Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Faltering UDF, Rising LDF and the Unknown Factor of the Third Front

The ruling United Democratic Front's chances of coming back to power in the forthcoming elections in Kerala seem bleak, while a resurgent Left Democratic Front is gearing up to form the government. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party's showing in the 2015 local body elections may be the uncertain factor in 0the calculations.
When the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by Congress leader Oommen Chandy came to power in Kerala in 2011, the first question most people asked was how long his government would last. However, with a slender majority of three members, the UDF has managed to survive five long years of trials and tribulations. For this, it owes thanks first to Chandy himself and, second, to the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI(M). Chandy’s political acumen in managing a ministry comprising around half a dozen parties taking a dozen different political positions, and in dismantling the innumerable political revolts and uprisings emanating from inside and outside the ruling front, was there for everybody to witness. The main opposition party, the CPI(M) has always taken an ideological and tactical stand that rules out toppling any government by engineering defections.
If we go by the pattern in Kerala’s past, it is a safe bet that in 2016 the Left Democratic Front (LDF) will come back to power. This is because, ever since 1977, neither the UDF nor the LDF has been re-elected to office. The Oommen Chandy ministry, which has miraculously completed its five-year term, had hopes of breaking this pattern considering that it has been winning all the elections held in the state since 2011. However, after the elections to the local bodies in November 2015, the situation has changed. The UDF had fared satisfactorily in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Soon, however, its image was tarnished as it got entangled in controversies related to the sensational 2013 “solar scandal” which had been on the fringes for the past three years but has taken centre stage recently.
An allegedly fraudulent company, Team Solar, used a woman executive Saritha Nair to contact politicians with links leading to the chief minister’s office. It was alleged that Team Solar duped several influential persons to the tune of Rs 7 crore by offering to make them business partners, or by installing solar power units for them. The promises were not kept. The media named it the solar scam and then gleefully sensationalised it. Nair has been in the news ever since with her concealed threats and revelations. Another partner of the firm was accused of killing his wife and is undergoing life imprisonment. All this has succeeded in tainting the UDF’s image and most importantly besmirching the office of the chief minister.
Judicial Commission
The government set up a judicial commission of enquiry in late 2013 to tide over a well-planned agitation by the CPI(M) which threatened to indefinitely block the state secretariat. Revelations being thrown up in the judicial enquiry hearing almost daily have further weakened the UDF’s prospects. In January, Nair deposed before the commission that she had given a bribe of Rs 1.9 crore to Chandy. She further said that he had asked her to make his son a partner in a larger solar project and that she had bribed several other UDF politicians including the Minister for Electricity Aryadan Muhammed. She even challenged all these persons including the chief minister to disprove her allegations. The scandal is full of .00allegations of sex, crime, and family feuds, murder, blackmail, politics, money and naturally the Kerala media has been having a field day.
Another scandal that erupted, namely, the bar bribe scam, stemmed from a tussle between Chandy and the state Congress President V M Sudheeran, over renewing the liquor licences of 418 bars that were identified as substandard. In 2013, Sudheeran had opposed the renewal of their licences and wanted the introduction of total prohibition. In a well-thought-out plan to fight Sudheeran’s move, which he believed was an attempt to belittle him, Chandy announced immediate closure of all bars below the five-star category, and plans to usher in total prohibition in a phased manner in 10 years. When the powerful bar lobby lost the legal battle, allegations of paying bribes started. In a discussion on a TV channel, the president of the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners’ Association alleged that the Finance Minister K M Mani demanded and was given Rs 5 crore to renew the liquor licences. An adverse reference made by the high court forced Mani to resign, further tarnishing the image of UDF and providing new opportunities for its partners to start a new round of infighting.
Meanwhile, another Congress minister K Babu, in charge of the excise department, against whom also there were allegations of taking bribes from bar owners, tendered his resignation, consequent to adverse decisions in the vigilance court. Chandy did not forward his letter to the governor, expecting a favourable decision on his appeal in the high court. Chandy’s expectations were proved right and Babu was soon back in the ministerial chair.
Despite all this, the UDF and its chief minister were confident of winning the elections to the local self-government institutions held in November 2015 since they were sure that their record on the developmental front was very good. The chief minister even claimed that the election result would be an endorsement of the various people-friendly policies and achievements of his government. The voters, however, thought otherwise. The LDF bagged a good majority in the three-tier local bodies in 12 out of the 14 districts in the state. Seven of the 14 district panchayats, 550 of the 941 gram panchayats, and 89 of the 152 block panchayats went to the LDF. In the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation, the LDF emerged as the biggest group, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came second. The verdict was clearly in favour of the opposition.
It was the performance of the BJP that became the topic of discussion among political observers as well as the public. The party had managed to make inroads into the UDF and the LDF bastions throughout the state. It marked the rise of a third force in the state for the first time. Of course, its earlier version, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, had contested all the elections from 1965. However, it could never win an assembly or Lok Sabha seat. This time it might be different, even their opponents agree.
After the BJP victory at the centre, the party president Amit Shah has been eyeing the demographics of Kerala. He is trying to rope in caste and religious groups.
The BJP Factor
“We are contesting, not merely to open an account, but to rule Kerala with a good majority” is the claim of Kummanam Rajasekharan, the newly appointed president of the state BJP. Kummanam became the president in January 2015. His elevation to the post is yet another experiment by Shah. Kummanam had never been even a village-level office-bearer of the BJP. Since groupism and personal rivalries among the leaders were a continuing menace, an outsider taking up the top post would be able to deliver and achieve its potential, so went the thinking of the central leadership.
Just before the local body elections, Shah had fired his first salvo by finding a coalition partner for the party, in Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a social organisation which stood for the spread of the teachings of Sree Narayana Guru. The 79-year-old Ezhava leader Vellappally Natesan is the general secretary of theSNDP which represents the backward caste Ezhavas and runs a network of educational and other institutions throughout Kerala. Many find Natesan’s presence in the organisation an incongruity since Sree Narayana Guru had fought against casteism and advocated abstinence from alcohol. These issues have never bothered Natesan, a bar owner who has not hesitated to talk about or sport his caste affiliation. How a community with such a strong tradition of social reformation and secular thinking can be tied to the communal formation of the Sangh Parivar is a question Natesan has not bothered to answer either.
Caste and Religion
These issues may not be relevant but the fact that the Ezhava caste constitutes around 20% of the Hindu population has a bearing in electoral calculations. Hindus form 54%, Muslims 23% and Christians 19% of Kerala’s population. Thus Natesan cannot be ignored in the emerging scenario. Any answer to the questions as to how many Ezhavas will listen him and how much he can tilt the balance in favour of the third fron will be disputed. But no one will question that he has a good following within his caste.
Ezhavas forms the backbone of the CPI(M). Even after six decades of unending efforts and experimentation, the left has failed to penetrate the two religious minorities in the state. The CPI(M) and the Communist Party of India (CPI) are “Hindu” parties in that sense. Though the CPI(M)’s most prominent leaders of yester years were from the upper castes, Ezhavas who formed the bulk of the working class had stood firmly behind it. The rise of the BJP at the centre has created ripples in the Hindu community and it was predicted that a BJP–SNDP alliance was going to harm the CPI(M) seriously in the local body elections. But it worked the other way around. A small percentage of Ezhava votes may have gone to the BJP candidates, but the CPI(M) could compensate this loss because there was a much stronger shift in the Muslim–Christian votes in their favour. The Muslim and the Christian communities had always stood by the UDF. But this time in the elections, the LDF alleged that the UDF had softened its opposition to Sangha Parivar policies for votes. It was only when the ballots were counted that the UDF realised their mistake in assessing the ground situation. They had expected a fall in the Left Front’s Hindu votes. The left said that the BJP had let the UDF contest in wards where the BJP had no candidates. This strengthened the impression that the UDF was soft towards Hindu communalism. Many think this was what harmed the UDF most this time around.
Waning VS Influence
The LDF’s preparation for the assembly elections is now in top gear and it believes that the UDF’s embroilment in scandals and an anti-incumbency wave will pave the way for their return. During the last two assembly elections, the party had to face serious infighting between two factions, one led by V S Achuthanandan and the other by Pinarayi Vijayan. “VS” the leader of the opposition in the Kerala legislature, now aged 92 is as active as any other politician. Vijayan, who was secretary of the state unit for 17 years from 1998 to 2015, still retains a strong grip on the party. Who will be the chief minister if the LDF gets a majority is a big question. Achuthanandan, who is an opposition leader even inside the party, has been challenging the official leadership all these years. He was the chief minister from 2006 to 2011 and in 2011 he was able to take the party very close to victory. This time nobody expects a repetition of the drama. The party is now much more united. Though no official declarations have been made so far, it is a well-accepted fact that Vijayan is the chief minister candidate of the LDF. He has already undertaken a spectacular yatra through all the 140 constituencies. During his tenure as party secretary, relations with other constituents of the front had soured and the two parties—the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Janata Dal (United) had left the LDF and joined the UDF. Vijayan is trying his best to correct past mistakes and bring these parties back. Achuthanandan seems to have realised that his chances are thin and has been staying away from stoking controversies. His appeal as the conscious keeper of the state has also waned and he is no more seen to be indispensable to its future prospects.
Though the LDF is confident of victory, they know that nothing can be left to chance. The difference in votes between the two fronts has always been marginal and the two months that remain are not a very small period in state politics.
It is the growth of the third front that is making the outcome of the next elections unpredictable. Even though it is agreed that the BJP cannot hope to come to power in the state, it is a fact that for the first time in recent history it is going to be a three horse race.
In the last parliamentary polls in 2014, the BJP could harness 10.83% votes and with a marginal increase of about 3% additional votes it could become a real third force, which cannot be written off. Now it has risen to 14% going by the results of the local bodies elections. The lotus will bloom but its numbers and its impact on the rival fronts can only be speculated upon.

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