Kerala’s upcoming election should be easy to decipher. It’s a two-horse race – Congress versus the Communists – as it has been for decades now.
But the sudden intrusion of the Bharatiya Janata Party, a renewed focus on a salacious corruption scandal and an attempt to alter the caste and community political framework has turned the state upside down.
Once upon a time, only the dominant parties which led the broad alliances that make up the United Democratic Front versus Left Democratic Front battle would undertake pre-poll yatras to drum up support across the state. This year in Kerala two parties have already concluded their yatras, with the contingents of six other parties currently crisscrossing the state.
And while most yatras began from the state’s northern tip of Kasargod focusing on peace and prosperity, by the time they wind their way to the southern tip of Thiruvananthapuram, corruption scams and sleaze have overtaken all other issues. It may still be something of a two-horse race – each though the composition of each horse is yet to be concluded – but this much is clear, Kerala’s elections are not going to be boring.
United Democratic Front
Parties: Congress, Indian Union Muslim League, Kerala Congress (M), Revolutionary Socialist Party, Janata Dal (United), Kerala Congress (Jacob), Janadipatya Samrakshana Samithi (Rajan Babu faction)
Leader: Chief Minister Oomen Chandy
The United Democratic Front was stitched together by Congress stalwart K Karunakaran in 1970s and then built up even further by the 72-year-old Chandy, who has managed the surprising feat of keeping the UDF in power for five years despite a tiny 4-seat majority in the assembly.
Chandy’s coalition came to power in May 2011 with a slogan ‘care and development’ has quite a few mega infra projects and social welfare initiatives to showcase, but its attempts at advertising were hit by the emergence of a few corruption scandals mid-way.
Chandy is currently being targeted by the Opposition over several corruption scandals. The most notable of these is the solar scam, in which he is alleged to have given favours to a couple that duped many in the state into investing in a venture called Team Solar, using their high-profile connections as a selling point. For a quick reminder of what exactly this sex-and-bribes scam is all about, read this.
Fight corruption allegations, bring back allies, undercut ‘Hindu resentment’ claims
The Congress is targeting the parties that deserted the UDF in the course of its current innings, including the Kerala Congress (Secular), which recently ousted a former leader who had been vocally criticising the UDF. Additionally the ruling front is trying to cement its relations with various community organisations, including the Nair Service Society, an umbrella organisation of the second largest Hindu community, to keep its support base intact.
The move to woo Hindus can trigger factionalism in the Congress and upset the party’s electoral calculations. A section in the party feels that the Congress can win Hindus better by passing the mantle to a Hindu leader. Chandy’s biggest rival within the Congress, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala, tried to manoeuvre himself into this position, but the but the party high command intervened and forced this faction to retreat.
Left Democratic Front
Parties: Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Janata Dal (Secular), Nationalist Congress Party, Kerala Congress (Skaria Thomas), Indian Congress (Socialist), Indian National League (not a member, only seat sharing)
Leaders: Pinarayi Vijayan, VS Achuthanandan
The Communists have always been the yin to the UDF’s yang, having traded spells of rule with the Congress-led alliance evenly over the past three decades.
The CPI(M)’s own internal battles have been so vicious that, for the first time, people are considering the possibility that Kerala might not undergo its traditional five-year trading of LDF for UDF and vice-versa.
A section in the party and some of its allies are batting for former chief minister VS Achuthanandan, who remains popular with the public, despite his age. The 93-year-old is also preferred by the LDF allies, having spent decades working with them to build the alliance. But within the CPI(M) itself, 71-year-old Pinarayi Vijayan has much more support. In fact, the party chose Vijayan to lead its yatra through the state, suggesting he will get to run the election campaign too.
This however remains an open question particularly after Chandy’s government sought to bring back the SNC-Lavalin corruption case in which Vijayan was named and later discharged. Achuthanandan, who had taken open position against Vijayan in the case, is silent now as he is hopeful that the UDF government’s attempts to revive the case would seal the fate of his bête noir once again and he would get another chance to head the government.
Settle infighting, prevent Hindu polarisation and maintain Ezhava support
The CPI(M) has, of late, been concerned about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempts to woo large Hindu groups in the state, particularly of the Ezhava community. In fact, the Communist movement in Kerala was built on the backbone of Ezahvas, who comprise 20% of the state’s Hindu population.
The CPI(M) is, therefore, searching for new allies. The party has already initiated efforts to bring back two parties, the Janata Dal (U) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which had left it in 2009 and 2014 respectively. The move has already led to a split in the RSP with one of the three MLAs quitting the party in a bid to form a splinter group.
The party is also trying to reach out to various Hindu groups and the faithful by sponsoring their festivals like Krishna Jayanthi keeping its atheistic ideology away. The party has also allowed party men to infiltrate into committees running temples across the state.
Parties: Bharatiya Janata Party, Bharatha Dharma Jana Sena
Leader: K Rajasekharan
Scandals and development alone cannot influence election. The outcome hinges on the caste and communal equations to a large extent. The front that plays these cards well can win elections. With Hindus accounting for about 54 percent of the state’s 3.3 crore population, the Bharatiya Janata Party has set about working hard to woo the 70 active Hindu organisations with the aim of creating a large Hindu Front that could upset traditional calculations in the state.
The BJP has already roped in Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP, an umbrella organisation of Ezhavas, the largest Hindu community in the state, and is now eying the Nair Service Society, representing the upper caste Hindus, and other similar organisations.
Party president Amit Shah, who discussed the party’s poll strategy at a core-committee meeting at Aluva in Ernakulam district recently, wants even small groups brought to the party fold. He asked party workers to win over small groups and leaders, even if they influence only a few hundred voters.
Hindu Front targets
Bring Hindu organisations into the fold, sow divisions in the existing alliances
The broader Hindu spectrum may help the BJP only in Hindu belts. The party needs to look beyond Hindus if it has to achieve its objective of coming to power. The party’s alliance with SNDP makes this clear. Though it helped BJP make impressive gains in the local body polls held three months ago, it could not ensure it majority in any of the 140 assembly segments.
Though the party tried to woo minority organisations and disgruntled parties in the two dominant fronts for gaining the extra votes that it needs to win seats in the assembly, it has not been successful. The party was pinning its hope on the pro-Christian Kerala Congress (M), which was upset with the Congress, after party leader KM Mani was forced to resign in the wake of adverse court remarks in the bar bribery case.
Mani had agreed to shake hands with national BJP president Amit Shah at Kottayam, but the Congress has scuttled the move by showing green signal to Mani to return to the cabinet following a fresh vigilance probe finding no evidence to prosecute him in the bar bribery case.
The CPI(M) also managed to check the impact of the SNDP support to the BJP on the party in the local body polls by exposing the contradictions in the alliance and raising a slew of corruption charges against Vellappally Natesan, who spearheads the SNDP, but it feels this might not be enough to stem the flow to the saffron party.