Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
After East, I wish to once again turn attention to deep South in Kerala that is also witnessing an interesting battle for the State, elections to which were announced to be held along with West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and Puducherry on Friday bringing the moral code of conduct into force.
For the BJP, putting up its biggest showing ever in South India so far with a fair chance of winning few seats in Puducherry, opening its account in Tamil Nadu and poised to put up a vicious fight in Kerala that has been a two-horse race for the past five decades or so, during the course of which the voters have chosen alternative formations–led by the Left and the Congress–to lead the State.
It is under such a scenario that the BJP has thrown all it has into Kerala, as well, with all the ammunition it has got–issues, campaigns, and leaders. As dictated by electoral history, it is the turn of the Congress-led United Democratic Front this time around to unseat the Pinarai Vijayan led Left Front Government in the most literate State in the country.
Much to the credit of the BJP, which has been trying hard to strike roots in the State for the past several decades, its performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha general elections was creditable in that it improved its vote share significantly. The BJP increased its vote share to 15 percent, but it is clearly not enough to make a dent in the direct fight between the two formations, as it could not get any of its candidates elected in the general elections to Lok Sabha. The Congress swept the Lok Sabha general elections winning 19 out of the total 20 seats and looks poised to win the State.
That is if the momentum of Lok Sabha elections continues and electoral history holds good, then Congress has a fair chance of making it, although, the fight will be extremely tough.
And most of the difficulties for Congress are its own creation–as infighting in its leadership is something that is strongly prevalent in the party dispensation. And moreover, the Left Front Government has done fairly well, whether it was in containing COVID-19 pandemic – notwithstanding the recent spurt in cases, or welfare measures over the past five years, which gives it a positive incumbent advantage.
On the positive for the Kerala Left Front Government is its strategy for fighting COVID-19 pandemic and general governance delivery that people rate highly. What people remember are the free food kits supplied by the Government all through the pandemic, and the absence of anti-incumbency in the State, leading the people to wonder if Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan could be the one to buck the electoral history and win a successive term.
Yes, corruption has become an issue, what with the gold smuggling scandal that hit the Government on the eve of elections, so to speak. At least five agencies of the Centre are now investigating the gold smuggling case, which has prompted the State to cry foul even though it was the State Government that sought Central probe at first.
But the most interesting aspect of the Kerala battle is the nature of the relationship between the two top contenders. In Kerala, CPM led Left Front and the Congress are bitter enemies but the same parties are in an alliance in West Bengal. Here in West Bengal, these two formations take on Trinamool Congress on the one hand and a resurgent BJP on the other.
It is this dichotomy of the two ‘Frenemies’ that is already being hit up in the BJP campaign in Kerala, where RSS cadres have been at the receiving end of the violence unleashed by Left cadres, as alleged by the Sangh parivar outfits. The Left, of course, blames the RSS and BJP for vitiating the atmosphere and communalizing the State that has seen peace and harmony.
Demographically, Kerala is a Hindu majority State with 55 percent Hindu population but has a sizeable percentage of Muslims (28 %) and Christians at 15 percent. This naturally gives the Left and Congress a natural advantage. The BJP has of late managed to strike deep roots with the kind of issues it raked up – notably the Sabarimala issue.
But this time around no such emotive issue is playing on the minds of the electorate, though the BJP tries to keep raking up issues with religious overtones. But clearly, the BJP also knows that this issue would not fetch it dividends as the Hindutva issue brought it in Uttar Pradesh and parts of North India. This is why the BJP banks on the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and relies on a slew of Central Government schemes and preference given to Kerala in the Union Budget to woo voters.
What the BJP thinks that it would get benefit from is the entry of much respected ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan, who has already declared himself to the Chief Ministerial candidate. Analysts believe that the BJP will do much better than ever before, but still it was not a powerful player strong enough to dislodge either of the two strong political forces in the State. As yet, that is.
But what was unthinkable in the past is that the BJP has won two local body elections and it controls Palakkad and Vandanam municipalities. But of the six corporations of Kerala, Kannur, Kozhikode, Trissur, Cochin, Kollam, and Thiruvananthapuram, five are with the CPM and one with the Congress, indicating that the BJP is present, but as a distant third force. The BJP has its pockets of influence in Palakkad, Kannur, and Thiruvananthapuram. But it still needs a charismatic local face to expand its appeal and get close to winning seats in the Assembly and Parliament.
What gives hope to the BJP and its cadre base is the severe infighting within the Congress that is split into different groupings, one led by Oomen Chandy and another by Ramesh Chenintala.
The tussle between the two Congress biggies could damage the prospects of the Congress and a disjointed campaign could end up helping Left Front to just about sneak in, again.
What can go against Chief Minister Pinarai Vijayan though is his strongman image, with his detractors describing him as autocratic. But on the whole, he enjoys a good image, barring the taint of corruption that has touched his doors, though he individually is perceived as an honest leader.
The Congress Central high command has thrown its lot with Oomen Chandy, who is also considered a good leader and has support among the people, but locally Chenintala, a former youth Congress leader and current leader of Opposition in the Assembly considers his claim for Chief Ministership as just and proper.
For all practical purposes, the Congress-led United Democratic Front has the upper hand, and if it can present a picture of unity, and go to the people as a clear-cut alternative to the Left Front, it stands a chance.
It is not a mere coincidence that former AICC president and Wayanad MP, Rahul Gandhi is spending a lot of time in South India, notably Kerala, and is already campaigning for the party. For him personally and the Congress, its stakes, and chances in Kerala, are the highest among the five States going to the polls.
The writer is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected]
and Twitter handle @kvlakshman