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Kerala Elections: Nothing Mysterious

The election results in Kerala show that the sections of society who were the beneficiaries of the policies of the Left Democratic Front government mostly voted for the Left, while the performance of the United Democratic Front at the polls had more to it than the mere fallout of a formulaic expression of caste and religious loyalties. A critical comment on "Mystery of the Kerala Poll Results" authored by N P Rajendran (28 May 2011).

DISCUSSION

Kerala Elections: Nothing Mysterious

Subin Dennis

The election results in Kerala show that the sections of society who were the beneficiaries of the policies of the Left Democratic Front government mostly voted for the Left, while the performance of the United Democratic Front at the polls had more to it than the mere fallout of a formulaic expression of caste and religious loyalties. A critical comment on “Mystery of the Kerala Poll Results” authored by N P Rajendran (28 May 2011).

Subin Dennis (subindennis@gmail.com) is a research scholar at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning of Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

N
P Rajendran makes several sweeping assertions in his analysis of the Kerala assembly election results (“Mystery of the Kerala Poll Results”, 28 May 2011). He claims, for instance, that “it was not the great performance” of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, but “the ‘morality’ politics raised by VS” that prevented what would have been a “justifiable anti-incumbency wave” (why such a wave would have been justifiable is not explained anywhere in the article). Further, he argues that it was a consolidation of the minority votes against the Left that resulted in it losing the election.

To be fair to Rajendran, he is not alone in reaching such conclusions. Several analysts, both of the right and the left, have held up the “minority vote consolidation thesis” as the explanation for the election results, citing the exceptional performance of the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani) – both constituents of the United Democratic Front (UDF) – as evidence. For these analysts too, the impressive performance of the Left in Kerala had no underlying factors except a “pro-VS sentiment”.

What is it, then, that accounts for the success of the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress? And how did the Left make such a strong comeback after the setbacks it faced in the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 and the local body elections in 2010? The election results show that the sections of society who were the beneficiaries of the policies of the LDF government mostly voted for the Left, while the performance of the UDF had more to it than the mere fallout of a formulaic expression of caste and religious loyalties.

LDF Policy Measures

One of the first decisions of the LDF ministry when it took office in 2006 was to constitute a commission to provide debt relief to the farmers of Kerala, who had been hit hard by the crash in the domestic prices of cash crops – a direct result of the trade liberalisation measures of the central government. The formation of the commission and its subsequent work played an important role in bringing peasant suicides in the state to a halt.

While most state governments were engaged in a “race to the bottom” in providing enormous concessions to private capital in order to solicit investments, the LDF government opted out of the race. Instead of succumbing to the fad of privatisation, the government turned around loss-making public sector units (PSUs), started new PSUs, revived ailing traditional industries and even took steps to take over a few lossmaking private sector companies that had been shut. The expansion of the public distribution system was a big relief to the poor and the middle class during the times of inflation. The financial management of the government came in for praise from across the board – even as welfare schemes were expanded, the government was in no financial difficulty at any point of time.

The poll outcome showed that the policy measures of the LDF won widespread support among the people. The LDF won a majority of seats in nine districts out of the total 14 districts. In Kollam, the centre of the cashew industry, where cashew workers were provided 200 days of work per year (compared to 40-50 days during UDF rule), the LDF won nine out of 11 seats. In Alappuzha, where government assistance to the coir industries was ensured along with higher wages and debt relief for coir workers, the LDF won seven out of nine seats. A landmark welfare scheme that benefited plantation workers – numbering about two lakh – was one of the factors that helped the LDF in districts like Idukki and Pathanamthitta. The prominence that the government gave to foodgrain cultivation reflected in measures like the doubling of the procurement price of rice, created a sentiment in favour of the LDF in rice-growing regions, while the welfare schemes for fisherfolk, including debt relief, helped turn the tide in many coastal regions. A welfare scheme that provides benefits, including pension, to more than 10 lakh workers employed in shops and commercial establishments won the support of workers across the state.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 18, 2011 vol xlvi no 25

DISCUSSION

The change in the public mood during the run-up to the elections was astounding. The Left had received a big setback in the elections to the local bodies only a few months ago. The numerous scams in which the Congress and its allies, both at the centre and in the state, embroiled themselves turned out to be a shot in the arm for the Left. That a sex scam involving the Muslim League leader P K Kunhalikutty resurfaced, and that a former UDF minister, R Balakrishna Pillai, was sent to jail on corruption charges tarnished the image of the UDF even further.

The astute campaign by V S Achuthanandan played an important role in the weeks preceding the election, by helping to channelise the anger of the people against the Congress and its allies. To the public mind, the relatively clean administrative record of the LDF government weighed up favourably when compared to that of both the current dispensation at the centre and the previous UDF government.

In spite of all these, the LDF lost by a narrow margin. Perhaps the strangest results came from two districts that are known as Left strongholds – Kannur and Palakkad. In Kannur, the LDF lost five out of 11 seats despite winning 51.07% votes compared to the UDF’s 41.29% share in votes. In this district, the change in the boundaries of constituencies following delimitation has created some constituencies where the Left has brute majority, and others where it is relatively weak.

In Palakkad, the LDF lost five out of the 12 seats in the district. It has been argued that a better selection of candidates would have helped the Left to win more seats in Palakkad and in some other districts.

Sub-regional Parties

It is necessary to look into the nature of the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress while assessing their performance. They are sub-regional parties – it is not as if Muslims or Christians are under the thrall of these parties all over Kerala. The Muslim League’s strongholds are in Malappuram district and a few other regions in north Kerala. The Kerala Congress is an alliance of leaders, mostly from Christian and Nair communities, who have a strong grip in their pockets of influence in parts of southcentral Kerala. Outside the traditional strongholds of the two parties, neither the “Muslim vote” nor the “Christian vote” consolidated in favour of the UDF.

Common to the core support base of both the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress are the conservative sections of the peasantry and the middle classes which have risen from their ranks. The recognition of this factor would give us an important clue to the success of these parties. Substantial sections of the peasantry in Kerala are beneficiaries of a recent commodity boom, whereby the prices of the most important cash crops of Kerala – rubber and coconut – are ruling at historic highs, while yet others are commanding high prices relative to the lows to which they had sunk a few years back. Compared to the year 2006, the prices of coconut oil and copra had risen by 80% and 44%, respectively by January 2011, while rubber prices had risen by a whopping 152%. During the same time period, the farm gate prices of coffee in Wayanad rose by 68% and pepper prices rose by 152%. Cardamom prices were up by 365% by January-March 2011 compared to 2006, while tea prices were 54% higher. The spike in the domestic prices of the cash crops of Kerala was due to the higher prices commanded by them in the international market, and could not be attributed to the policies of the state or central government. This turn of events meant that large sections of the peasantry in north Kerala and south- central Kerala and the middle classes who retain close ties to them did not feel the need to ditch the parties they have traditionally supported.

Besides this, as N P Ashley points out in an article in Mathrubhumi daily (Ashley 2011), the recent entry of two forces of political Islam – the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and the Popular Front of India (PFI) – into the electoral arena in Kerala created a dynamic that actually helped the Muslim League. The major Muslim organisations in the state united against the religious fundamentalism of the likes of the JI and the PFI, especially in the wake of the infamous attack on the college lecturer T J Joseph. The Muslim League positioned itself in the forefront of this united campaign against extremism and projected itself as the dependable, moderate force, which paid rich dividends when the elections came.

Conclusions

It is beyond any doubt that a majority of people from the Christian and Muslim communities vote for the UDF rather than the LDF. But that is not because the CPI(M) and CPI are “Hindu parties” as Rajendran alleges, but largely due to the well-known fact that in communities where organised religion has a bigger influence, pronouncements emanating from the religious leaders carry greater weight, even as religious leaderships by and large side with the elite in their respective communities. Added to this are the problems created by “the adoption of a simplistic rationalist approach by the Left on several occasions, incognisant of the specific religious atmosphere in these communities”, as the Left itself has acknowledged (Isaac 2009).

It is important to recognise that class contradictions are very much present in the minority communities. If such contradictions tend to be muted due to the hold of the organised religious leadership over the people, the work of the Left is expected to help class contradictions to come to the fore over time. This has indeed worked that way, as was seen in the 2006 elections, when the peasants of Wayanad and Idukki (both districts with large minority populations), in distress following the crash of prices for their crops, vented their anger against the Congress by voting in favour of the LDF.

To summarise, comprehending the 2011 Kerala assembly election results requires a nuanced analysis which accounts for the support of the workers and large sections of the middle class that the Left won. It also calls for a recognition of the reasons why major sections of the peasantry in the cash crop growing regions in the state voted for the parties whom they have traditionally supported, as well as an understanding of some specific developments within various communities. What Rajendran terms “unexplainable paradoxes” (the performance of the Muslim League, etc) would then become far less “mysterious”. The minority vote consolidation thesis – which claims that minorities qua minorities voted against the Left – turns out to be grossly inadequate in this respect.

References

Ashley, N P (2011): “Theranjeduppile Muslim Manassu” (“The Muslim Mind in the Elections”), Mathrubhumi, 6 June.

Isaac, T M Thomas (2009): “The Left’s Position on Ponnani”, http://www.pragoti.org/node/3293, accessed on 4 June 2011.

june 18, 2011 vol xlvi no 25

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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