The just-concluded assembly election in Kerala has proved to be a watershed in state politics. For one thing, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) has been able to vanquish its traditional rival, the United Democratic Front (UDF), by winning 90 seats, with the LDF’s main constituent—the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM—getting a 26.5% vote share.
Equally significant is the performance of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). That it cobbled together a third front consisting of 13 parties and made its debut in the state assembly is no mean achievement. Through this master stroke, it has achieved one significant feat: it has changed the politics of Kerala by putting an end to its “untouchable status" and keeping alive the prospects of a third alternative in the electoral arena.
The Left’s win is definitely convincing and, by the same token, the drubbing the Congress-led UDF suffered is stunning. But the million-dollar question is whether the Left should rejoice over its victory or take a leaf out of the UDF’s debacle. Interestingly, the answer seems to point towards the latter option. To understand this, one has to look at the demographic profile of Kerala and also the social base of both the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in the state.
The Left’s unimpressive performance in West Bengal has also to be taken as a pointer to the future state of affairs at the all-India level. Even after aligning with the Congress, the Left was not able to take on Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress—this shows that the party is in a slippery position in West Bengal, which once was its stronghold. The writing on the wall is clear. Unless and until it is prepared to reposition itself ideologically and reconnect with society, particularly the middle-class and poorer sections, it will fail to make its presence felt at the national level.
Kerala is a state with a substantial population of minorities—roughly 25% Muslims and 20% Christians. While the Hindus form the mainstay of the CPM and the Communist Party of India (CPI), the minorities constitute a major social base of the UDF. The Congress, on the other hand, has a cross sectional electoral appeal with Hindus (mainly upper castes and other backward classes, or OBCs), Christians and Muslims forming its core base. And this election has ripped open the Hindu social base of the party as a substantial section of it was poached by the NDA.
The Left has also suffered a drain in this regard, though it could more than compensate the loss with the Muslim and lower-caste Christian votes. The front got more than the usual chunk of votes from both the communities, who consider it as their best bet against the threat posed by the Hindutva forces.
The lesson for the Left lies in the fact that an invigorated Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), more than earlier, is in a vantage position to challenge it on its own turf—the Hindu social base. This, in fact, has placed the Left in a catch-22 position—it has to protect its flanks from a possible rearguard action by the BJP, and, at the same time, keep intact its newfound relationship with the minorities. The charge of minority appeasement, which the BJP has been consistently levelling against the Congress, is now available to be used against the Communists. And the only way they can confront the BJP now is to go back to the basics of democracy and reposition themselves in the changed socio-economic and political context.
The society in Kerala, as elsewhere, has changed drastically. A powerful middle-class, cutting across caste and religious divides, has emerged and, along with the newly mobile younger lot who constitute about 30-35% of the population, is a strong force to be reckoned with. This new segment of the population has varied priorities and is more consumerist in nature than the Communists. The historical memory of these people is short, politics is utilitarian, and they have more aspirations than commitment to any ‘ism’. Further, their only tryst with the polity is in lieu of its capacity to bring about “development", which, for them, is nothing but the maintenance of a lavish lifestyle and consumerist culture. Significantly, it is to this aspirational class that people like Narendra Modi appeal with their “development mantra". Interestingly, the UDF has also tried to tame this section with the same mantra during this election, but failed to cash in on it basically because of the perception of widespread corruption, sex scandals and its failure on many other fronts.
The Left’s possible future in Kerala, and also elsewhere in India, lies mainly in tackling the Himalayan-sized aspirations of the above section and, at the same time, connecting itself with the lot of the common man. Needless to say, aspirations of and “development" for both are different. A state definitely needs development—by implication, economic growth. This is necessary both for fulfilling the ambitions of the newly mobile class and also for sustaining the welfare component for the sake of the less mobile. The task before the Left is, therefore, unenviable.
Further, it has also to play a crucial role on the social front. Kerala today is fast becoming a low-trust society. It may be remembered that Kerala, unlike other states, is a highly fragmented society which is politically knit together into a bipolar coalition by the CPM and the Congress. The chinks are now out as the rivalry between the various social groups, led by the upwardly mobile among them, is taking caste and religious twists and turns.
Significantly, caste and religious organizations and political parties representing them are trying to exploit this. And it is here that the BJP is placing its hopes. As elsewhere, the party is trying to play on these fault lines by attempting to bring together all the major communities and fringe groups within the Hindu community. It may be remembered that it has already brought under its umbrella various social groups representing upper castes, OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis, with the ultimate objective of creating a master cleavage in society: Hindus vs the rest.
The writing on the wall is, thus, clear. The Left has to mint a new politics in which “development", social trust and social justice are given their due. Twenty-first century Kerala demands a new politics, a politics not of the old class antagonism or class compromises, but one of class promises. For this, they should be able to link ideology with social reality.
J. Prabhash is a professor of political science at the University of Kerala.