Thiruvananthapuram: Political groups founded on caste and religious bases are set to make an impact on the general election in Kerala on a scale that India’s most literate state hasn’t seen in the past, analysts say.
Such groups are being courted by political formations of all hues, including the so-called secularists, putting religion and caste at the electoral forefront in a state that voted in the world’s first elected Communist government in 1957.
Both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) are at fault for promoting the “unhealthy trend” to win votes, says G. Gopa Kumar, professor and head, department of political science, University of Kerala.
“These kinds of efforts to manipulate votes—though they were seen in the previous elections as well—are very high this time around,” Gopa Kumar said.
“It’s sad that the CPM, which in the 1987 assembly elections decided not to align with communal organizations and still won the elections, has stooped to this,” he said. “The Congress is also trying to woo several minority and caste groups like never before.”
Whatever the political science professor says, fringe groups whose appeal lies on religious and caste planks are likely to play a decisive role in Thursday’s Lok Sabha election in a state of 35 million people that sells itself to the world’s tourists as God’s own country.
In the 2004 general election, the LDF won 18 of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats, but the number is expected to decline drastically this time because of the anti-incumbency factor, internal squabbling and alienation of Christians from the ruling front, political observers say.
A small swing in the vote can make a huge difference. For example, in 1996, the LDF took power with 45.88% of the vote and 80 of the assembly’s 140 seats. The UDF garnered 44.84%, but only 59 seats. Although the LDF’s vote percentage dropped only slightly to 43.58 in 2001, its seat tally plummeted to 40. In contrast, the UDF swept to power with 49.17% of the vote and 99 seats.
The time, the CPM has entered into an electoral arrangement with Abdul Nasser Madani’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in what Gopa Kumar calls “a disgrace to the state that once boasted of model coalition governments”.
Madani was arrested in 1998 in connection with the Coimbatore bombings the same year in which 60 people were killed. After spending nine years in jail, he was acquitted and released.
One reason for the tie-up is to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party at bay.
“There is no capitulation of Marxist values,” said CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, in a phone interview from his hometown Kannur. “Our struggle all through this period has been to defeat these nefarious forces.”
“You...should know that we even went to the extent of supporting the Congress only to keep the Bharatiya Janata Party at bay,” he added, referring to the support extended by the Left to the Congress-led coalition at the Centre until they parted ways in July.
Caste-based organizations such as the Nair Service Society, or NSS, and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP, continue to exercise influence on both the UDF and the LDF although their clout has diminished with the emergence of several pressure groups from minority communities, who form around 45% of Kerala’s population.
For the NSS, the main issue in recent times has been “the injustice” done to upper castes such as the Nairs by successive governments offering reserved quotas for the so-called other backward classes (OBCs) such as the Ezhavas, the single biggest Hindu community in the state, said P.K. Narayana Panicker, NSS general secretary.
He adds: “The current climate of reservation system in the state is destroying the social fabric…none of the poll manifestos provide any sign of hope. So we will remain equidistant from both camps.”
Vellappalli Natesan, the SNDP chief, who has in the past worked unsuccessfully towards forming a grand alliance of the SNDP, NSS and some sections of Christians has, of late, veered more towards the LDF, backing the ruling coalition on education policies that have angered both the Catholic church and the NSS.
The LDF government’s effort to bring self-financing private colleges—most such institutions are Church-run—under state control have antagonized Christians. And a chapter in a primary school social studies text-book that seemingly advocated atheism and communism provoked widespread protests in Kerala last year.
Natesan said the SNDP will offer “case-by-case support” to candidates lined up by both the UDF and the LDF.
The LDF has alienated a sizeable section of Kerala Christians from the alliance, conceded a CPM leader who is from the Christian community, declining to be named.
The Catholic church has come up with several pastoral letters, directing believers to vote against non-believers. The most vehement letter was the one issued late last month by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council. It told believers not to choose candidates “who impose atheism and politics of violence”.
“It is one of the most scathing attacks on the Left in recent times,” Gopa Kumar said.