Left turn in Kerala?

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Back in form The 91-year-old CPM leader VS Achuthanandan proved to be a major crowd-puller
Back in form The 91-year-old CPM leader VS Achuthanandan proved to be a major crowd-puller. Photo: SK Mohan

The people of Kerala cast their votes on 10 April, and since then, political leaders across the spectrum have been keeping their fingers crossed. They are repeatedly crosschecking their calculations for all the 20 constituencies and guessing how factors like the newbie Aam Aadmi Party, a large number of young voters and growing communal undercurrents would affect their chances.

Historically, the state has exhibited a curious electoral pattern, with the voters swinging from the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) to the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in alternate elections since the 1980s. In the 1999 General Election, the UDF had won 11 seats, while the LDF bagged nine. But in 2004, the LDF nearly swept the Lok Sabha polls, winning 19 seats. The UDF was left with just one seat, the Muslim-dominated Malappuram, where the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) chief E Ahamed won with a thin margin. In 2009, the UDF romped home with 16 seats, conceding only four seats to the LDF.

The Congress dreams of a repeat of the 2009 victory, which could prove crucial in saving Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s chair. The CPM hopes for a rerun of 2004, seeking to uproot the Congress in the state. Even the BJP, which has no strong presence in Kerala, prays for a lotus bloom in Thiruvananthapuram, where its candidate, former Union minister O Rajagopal, is taking on the incumbent, Union minister Shashi Tharoor.

With 74.04 percent of the 24.2 million voters casting their vote, the Left expects to gain from the pervasive anti- Congress mood. “Negative votes will decide the winner,” comments political analyst A Jayashanker. “As anti-incumbency plagues the Congress, the LDF seems to be in a better position this time and could bag 11-13 seats.”

If this prediction turns out to be true, the Congress will be running for cover and Chandy might have to make an unceremonious exit. This election could seriously dent the political careers of top state leaders of the grand old party. With five Union ministers contesting from Kerala, the party has raised the stakes high enough for the fall to be dangerously steep.

Besides Tharoor, the other Central ministers in the fray are Food Minister KV Thomas from Ernakulam, MoS (Civil Aviation) KC Venugopal from Alappuzha, MoS (Labour) Kodikunnil Suresh from Mavelikkara and MoS (Home) Mullappally Ramachandran from Vadakara. Another high-profile Congress candidate is Thrissur MP PC Chacko, who is contesting from Chalakudy, while IUML president Ahamed hopes to retain his Malappuram seat. Only Thomas and Ahamed seem to be in a comfortable zone, while the others are engaged in fierce electoral battles.

Tharoor, who had trounced his CPI rival P Ramachandran Nair in 2009 by nearly 1 lakh votes, is on unsteady ground this time, with a depleted fan base following a slew of controversies. Shrewdly playing the caste card, the CPI has fielded an unknown Nadar Christian, Bennet Abraham, in Thiruvananthapuram, where the Nadars form 40 percent of the electorate.

“Some people thought it was a blunder to field a political novice,” says a voter in Thiruvananthapuram. “But Abraham is also a prominent member of the Church of South India, which has a huge following in the capital constituency. It could be a clever gamble.”

State BJP leaders, however, hope that Tharoor would be defeated not by Abraham, but their candidate, 84-year-old Rajagopal. “Rajagopal’s clean image will help us win for the first time in the state. Many Left cadres, too, have voted for him,” says Ramachandran Nair of the BJP.

Congress leaders, though, believe that Tharoor remains a crowd-puller and will also benefit from the votes of the minorities. “He will retain his seat, perhaps with a smaller margin than last time,” says KG Jacob, district secretary of the party in Thiruvananthapuram.

Observers surmise that the Left will hold sway over north and central Kerala, while the UDF will retain its strongholds in the southern parts. As for AAP, no one expects it to win any seats, but it could complicate electoral calculations by cutting into the vote banks of both the main contenders. “Many are fed up with both the fronts and their number is increasing every day,” says KA Sebastian, an AAP volunteer in Angamaly.

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This election is also very crucial for the Catholic Church, which has distanced itself from the Congress over the Kasturirangan panel report on the Western Ghats. The LDF has fielded Joyce George, a legal adviser of the church-supported High Range Protection Council, which opposes the report’s recommendations, as an independent candidate from Idukki. In case George is defeated, it would be a major loss of face for the church.

In the CPM camp, however, there is euphoria over the fact that for the first time since 2001, the party seems to be fighting the election as a united organisation. Former chief minister and Leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, VS Achuthanandan, is once again playing the role of an undisputed leader. He is seen defending the party and dumping “party baiters” like Rema, widow of TP Chandrasekharan, who had quit the CPM in 2009 to form the Revolutionary Marxist Party and was hacked to death in 2012. The 91-year-old Achuthanandan’s revived confidence surprised many and thrilled his comrades. Over a 14-day campaign trail, he covered 3,000 km and addressed 62 public meetings.

“He was the star campaigner of the Left and a crowd-puller,” says the Opposition leader’s press secretary KV Sudhakaran. “Even youngsters turned up to listen to the nonagenarian. He can feel the political pulse and direct the undercurrents. He attracted a huge crowd even in Malappuram, an IUML citadel.”

Achuthanandan sounds pretty confident when he says, “After the election, Chandy will have to go. I am sure that people will vote against his corrupt government.” He believes there will be a political tsunami after the election results are declared. If the UDF loses in Kottayam, Kerala Congress (Mani), which had split from the Congress in 1979, will bid goodbye to the alliance with its parent party. And if the IUML ends up with a reduced vote share, the Ahamed-led party, too, will blame the grand old party and snap ties with it. Clearly, Chandy is looking at tough times ahead.

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