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Kerala Taking a Left Turn

Panchayat Elections 2015

T K Vinodan (tkvinodan@gmail.com) is a social activist based in Kollam, Kerala.

Kerala’s panchayat elections verdict shows that the Left remains relevant at a time when the BJP is playing its communal card and the Congress-led UDF is fighting staggering corruption cases. 

Ahead of the crucial assembly polls due early next year in Kerala, the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress Party suffered a major setback in the panchayat elections held in the first week of November 2015. The UDF has been winning all the elections since it came to power in 2011.  This time, it failed to get its act together before the crucial local body elections, seen as a dress rehearsal for the assembly polls. The opposition Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) strategy of targeting both the UDF and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with equal fervour worked to its advantage. Although the BJP made its presence felt, the much-hyped Third Front—comprising BJP and Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) failed to take off.

Among the 941 gram panchayats, the LDF won 551, the UDF 362 and the BJP 14. The LDF and UDF got seven each of the 14 district panchayats in the state. Out of 87 municipalities, the LDF won 45, the UDF 40 and the BJP one. In six city corporations, the LDF won two corporations and the UDF one while no one got clear majority in three corporations. In Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation, the LDF emerged the biggest group, while the BJP came second.

The BJP has improved its electoral tally although it did not come anywhere near the figure its leaders predicted before the elections. It has eaten into the vote bases of both the UDF and the LDF. In certain places, including Thiruvananthapuram, the BJP has gained at the cost of the LDF. New voters, mainly in the urban areas, seem to be fascinated by Narendra Modi’s rhetoric of development.

Corruption of UDF

During the campaign for panchayat elections, Chief Minister Ommen Chandy said the election results would be a verdict on his government. Chandy was unfazed even though his government was embroiled in charges of corruption, the scale of which was unheard in the history of the state. Earlier electoral victories in the face of similar charges had made him very confident. This time the corruption charges against state Finance Minister K M Mani created a furore in the state. He is alleged to have accepted bribes to the tune of crores of rupees from bar hotel owners. Chandy and his ruling dispensation seemed unaware of the voters’ disgust and anger. The opposition made this corruption scandal one of the focal points of its campaign and turned the election into a verdict on the bar bribery case.

Combatting Hindutva

Although the BJP’s presence in Kerala is not very big, the LDF and the CPM (Communist Party of India (Marxist)) in particular, led an aggressive campaign against BJP’s attempts to forge an alliance with the SNDP Yogam, the social organisation representing the Ezhava community that forms the backbone of the leftist movement in Kerala. The excesses in the name of Hindutva taking place in many parts of the country were attacked and the LDF campaign, led from the front by opposition leader V S Achuthanandan, turned into an open trial against Sangh Parivar politics.

On the other hand the UDF mainly targeted the LDF and tried to soft-pedal Hindutva politics. Ommen Chandy and UDF strategists took the minority vote bank for granted and did not want to do anything that might alienate Hindu voters any further. As a result, the minority votes shifted to the Left as the minority communities found the Left parties to be more vigilant in countering the Hindutva forces. The increasing presence of communal groups with extreme sectarian views is a notable feature of this election. Apart from the BJP, the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), a political party supporting Islamic fundamentalist ideas, also improved its electoral representation. Preference for fringe groups against mainstream political parties was visible in some parts. An organisation called Twenty-Twenty, sponsored by an industrial group, captured most of the seats in a panchayat in Eranakulam district. Political parties could not explain why an organisation considered apolitical managed to draw so many votes.

Future Politicking

The poll setback will widen the already existing fissures within the UDF. Going by the words of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president V M Sudheeran, the UDF would be trying to do an image makeover by keeping away the brazenly corrupt elements from its frontline. Loss of minority votes must be worrying the UDF leadership most and all attempts would be made to keep the minorities within its fold. The growth of the BJP at the cost of the UDF will be equally worrying.

For the LDF, the victory owes much to the unity within the CPM which has been a divided house for long. How long the party keeps it the newly-found unity depends on the way it handles the question of V S Achuthanandan’s role in the party. As for the BJP, its future will depend on how its alliance with SNDP Yogam affects its traditional vote base consisting of upper castes. 

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