The rival fronts in Kerala led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress are trying to rework their delicate caste and communal balance following the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance in the southern state.
The BJP, which had unsuccessfully contested Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Kerala since 1982, made a much needed electoral breakthrough by winning one seat in last month’s election in which the Left Democratic Front, led by the CPI(M), captured power by winning 91 of the state’s 140 seats.
Though the National Democratic Alliance increased its vote share by only 9% as compared to the 2011 Assembly polls, strategists in both fronts believe that it may emerge as a major third force in the state by the next election if it completes its task of Hindu consolidation by wooing more Hindu organisations into its fold.
A fine balance
The two fronts, which believed that Hindus would never go saffron, are now trying to prevent the consolidation of the majority community that the BJP started with the help of the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena – a party floated by Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful organisation of the Ezhavas, the largest Hindu group in Kerala. While Hindus constitute 54.7% of the population in Kerala, Muslims and Christians make up 45%.
One way is to prevent any further consolidation of Hindus is to clear their apprehensions that the two fronts have been pursuing a policy of minority appeasement, which the BJP and the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena highlighted during their election campaigns.
The new Pinarayi Vijayan government has sought to correct this perception by limiting the number of ministers from the two major minority communities to just four as compared to 11 in the previous Congress-led government.
The CPI(M) has also sought to keep the majority community in good humour by handing over the education portfolio to a Hindu minister. This portfolio was held by a member of the minority community since the time of Kerala’s first Communist government led by EMS Namboodiripad.
This is considered significant in view of the perennial complaints of various Hindu outfits that they were being neglected by successive UDF and LDF governments in allotting new educational institutions and sanctioning new courses in existing colleges.
The party also sought to assuage the feelings of the Ezhava community over the sidelining of VS Achuthanandan, a prominent community member, by inducting him into the government with Cabinet rank.
Even though the selection of ministers and allocation of portfolios passed off smoothly, the CPI(M) is finding it tough to accommodate a nonagenarian leader in the government without upsetting the power equation.
The state secretariat of the ruling party that met at Thiruvananthapuram on Tuesday could not arrive at a consensus on the post for Achuthanandan. While the 92-year-old leader preferred to be the chairman of the LDF with Cabinet rank, most members of the secretariat felt that this would lead to the creation of two power centres in the government.
Most allies in the LDF share the same view. They have expressed their apprehensions that two power centres would affect the smooth functioning of the government, especially since the two leaders are seen as rivals.
The rivalry between the two leaders had emerged during the last term of the LDF government headed by Achuthanandan when Pinarayi, in his capacity as party secretary, tried to push a few mega projects.
At the same time, the CPI(M) is equally aware that keeping Achuthanandan out could cause trouble for the government considering his mass support. Its members view Achuthanandan’s declaration that he will remain a sentinel of the people – made soon after Pinarayi was appointed chief minister – with wariness.
Change of strategy?
The Congress, which was decimated in the May 16 election, has also started pursuing a soft Hindutva line to counter the threat poised by the BJP. The appointment of Ramesh Chennithala, a senior Hindu leader in the party, as leader of the Opposition, is considered to be a start in that direction.
Chennithala was the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president when the party-led United Democratic Front came to power in 2011. He was inducted into the Oommen Chandy ministry mid-course with the key home portfolio after the majority community was outraged by the allocation of a fifth ministerial berth to the Indian Union Muslim League, which represents the Muslim community.
Though the appointment quelled the controversy, the results of the just-concluded election show that the Congress could not regain the trust of the majority community. The Congress and its allies thought that the BJP’s alliance with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena would affect the LDF the most, but the tie-up has eaten into the Congress’s upper caste Hindu vote bank instead.
Though the Congress made impressive gains during the eight-year term of Chennithala as state president, many in the party and outside feel that reviving the party, which has been reduced to 22 seats, and holding together its battered allies, will be a tough task.
It doesn’t help that many sections in the Congress and some UDF allies have started blaming the state leadership for the party’s dismal performance in the elections. Former state Congress president K Muralidharan even contested Chennithala’s appointment as the Opposition leader.
Rocky road ahead
Political observers feel that the Congress can survive in Kerala only by fighting the onslaught of the Sangh Parivar. They doubt whether Chennithala can do this as he is perceived to be soft towards the BJP and the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena.
Many believe that BJP’s alliance with Bharath Dharma Jana Sena did not affect the LDF so much as Achuthanandan launched a frontal attack on the Sena by citing numerous corruption cases pending against its parent body, the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam. Achuthanandan also highlighted the alleged attempts made by the previous UDF government, especially home minister Chennithala, to save them.
Chennithala has to change this perception if his task to rejuvenate the Congress’s demoralised party cadres is to succeed. Kerala is one of the few states where the Congress has a strong organisational base. The national leadership of the party has pinned its hopes on him.
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