Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Mystery of Kerala poll results

V.S. Achuthanandan attempted the impossible. He tried, virtually single-handedly, to reverse a firmly set trend and thus save his government from being swamped by an anti-incumbency wave. Since 1977, no Kerala Chief Minister has been able to continue in office after completing a five year term. VS, as he is popularly known, almost pulled it off. The Left Democratic Front would have retained power if it had won just three seats more in the 2011 Assembly election.

 After the Lok Sabha election in 2009 and the local bodies poll in the following year, there was hardly a doubt that the LDF would be routed in the battle for control of the Legislative Assembly. The United Democratic Front had swept both elections and the results indicated that it could win at least 100 of the 140 seats in the State Assembly. Until about the beginning of 2011, public resentment against the LDF and the “party” was palpable. It was against this background that VS set out to turn the tide against his opponents. The 87 year-old seemed to defy physical limitations as he campaigned through the length and breadth of the state despite the heat of summer. VS was about the only leader from either front, national or state-level, who attracted huge crowds to his rallies.

With his well-honed practice of picking a few issues and hammering away at them, the octogenarian seized the initiative in the campaign. Circumstances also helped. Sensations issues, which had lain dormant for long, suddenly burst into life during the lead up to the election. The Supreme Court sentenced R. Balakrishna Pillai, irrigation minister in a former UDF government, to a year’s imprisonment in a corruption case. Muslim League leader and Industries Minister in the 2001-2006 UDF government, P.K.Kunhalikutty, was dragged back into the whorls of a sex-scandal that had erupted 15 years ago. While the matter had not slipped from public memory, Kunhalikutty had appeared to have survived the scandal after the courts gave him a clean chit. The issue suddenly became red hot once again when one of the League leader’s close relatives went public with the allegation that Kunhalikutty had escaped punishment only because he had bribed judges. VS is not the type of politician who will fail to take advantage of these kinds of openings. He probably even felt vindicated in latching on to these issues. He had led the assaults against Pillai and Kunhalikutty with ferocious zeal when the respective scandals first erupted.

Nothing better illustrates the strength of VS’s determination to finish his enemies than the fact that he was the only man to pursue Pillai all the way to the Supreme Court when most people in the State had forgotten the details of the case including the year when the graft was first brought to light. In the 2006 Assembly election campaign, VS had whipped up the resentment against Kunhalikutty (and a UDF government that was presumably protecting him) by promising that he would make those held guilty in the sex scandal “walk the streets wearing handcuffs”. The rhetoric had gone down well with women voters, who form a majority in the state’s electorate. VS had singularly failed to fulfill this promise during the five years he ruled but he had no qualms about raising the slogan after the new allegations against Kunhalikutty were aired. Surprisingly, the slogan resonated this time as well and the UDF could not blunt its impact by pointing to the disconnect between promise and delivery. The campaign was actually double-edged. Even as VS was pushing the UDF onto the defensive he was signaling to his own party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that he was still indispensable. The CPI(M) found out the hard way that this was the truth. In the long drawn out turf war between VS and the party’s powerful State Secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, the latter had seemingly triumphed. Pinarayi had tried to rid himself of VS’s trouble-making presence by orchestrating the denial of a ticket to the veteran in the 2006 election. The Politbureau eventually intervened to ensure that VS was allowed to contest. It was the tremendous pro-VS wave that led to the LDF’s sweeping victory in 2006.

However, the power struggle in the party became even more intense after VS became Chief Minister. VS’s hands were tied by the party state committee which continued to be in the control of his Pinarayi. For five years, VS gave the impression that he was nothing more than a lame duck Chief Minister constantly engaged in a futile struggle with the state party hierarchy. As the count-down began for the 2011 poll, the Pinarayi faction appeared to think that VS’s popularity had declined and that there would be no backlash if he was sidelined. With this thought in mind, Pinarayi and cohorts once again declined to recommend VS’s nomination for a ticket. They had grossly misjudged the public mood. If neutral voters were appalled, party workers were incensed. Protest marches were taken out even in known stronghold of the Pinarayi faction. History was repeated but it was a farce only for the political opponents of the CPI(M). The news about the Politbureau intervening once again to ensure that VS was given a ticket was celebrated in the streets and the media. The masses responded in astonishing fashion. With his image as an unrelenting fighter and a ‘Mr. Clean’ to whom a lot of injustice had been done, VS once again became the darling of the crowds, especially the women voters. The real story about the 2011 Kerala Assembly election was that it manifested a pro-VS wave. If the veteran had not been so prominently in the picture, the LDF would have ended up with anything between 30 and 40 seats. That something unusual had happened was evident by the end of polling day, April 13. The voter turnout was over 80 per cent suggesting that there had been a wave. But a wave in favour of which Front was the question. As the vote count progressed it became evident that no Front was headed for a landslide. But the real surprise was that the LDF was running neck and neck, even overtaking the UDF in the “leadings” at certain stages. At the end the LDF finished with a very creditable 68 seats to the UDF’s 72. VS had succeeded i n neutralizing what would have otherwise been a justifiable anti-incumbency wave. In a state where, after 1981, change of governments every five years was the norm, this was a herculean achievement. The two Fronts share 90 percent of the votes and the remainder fluctuates in tune with the prevailing wave. This small margin decides the result. Vote difference between the two fronts was slender during the 1980’s and ‘90’s. In 1982 power shifted from one front to another with the difference of just 1.8 percent of the votes, and in 1991 with just 1.3 percent. Over the last two elections the gulf had widened- it was 5.4 in 2001 and 6 in 2006.

In 2011, the gap narrowed once again with the difference being just 0.89 per cent. It was not the great performance of the LDF government under VS that helped it dispel the anti incumbency mood. It was the ‘morality’ politics raised by VS that helped the LDF run neck-to-neck with the UDF. But, there are unexplainable paradoxes in the final verdict. VS’s main onslaught was against supposed sexual offenders and his specific target was Kunhalikutty. But the VS campaign only helped Kunhalikutty strengthen his position in the League as well as among the Muslims in general. The Muslims appeared to have regarded VS’s crusade as an attempt to weaken their community by defaming their most prominent leader. This perception helped Muslim League recapture the strongholds it lost in 2006. The Muslim league had the best electoral performance, winning 20 of the 24 seats it contested. Another person targeted by VS was the Congress leader and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy against whom too V S raised allegations of corruption. But, the Christian community to which Oommen Chandy belongs, stood firmly behind the UDF. It was the good performance of the Muslim League and Kerala Congress--the party that draws support mainly from Christians--that helped the UDF get the slender majority.

Muslims constitute 23 percent and Christians 19 percent of the Kerala population. Congress had 62 members in the assembly when the UDF ruled between 2001 2006. It had 34 in the Assembly in the 2006-2011 period, when it was in the opposition. Now, though the the Congress is the leading party in the ruling coalition, it has only 38 members in the assembly, less than the leading opposition party, the CPI(M), which has 45. The dependence of the secular Indian National Congress on communal parties has only increased after this election. On the other hand, the main weakness of the LDF too stands exposed. Even after six decades of unending efforts and experimentation, the Left has failed to penetrate the two religious minorities. The CPI(M) and CPI are Hindu parties in that sense.

Sailing is not going to be safe and smooth for UDF. Never before has a ministry taken office with such a slender majority. The UDF has to cope with all its inherent disabilities and contradictions. There is going to be a hard power struggle among the partners for every loaf of bread that power offers. If it was in any other state, or if the opposition was led by any party other than the CPI(M), the ministry’s chances of survival would have been minimal. The UDF leaders cannot rest contented even though the CPI(M) has declared that it is going to honour the verdict of the people and is not going to wreck the UDF boat midstream. That only means it will not wrest power by encouraging defections. But, any two members of any party in the UDF can defect and that will lead to interim elections. Even the LDF might not be able to save the UDF ministry! The BJP ‘s hopes of opening its account in the assembly did not materialize this time as well. It came second in two constituencies. The only further consolation for the party is that its vote share in the state rose from 4.71 to 6.2 percent. Not bad, considering the fact that it has always been accused of selling its votes to either the Left or Right !
(Article published in Economic and Political weekly dated 29May 11)