New Delhi: Battling against the charisma of an octogenarian chief minister and the taint of corruption allegations, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) struggled past the post in Kerala’s assembly elections.
The UDF won 72 seats compared with 68 for the Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM.
Also see | Kerala : Key Winners And Losers (PDF)
The slender majority, the lowest margin in the history of Kerala’s coalition politics since 1957, together with the below-par performance of the Congress will have an impact on the stability of the government that will be formed. The Congress will be beholden to two of its key allies—the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which won 20 seats, and the Kerala Congress-Mani, which won 15 seats.
The initial reactions of coalition partners indicate that the Congress will face a considerable challenge, especially in distribution of cabinet portfolios. In fact, there is a chance that allies will demand the creation of the post of deputy chief minister.
Political observers say the verdict has caused alarm in the CPM as well as the Congress.
“While strategic errors from the leadership in the election strategy resulted in the LDF missing a historic opportunity to get a second term, the internal strife in the Congress led to its very poor performance,” said N.P. Chekkutty, a political analyst and executive editor of Thejas newspaper. “There will be serious trouble in both the parties against the current leadership.”
Congress leaders privately concede that the state leadership, which was “busy in infighting”, failed to cash in on the troubles afflicting the LDF.
“Both Oommen Chandy as leader of the opposition and Ramesh Chennithala as state unit chief have completely failed to make use of the atmosphere in favour of the party,” said a Congress general secretary on condition of anonymity.
Madhusudan Mistry, Congress general secretary in charge of Kerala, admitted that “infighting” may be one of the reasons behind its performance. “But it’s difficult to say unless we analyse the results,” he said.
Smaller parties will wield a lot of influence in a UDF administration, said Vinoj Abraham of the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
“Smaller parties are going to be the decision-makers and if their demands are not met, they can create trouble for the government,” he said. “They will have their say on who will lead the government, to portfolios, to each and every decision of the government.”
Though he led the LDF to a better-than-expected performance in an unusually personality-oriented election, 87-year-old V.S. Achuthanandan’s future looks bleak. Omitting any references to the outgoing chief minister, CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechury attributed the LDF’s performance to good governance. “The slender margin shows that there was no incumbency factor,” Yechury told reporters in Delhi. “The fact remains that the achievements of the LDF government put it in good stead with the people.”
The CPM in Kerala is a divided house with one section siding with party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and the other with Achuthanandan, who was expelled from the party politburo for indiscipline in 2009.
Still, the LDF’s performance is likely to force a change in the CPM’s approach to electoral politics. Observers point out that the CPM reinstated Achuthanandan as the party’s leader in the elections after realizing that he had popular support. This signalled that winning elections was more important than adhering to the party line.
Though the rivalry between the two factions had affected governance, Achuthanandan’s campaign against corruption and his squeaky clean image, when the Congress at the Centre was struggling to deal with graft charges against its leaders, immensely assisted the LDF campaign.
The near reversal took place even as the political momentum favoured the UDF till very recently—it had scored landslide victories in the May 2009 general election and the October 2010 civic elections.
Some analysts also see a message of continuity in the verdict. “The results show that the people want continuity and they were not so unhappy with the policies of the current government. So whoever comes to power is likely to continue with current policies,” Abraham said.
KEY AGENDA OF THE WINNING PARTY
• Special investment zones to be set up. Permanent framework, with theopposition’s participation, to resolve investment-related issues
• Rs 1 trillion investment in infrastructure, metro rail in Kochi, airport in Kannur, master plan for developing facilities for Sabarimala pilgrimage
• 35kg of rice per month at Rs 1 per kg to BPL families and at Rs 2 for allothers. Rs 1 lakh for marriage of girls from below-poverty-line families
• Kerala Vision 2010 envisaged by the former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to be taken up
• Two political parties, the Communist Marxist Party (CMP) and the Janathipathiya Samrakshana Samithi, founded by veteran communist leaders M.V. Raghavan and K.R Gouri Amma, respectively, lost all the seats they contested. Both leaders had quit the CPI (M) following differences with the then party leadership and have been allies of the Congress since.
• Out of 14 Congress candidates who were given seats following Rahul Gandhi’s intervention, only four won.
The decision to first deny V.S. Achuthanandan a ticket and then fielding him as a candidate may have cost the ruling Left Front. His image as an anti-corruption crusader set the agenda for the election and is seen as having helped the CPI (M) limit losses.
A Supreme Court verdict indicting R. Balakrishna Pillai, a former minister of the United Democratic Front in a graft case pursued by Achuthanandan reinforced the outgoing chief minister’s image.