Idukki districts. The Central Travancore districts of Kottayam and Ernakulam and the Muslim-dominated district of Malappuram saved the UDF from an ignominious defeat: Of the 47 seats won by the UDF, 26 were from these districts.

An analysis of the margins of victory of the elected candidates have clearly reflected the pro-LDF wave as indicated in Table III:

Table III – Victory Margins of Elected Candidates at a Glance

Source: Based on the analysis of figures released by the Election Commission of India

While 56 LDF candidates could win their seats with a margin ranging from 10,000 to 40,000 votes and above, only 24 candidates from the UDF could maintain such margins. The INC/UDF candidate from Vadakkancherry constituency in Trissur district had the lowest margin of 43 votes. The BJP leader O. Rajagopal, who created history by becoming the first elected member of his party in Kerala Legislative Assembly, won his seat from Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram district with a margin of 8,671 votes. The UDF candidate, who was pushed to the third position, polled 13,860 votes out of a total of over 1.5 lakh votes. Such a dismal performance of the UDF gave more credence to the allegation that cross-voting by a section of INC/UDF voters paved the way for the BJP opening its account in Kerala.

The NDA Factor

One significant trend in the 2016 Assembly polls was the emergence of the BJP/NDA as a third force in the bipolar politics, which has been the norm in the State for decades. While the NDA won one seat and lost another seat by a wafer-thin margin of 89 votes, it emerged second in seven constituencies. While the NDA’s winning candidate polled around 68,000 votes, they secured 50,000-plus votes in two constituencies; 40,000-plus in five constituencies; 30,000-plus in 20 constituencies; 20-000-plus in 45 constituencies, and 10,000-plus in 55 constituencies. This signals the creation of a new political space that could be a precursor to a major shift in the State’s politics.

In addition to the BJP, the main constituents of the NDA in Kerala included the BDJS, the political party floated by Vellapally Nateshan, the backward Ezhava caste leader, just before the civic polls in 2015; the Kerala Congress led by P.C. Thomas, former MP and the recently formed JSS of Adivasi leader C.K. Janu. It was widely believed that the new outfit, BDJS, will erode the vote share of the CPM/ LDF as a major chunk of Ezhava voters traditionally voted in favour of the CPM/Left parties. However, the election results proved otherwise. In a majority of seats where the NDA/BJDS fared well, the INC/UDF faced serious setback. For example, in Trissur district, where the UDF was routed in all the seats except the one won by a wafer thin majority of 43 votes, the NDA has secured an average of 25,000-plus votes in all constituencies.

Though the BDJS could not win any of the 37 seats contested by it, the vote-share of the newly formed party was around four per cent. In a majority of these seats, they could secure 20,000-plus votes. The BDJS also made a dent into the vote share of the LDF notably in Alappuzha, Pathanamthitta, Idukki, and Thiruvananthapuram districts adversely affecting the poll prospects of their half-a-dozen candidates. Though the NDA/BDJS could not make any major inroads into the pro-LDF Ezhava voters in urban areas, they could make much headway in influencing such voters in semi-urban and rural areas. This was in large measure thanks to the various socio-economic and welfare programmes such as the microfinance schemes undertaken by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a social organisation of Ezhavas that has grassroots level organisational set up in many areas. However, as the SNDP could not systematically organise such activities among the Thiyyas (Ezhavas) of Malabar districts, the NDA/BDJS was unable to make much dent into the traditional vote bank of the CPM/LDF in those districts.

Though the BJP has entered into an alliance with a backward caste group, the BDJS, the NDA did not face any major backlash from upper caste Hindus, notably members of the Nair community. Their high-decibel propaganda focusing on the minority appeasement policy of the UDF and the LDF, coupled with highly emotive slogans on the need for unity and resurgence among Hindus to protect their rights and interests, created much goodwill for the BJP/NDA among sections of upper castes who, hitherto, were supporters of the INC/UDF. The marginal swing of upper-caste voters in favour of the BJP/NDA, especially in the urban and semi-urban areas, helped the alliance to improve their vote share much to the disadvantage of the UDF.

Minority consolidation helps the LDF

Another notable trend in the elections was the drifting away of a major chunk of religious minorities, notably Muslims and Christians, from the UDF in almost all districts. Even in Malappuram district, the citadel of Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), there was vote drain from the UDF camp as a result of which the LDF doubled its tally by capturing four seats. The margin of IUML candidates substantially came down in almost all constituencies. There was major shift in the approach of various Christian denominations that traditionally voted in favour of the UDF. One factor that influenced this shift was the formation of the Kerala Congress (Democratic), a breakaway group from Kerala Congress (Mani). Though there was no winner from KC (D,) the alliance LDF forged with this new outfit helped the front to get more acceptance from Christian community, especially in the Central Travancore area.

type=quote;; position=right;; text=The minorities have generally felt that the LDF is sincerer and in a better position than the UDF to take on the BJP/Sangh Parivar bodies in Kerala. Naturally, this psyche has translated into LDF votes in a majority of the constituencies. ;; The most significant factor that led to the consolidation of religious minorities in favour of the LDF was its relentless campaign and struggles against the fascist-communal forces. The INC/UDF had to pay heavily for the soft Hindutva line they took on the issues affecting minorities – be it on beef controversy or cow protection. The minorities have generally felt that the LDF is more sincere and in a better position than the UDF to take on the BJP/Sangh Parivar bodies in Kerala. Naturally, this psyche has translated into LDF votes in a majority of the constituencies. In that respect, the LDF’s sweeping victory is a decisive vote by secular Kerala against those who were found wanting in condemning communal fascism and rabid intolerance propagated by the Sangh Parivar organisations 3 .

JNU Student leaders steal the show

While the slogans against communal fascism and intolerance were widely accepted by bulk of the Kerala voters, two campus-mates of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who were in the forefront of the JNU movement, were elected to the Kerala Assembly. Mohammed Muhasin, the leader of the student wing of the Communist Party of India (CPI), who contested on a CPI/LDF ticket, won from Pattambi, a traditional INC/UDF seat, whereas Rijo John of National Students Union of India (NSUI) contested as an INC/UDF candidate and wrested the Angamali seat from the LDF. Their victory was a slap on the face of the BJP leaders and Union Ministers who described JNU students and their movement as “anti-national”.

Scandals, collapse of public morality erode UDF’s base

The UDF was mired in a series of allegations of corruption, malpractices, and sex scandals involving the Chief Minster, half-a-dozen Ministers and a number of MLAs. The Bar Licence Bribery case, the solar scam, the Pattoor land case and the civil supplies’ corruption case were a few such scandals that rocked the State. The worst of them all was the numerous controversial decisions taken by the State Cabinet towards the end of its tenure helping big plantations, real estate lobbies, and big businesses by way of transferring land/estates or sanctioning projects. Instead of taking corrective measures against such lapses and misdemeanours. The strategy of the government was to defend the corrupt by influencing various statutory bodies and institutions such as the police, the judiciary, and the Lok Ayukta.

The Irony was that even senior INC leaders like A.K. Antony, who were well aware of the working of Kerala politics, remained silent spectators or indirectly justified such omissions and commissions of the UDF government. Even the occasional outbursts of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president, V. M. Sudheeran, against such issues and the collapse of public morality fell in wilderness. Being educated and politically agile, the Kerala voters did not take these scandals lightly and responded against UDF through ballot. Thus, the verdict virtually vindicated the biblical saying ‘wages of sin is [political] death’ 4 .

LDF strategy pays rich dividend in the elections

Deviating from conventional strategies and tactics, the LDF adopted innovative and timely election strategies/tactics that helped them to a sweeping victory. To start with, the central leadership of the CPI (M) took stern measures to end the factionalism within the party. By bringing both V.S. Achuthanandan and the state secretary, Pinarayi Vijayan, into the electoral fray, the factionalism that used to raise its ugly head during elections could be effectively contained, thanks to the timely intervention of the party’s new general secretary, Sitaram Yechury. The hectic campaign of octogenarian Achuthanandan from Kasergode to Kanyakumari, braving the summer heat, created a pro-LDF wave throughout the State.

The CPI (M) as the major partner of the LDF made compromises to shed its atheist image that had previously worked against the party among religious minorities. On the eve of the elections, senior leaders paid friendly visit to Archbishop/Bishop Houses of major Christian denominations and other religious heads with a view to neutralising their pro-UDF gestures that would influence the voting pattern of laymen/believers. These tactics, to a great extent, worked to the electoral advantage of the LDF. Thus, the pastoral letter of Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), the apex body of the heads of Syro-Malabar Churches, issued on the eve of elections made a veiled attempt to castigate the corrupt and the morally decayed leaders in the fray, while welcoming UDF’s liquor policy. Similarly, a tacit understanding with Kanthapuram Abubaker Musaliyar helped LDF win the support of sections of Sunni Muslims in the northern districts. At the same time, a number of middle-level religious leaders of a rival Sunni group, owing allegiance to the IUML, could be placated to LDF camp at the instance of local party leaders.

The LDF, notably the CPI(M), played the independent-candidate card smartly and fielded independents in the citadels of the IUML. Three such independents won the elections whereas the others gave tough fight to the League on their home turf. Such independents in Central Travancore helped LDF get the support of Orthodox Church in districts like Pathanamthitta and Kottayam.

Poor strategy of the INC led to the debacle of UDF

The UDF, from the very beginning of the campaign was a ‘tower Babel’ as its senior leaders spoke in different tongues thereby negating the unity and cohesiveness of the Front. This was more glaring in the INC, the leading partner of the UDF. Perhaps, the biggest blunder was the INC high command’s decision that a triumvirate – V.M. Sudheeran, (KPCC president,) Oommen Chandy (Chief, Minister) and Ramesh Chennithala (Home Minster) – would lead the Front. These leaders and their loyalists differed on issues such as seat-sharing, selection of party candidates and election campaign. The main controversy was on the inclusion of the tainted Ministers/Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in the list of contestants. Though the matter was referred to the INC high command, it ultimately yielded to the pressure and coercive tactics of Oommen Chandy leading to the inclusion of the controversial Ministers and MLAs in the party’s candidate list.

The irony was that the weak and the ineffective high command and the Central leaders from Kerala failed to understand the ground situation in the State. In fact, the sagging image of Chandy as Chief Minister protecting all corrupt ministers and controversial MLAs was incapable of confronting the well-oiled election machinery of LDF, which steadily built up its image exposing the series of scandals involving UDF leaders. Had the high command made a realistic assessment of the ground situation in Kerala and the UDF was led by another popular INC leader, the damage suffered by the Front could have been minimised.

No doubt, tainted outgoing UDF Ministers such as K. M. Mani (former Finance Minister/KC-M) who was forced to step down following the Bar License controversy, Adoor Prakash (Revenue Minister/INC, involved in controversial land deals), K.C. Joseph (INC Minister, who made repeated open statements against Judiciary), Anup Jacob (Civil Supplies Minster/KC-Jacob), won the electoral battle. However, their victory should not be construed as an endorsement to corruption or malpractices in public life. In certain constituencies, you will find that voters’ attitude is ‘no matter what he does, we will vote for him’ 5 . But, by fielding corrupt and tainted leaders in the election fray, the UDF has sent a wrong message across the State, resulting in the defeat of a number of their candidates. Thus, ‘the verdict was one against corruption and degeneration of values’ 6 .

Novel and sound campaigns-the hallmark of 2016 elections

All the three fronts adopted innovative and novel campaigns which in many respects were unique in the election history of the State. They engaged the services of reputed advertising and public relations (PR) establishments that coined catchy poll slogans; manned the blogs and sites flooded with election-related stories and comments and created a world of fantasy with the images and views of the popular leaders and candidates in the fray.

Another major trend was the diversification of campaigns. Distribution/planting of seedlings, cleaning- drives, Facebook updates, missed-call campaign and unconventional visual and hoarding advertisements were a few of such campaigns that evoked good response, particularly among first time voters and youngsters. The Facebook debates triggered by V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan quickly spread to the social media to the advantage of the LDF.

In the case of the NDA, the BJP president Amit Shah was in the forefront of the campaign. The Front had availed of the services of a fleet of Central Ministers/leaders, including the Prime Minister, for the electioneering. Those leaders addressed election rallies almost on every nook and corner of the State, targeting the INC and the CPI(M). The Prime Minister’s references on the backwardness and underdevelopment of the State under the successive governments led by the INC and the CPI (M), and his comparison of the plight of Adivasis in the State akin to that of the people in Somalia evoked sharp reaction from the UDF and LDF, which tried to use them as powerful propaganda issues against NDA.

Looking ahead

The Kerala assembly elections 2016 were historic in many respects. Not only has that BJP/NDA for the first time opened its account in the State Legislative Assembly, but they have also emerged as a third force in the State. Their strategy is to make further inroads into the voters and thereby occupy a major space in Kerala polity during 2019 Lok Sabha polls. They find the main enemy in CPM/LDF whose core agenda is relentless campaigns and struggles against the BJP and Sangh Parivar bodies who try to play communal politics. Thus, the State is likely to witness increasing incidents of political clashes mainly between the Left parties and the Sangh Parivar groups. The LDF will have to do a lot of homework to prevent the Hindutva bandwagon which is all set for a rollercoaster ride across the State.

Despite differences in the State BJP on its alliance with BDJS, the central leadership will continue to favour BJP’s tie-up with BDJS in the light of the vote share (around four per cent) of the party. There is a strong thinking within BJP that the BDJS could emerge as a strong political force only if it can attract ordinary SNDP members with political allegiance to CPI(M). Thus, with liberal assistance from the Centre, more concentrated activities in this direction are expected from BDJS/NDA in future.

type=quote;; position=left;; text=The soft-Hindutva agenda would no longer help the INC to check the erosion of minority votes. A major surgery is the need of the hour to revamp and revitalise the party both organisationally and ideologically. ;; The minority consolidation in favour of the LDF is a matter of concern for the Congress/UDF which usually enjoys their support. With upper-caste Hindus slowly drifting away to the BJP/NDA, the position of INC/UDF may become more vulnerable, unless they take effective corrective measures to check the above trends. The soft-Hindutva agenda would no longer help the INC to check the erosion of minority votes. A major surgery is the need of the hour to revamp and revitalise the party both organisationally and ideologically. For that purpose, the INC high command should exercise more control over the State unit and should not play into the hands of those leaders having their own personal agenda. Those leaders who have become unpopular among the people should be systematically shunted out from all key positions and younger leaders with highly imaginative and innovative ideas to strengthen the party need to be elevated to the hierarchy irrespective of their group loyalties. But the million-dollar question is whether the INC leadership will boldly attempt such radical moves?

Meanwhile, the CPI (M)-led LDF needs to rise up to the expectations of the voters by ensuring a corruption-free, development-oriented and people-centric administration in the state. The process of consolidation of minorities in favour of the LDF needs to be accelerated so as to develop them as a major vote bank of the CPM/Left parties. For that purpose, the LDF should come out with a clear agenda to build confidence among minorities. The Left, notably the CPI (M), should shelve the path of political conflicts and clashes and should strive to build up a harmonious society protecting the interests of various castes, classes and communities.







References:

1. ^ Raghavan, Pyaralal, 2016. " Sharp fall in the UDF vote share marks a turning point in Kerala politics", The Times of India, May 23.

2. ^ Based on the figures of the State Election Commission.

3. ^ K.E.N. Kunhahamed, 2016. ‘Congress paid price for soft Hindutva’, The Times of India, Kerala, May 29.

4. ^ Expert’s view- Professor M. K. Sanoo, The Times of India, Kerala, dated May 29, 2016

5. ^ Ibid, sl no iii

6. ^ Prabhash, J., Political scientist and Professor of Political Science, Kerala University.



[This article was updated on May 25, 2016, to correct the names of the districts of Kerala to conform with their official names, and to incorporate a link to the Election Commission of India.]

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