Kerala assembly poll 2016: Congress and Left neck to neck, BJP may not open account!
-Dr. Abdul Ruff
Kerala, a state on India’s tropical Malabar Coast, has nearly 600km of Arabian Sea shoreline. It’s known for its palm-lined beaches and its backwaters, a network of canals popular for cruises. Its many upscale seaside resorts. Inland are the Western Ghats, a mountain range whose slopes support tea, coffee and spice plantations as well as abundant native wildlife.
Kerala is a state where Hindus, Muslims and Christians jointly dominate political scene, also enjoy almost equal status in the government except that a Muslim leader is denied the position of CM of the state and other top administrative positions. Once by chance a Muslim belonging to Muslim League became acting CM for a very brief period. Whether it is the hidden policy of Kerala state or it just happens beyond what the leaders want. Only the future can answer this puzzle.
The state has witnessed significant emigration, especially to Arab states of the Persian Gulf during the Gulf Boom of the 1970s and early 1980s, and its economy depends significantly on remittances from a large Malayali expatriate community. Hinduism is practiced by more than half of the population, followed by Islam and Christianity. The culture is a synthesis of Aryan and Dravidian cultures, developed over millennia, under influences from other parts of India and abroad. The production of pepper and natural rubber contributes significantly to the total national output. In the agricultural sector, coconut, tea, coffee, cashew and spices are important.
Muslims account for over 29 per cent of Kerala population while various Christian sects account for about 24 per cent. Hindus and others are the remaining population. While large numbers from both religions back the LDF, the majority has always been with the UDF. What the BJP was doing was breaking the so-called Hindu monolith, much of which was with the LDF.
A multicultural Kerala is going to poll in May, along with other four states, including Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. At the outset is appears no party seems to be in a position to form a government as there are two major alliances, one led by Congress and other by CPM, fighting the polls for years – and winning or losing them. First, the basic facts about Kerala: the state Assembly has 140 seats (Kerala sends 20 seats to the Lok Sabha and just nine to the Rajya Sabha). But alliance politics in the state extends not just to parties but factions within parties.
In the last Assembly elections of 2011, an opinion survey conducted on March 9, 2011 had predicted 77 to 87 seats for the UDF, 53 to 63 seats for the LDF and 0 to 5 seats for BJP. A second round of survey on March 31, 2011 revised the tally as 80 to 90 for UDF, 50 to 60 for LDF and 0 to 2 for BJP. The actual figures in the 2011 state Assembly elections stood as 72 for the UDF, 68 for the LDF and none for the BJP.
In the 2011 elections, the Congress led UDF got 45.83 percent of popular vote while the Communists led LDF had 44.9 per cent vote. The UDF won 72 seats while the LDF’s tally was 68. The BJP had 6.03 per cent vote share. In about 35 seats the margins were less than 5,000 votes. These are potential swing seats. In 2006 a six per cent margin in vote share helped the LDF grab 100 seats in the 140 strong state assembly.
Veteran leader of the Opposition and former CM of Kerala, VS Achuthanandan as usual emerged the crowd favourite with a whopping 73% wanting him to contest elections. If the opinion poll is any indication, CPI (M) politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan might as well give up his chief ministerial ambitions, if any, as 56% of the voters consider the Lavalin Case to be a bone of contention in the coming elections.
It seems in the internecine quarrel between Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan, the two tallest Left leaders, the BJP is gaining ground. BJP seems to have pocketed the Ezhava community which has sizeable votes. But the ultimate gainer could be the UDF and hence Chandy does not over criticize the RSS-BJP duo.
That is why the Kerala election in 2016 could make history.
Like in Tamil Nadu where AIADMK and DMK rule the state alternatively Kerala is also being ruled alternatively by the Congress party led UDF alliance and Communists led LDF alliance. Now in the ongoing battle for new assembly, the ruling Congress led UDF hopes to retain its power, thereby dismantling the traditional perception of alternative government. Although it is engulfed in a serious corruption scandal, the UDF thinks there is no serious anti-incumbency against the government.
Arguably this is going to be the most interesting election of all because the outcome could be historic: a return of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in a state where no government has ever ruled for a second term and the balance between alliance partners is so fine that a tiny percentage swing of votes can lead to a major electoral upset.
The 2016 Kerala Assembly election opinion poll -C for Survey- has predicted that LDF would win the elections securing around 77 to 82 seats in the upcoming Assembly elections in May. The poll also predicts that the ruling United Democratic Front, immersed in corruption scandals, would come second with 55 to 60 seats. The survey says that while the LDF would get 41% of the vote share, the UDF will secure 37% and even the BJP front would manage to get about 15%.
This would be a significant rise in the BJP’s vote share as it had managed to get only 6.03% of the total vote share in 2011. This assessment was based on the results of the local polls held last year in which persons with personal appeal would win and BJP fielded their best but untested people. The survey which began on February 1 and went on till February 16 was conducted in 70 constituencies comprising 568 villages and 148 towns. According to the survey- some people believe that the Bharatiya Janata Party might be able to open its Assembly account in the state. The pollsters say is because the BJP/NDA will eat into both UDF and LDF vote shares.
That the BJP is likely to gain or two seats in the state – a mile stone if it wins even one seat – would in itself be a first for both the party and the state, where the BJP is yet open its account in the state legislature, in spite of their strenuous efforts in every poll to somehow win a seat, while it is comfortable in Karnataka and has a strong vote bank in Telangana and AP. In Tamil Nadu, thanks to BJP-RSS strategy of wooing both AIADMK and DMK for alliances alternatively, has own seats in assembly and parliament. For the first time, BJP, having dropped by both top Dravidian parties, is in reverse gear, even facing an existential threat.
What is significant about the poll is that in spite of the anti-incumbency factor and the controversies that the Oommen Chandy government is mired in, the LDF’s vote share from 44.94% in 2011 will apparently reduce in 2016. While 57% of those polled were convinced that allegations raised by the solar scam accused Saritha S Nair regarding Kerala CM Oommen Chandy is true, 65% believe that the solar scam will prove to be the cause for the UDF downfall while 19 % prefer to blame the bar bribery scam in this regard.
The current Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, is enormously popular although the slender majority of the UDF in the assembly (72 seats) belies this as huge number of MLAs of Muslim league sustains the government notwithstanding the occasional government crises. The liquor bribery crisis has cost the UDF government a couple of ministers, including the all powerful Finance Minister KM Mani, the Kerala Congress chief.
Popularity of CM Chandy at times put him in trouble. He does not want any other Congress politician emerge to claim the CM job. In fact, his cabinet colleague and rival, Ramesh Chennithala, led a campaign that he must stop meeting people and attend to work in the secretariat: he just can’t say no to anyone. In this he is different from his erstwhile mentor AK Antony, who, while being in the public eye, is a much more private person. Chandy was Antony’s chosen successor and long-time lieutenant but later became a silent critic of Antony’s unpopular and unpredictably idealistic political positions. The state Congress president M. Sudheeran with a clean image is behind the UDF government’s decision to implement total liquor prohibition in a phased manner.
As Chief Minister, Chandy has taken steps that have been controversial. The liquor policy – which involved shutting down more than 700 bars with permission to sell liquor accorded only to five star hotels – has led to loss of revenue, court cases, a crisis for Kerala’s lifeline industries such as tourism, and serious allegations of graft. Finance minister KM Mani from alliance partner Kerala Congress is still fighting off charges of corruption after a dilution of the policy, allegedly in return for financial contributions. But first Chandy has stood firm, going on to say that Kerala will become a ‘dry’ state in the next 10 years while conceding that the revenue loss will amount to Rs 8,000 crore or more. Communists, most of them are heavy drunkards; do not want any ban on liquor in the state. This attitude comes handy to the Congress led government’s slow peddling the liquor prohibition policy.
Obviously, he has won tremendous support from the victims of alcohol, women. But an equally important political intervention by Chandy has been the policy of the UDF towards the Ezhava (toddy tapper) community. Traditionally the Ezhavas would always back the Left Democratic Front (LDF) – mostly the Communist Parties. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been wooing the Ezhavas aggressively. In fact, one of the first trips undertaken by Narendra Modi when the BJP campaign to launch him as Prime Minister began in 2013 was to a huge function to commemorate Ezhava spiritual leader Sree Narayana Guru at Sivagiri in Varkala district, where he spoke on the tragedy of untouchability – including political untouchability. Modi’s meeting drew unprecedented crowds. However, he could not become hero in Kerala politics. The event set off alarm bells ringing in the Left parties because here was an effort to decamp with a part of its base, from right under its nose.
Chandy saw all this and looked the other way. For him Ezhavas deserting the Left could only mean a boost to the UDF and the BJP is not strong enough to pose a challenge.
Minorities decide poll outcomes
A swing in minority voters will decide the outcome in the Assembly polls in Kerala in favour of either of the two traditional rival fronts led by the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). A major swing in the Muslim and Christian votes that traditionally went to Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) saw the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by CPM coming to power in the 2006 elections with 98 seats in the 140-member Assembly.
Poll observers view this as the result of swings in the Christian and Muslim votes. Such wild swings were never witnessed in the past elections in Kerala. While Muslims stood solidly behind the IUML and the Christians behind the Kerala Congress or the Indian National Congress till 2006. The IUML had won 14 seats in 1982, 15 in 1987, 19 in 1991 and 13 in 1996. However, there has been a slight fluctuation in the seats won by the Kerala Congress factions. This is mainly because of splits and defections in the Kerala Congress. The two major factions of the Kerala Congress had won the maximum number of 14 seats when they were in the UDF.
This came down to nine in 1987 when one faction switched over to the LDF. The Kerala Congress (J), which went to the LDF, had to content with just one seat in the next polls in 1991, while the other three factions in the UDF got as many as 12 seats. When the Joseph faction returned to the UDF before the 2011 elections, the Kerala Congress could regain the past glory to some extent by winning 11 seats.
Analysis of the seats won by various parties showed that the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the sole arbiter of Muslims in the state, and the Kerala Congress and its splinter groups, championing the interest of Christians, had suffered a huge loss in both Muslim and Christian belts in the 2006 polls. The IUML, which had won 16 seats in the Muslim-dominated Malappuram district and other Muslim pockets in other districts in the 2001 elections, could get only seven seats in the 2006 election. Similarly, the number of seats of the three factions of Kerala Congress came down from 13 in 2001 to nine seats in 2006. The IUML increased its seats to 20 and the Kerala Congress factions to 11 in 2011, when the United Democratic Front (UDF) came to power with a wafer thin majority of just 72 seats. The UDF could wrest only 16 seats in the belt from the LDF then.
The LDF had its highest haul of 34 seats in the Muslim and Christian belts in 2006. It had wrested as many as 31 seats from the UDF then. The opposition front managed to retain 18 seats in the 2011 elections, when it lost the power by just three seats.
The analysis demolishes the myth that the Muslims and Christians consider the IUML and the Kerala Congress are their sole arbiters. They had stood solidly behind these parties when they aligned with the UDF because of their fear that the Communists were against their faith. However, these fears were found unfounded with the Communist-led governments never making any attempt to interfere with their faiths. They started reposing their trust in the LDF after the CPM allowed their comrades to follow their faith and made conscious efforts to reach out to them by defending their rights and challenging the attacks on them in various parts of the country.
If the periodical swings in the minority votes since 2001 are taken into consideration, the swing this time is likely to favour the LDF. Political observers see the gains the LDF has made in the civic polls in Malappuram and the Christian-dominated Central Travancore as an indication of how the minority votes will behave in the current election.
Left leaning political analysts say that the Muslims had rallied behind the IUML in the past as they had no other alternatives. The emergence of Indian National League (INL), People’s Democratic Party (PDP), Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) and the Welfare Party in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition has ended the IUML monopoly over the Muslim votes. “Though many of these parties have not gained the strength to win elections, they have the potential to defeat the IUML. The CPM has been using them overtly and covertly to their advantage by playing up the threats to the minorities from the bid by the Sangh Parivar to consolidate the Hindu votes.
Muslims had backed the LDF in local body elections held in November last year as the wave of intolerance sweeping the country had confounded their fears. The CPM had cashed in on this by launching protests against the Dadri lynching and a series of beef festivals across the state. The situation may return to normal as the intolerance wave has lost its intensity among the people in the state now. However, he does not rule out a minor swing of Muslim votes in favour of the LDF in the coming elections. The CPM has sought to create a division in the IUML votes by fielding many prominent Muslim personalities in the election this time. This may sometimes backfire as the candidates picked up by the CPM are mostly businessmen, who were aligned with the IUML previously. The profile of the candidates does not match their accusation that the IUML is a party of elites.
E T Mohammed Basheer, Kerala IUML union general secretary and MP, said the CPM’s attempt to project itself as the protector of the minorities will not succeed as the people are aware that the Left parties do not have the strength to take on fascist forces at the national level. The only party that can challenge the Sangh Parivar throughout the country is the Congress. Therefore, he expects the Muslims to strengthen the Congress by voting the UDF to power in the Assembly elections in the state. The IUML leader said that the setback the IUML suffered in Malappuram in the local body elections cannot be taken as a barometer as the issues in the Assembly elections are different. He also attributed the defeat the IUML suffered in certain pockets in the district to the division in the UDF. But he is confident that the IUML will improve its tally of seats and help the UDF to retain power for another term.
The state of the Christian votes is slightly different with several interest groups emerging in the community. The CPM and Congress have been trying reach out to the community through these groups. They try to ensure the support of the Church in the high ranges of Idukki and Wayanad districts by sponsoring the High Range Samrakshana Samithi (HRSS) that came into existence by opposing the Congress stand on the Gadgil committee report on the protection of the Western Ghats.
The CPM ensured the defeat of the Congress candidate at Idukki in the Lok Sabha election by lending support to the HRSS candidate Joyce George. This time, the party has additionally aligned with a splinter group of the Kerala Congress (M) led by former MP Francis George to strengthen its position in the Christian belt. The dissidents came out of the UDF after many of their prominent leaders were denied seat to contest the election. Several such groups were active in the Christian community which is trying to use the LDF for their gains. “The CPM is dancing to their tunes. This will not help the LDF as it may alienate their traditional Hindu votes.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to stitch together a grand alliance with the help of caste organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SND) Yogam might upset the political equations in the state. The grant alliance might eat into the votes of the LDF more as the lower caste Ezhava community that SNDP represents has been the main backbone of the CPM for long. He feels that the BJP might upset the LDF’s applecart if the SNDP and other Hindu organisations fuel a Hindu consolidation in the election as they expected. However, the grant alliance could inflict damage to both the rival fronts. They say that the BJP-led alliance may not win many seats but it will certainly tilt the balance in favour of either the UDF or the LDF. But none of them are ready to risk a guess at this point. All they say is that Kerala may witness a neck and neck race in the elections to be held on 16 May.
However, the Hindu consolidation may remain as an illusion for the BJP at least now. If the BJP rule ends abruptly in New Delhi, everything regarding Hindutva vote bank strategies would also end.
AIADMK in Kerala
An interesting, rather stimulating fact about the Kerala poll is the participation of AIADMK in the poll. Boosted by the party’s success in six wards in the 2015 civic polls in Kerala, the AIADMK has fielded seven candidates for the ensuing Assembly polls there. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) led by J Jayalalithaa -the incumbent Tamil Nadu CM- announced its list of Candidates for the poll-bound states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Buoyed by its success in the local body polls held in November last year, the party will field seven candidates in Kerala this time. The party has fielded candidates in the Chitoor, Nemara and Malampuzha constituencies in Palakkad district, Peermedu, Devikulam and Udubanchozha constituencies in Idukki district and one from the Thiruvanathapuram constituency. CPM leader and former CM Achuthanandan also contests from Malampuzha. All these seven constituencies are border areas and boast of a sizeable Tamil population. For the 2016 Assembly elections, the party has increased the number of its candidates in Kerala to seven from six in the 2011 elections. Whether or not Ms Jayalalithaa would campaign in these constituencies is not clear as yet.
A rich bar owner, entrepreneur and whistleblower Dr. Biju Ramesh contests as the AIADMK candidate from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala in the upcoming assembly polls scheduled to be held on May 16. Dr. Biju who is the chairman and MD of the Rajadhani business empire in Kerala, is also the Kerala Bar Owners’ Association president had also been in the news for his alleged payment of a bribe of Rs.1 crore to finance minister KM Mani on the association’s behalf to renew licences of all those bars which were forcefully shut down by the Chandy-led UDF government in 2015. Dr. Biju contests against BJP candidate tainted cricketer Sreesanth and Antony Raju who is the Left candidate. Though the ruling front is yet to announce its list of candidates, state health minister VS Shivakumar is fielded as the UDF candidate from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency.
It may be possible for AIADMK to win any seat in Kerala, highly politicized state in the country. However, the popularity of Jayalalithaa has reached Kerala, where many people talk high of Jaya’s freebies tactics.
While Congress supporters in Kerala say that their government will stay, the leftists argue Keralites cannot offer the corrupt rulers another direct chance to misrule the state. Unfortunately, there is no third front in the state as almost every small and big party is in one of the two alliances. Former leader of Kerala Congress, PC George emerged as a rallying point for those who oppose the two fronts but he did not decide to float or lead a third front and wanted to join the Left front but later changed his mind and is now contesting as an independent candidate from his own constituency where he facing candidates of both alliances.
Unfortunately, Keralites, more educated than Tamils, are not as lucky as Tamils who have a new third front led by PWF of Vaiko to fight for the genuine concerns of common people of the state while the ruling AIADMK and opposition DMK just make promises and hurl mutual accusations against one another without in fact caring for the people.
That the Communist parties have made poll alliance with its arch foe the Congress has confused the people of Kerala. Earlier, communist parties had promised lands for the tillers, factories for the workers, bungalows for the poor, etc and tactfully betrayed the people. In West Bengal, the ruling communists gave away the peasants lands to the corporate lords for building factories and justified their action as the necessary one. Now communists and Congress have joined hands to oust Mamata’s Trinamool Congress government in Kolkata – seemingly an impossible task now.