For 40 years, the southern state has never re-elected a ruling government. Could these polls change everything?
While there might indeed be a sizeable number of new Vijayan fans, in central and southern Kerala especially, a sense of anti-incumbency is tangible. There may well be tight contests.
Earlier this summer, a diaspora Malayali travelled from Yemen to Kerala in order to campaign for his favourite communist politician, A. Pradeep Kumar, in Kozhikode. He is not an office-bearer of the communist party. He is not even a registered party worker. But he was all amped up to work on the election campaign. However, when he landed, he was crushed to hear the news.
For the second time in history, the party decided to not field anyone who had completed two consecutive terms. This decision kept 33 senior members of legislative assembly (MLAs), including Pradeep Kumar, out of the fray.
Slipping into his car one recent afternoon in the scorching beach town of Kozhikode, the Yemen-based non-resident Indian, who did not want to be identified, cast his mind into the future. He could imagine only one outcome from his Kerala trip—canvas maximum votes for the replacement candidate and help the government return to power.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," he said. “We don’t want to spoil it over anything. We may be angry at the two-term policy… or any other act of the party. But we will not let the party be harmed in any way now."
The man represents a notable category: a large section of Malayalis who’ve been drawn into politics this election season by the prospect of incumbent chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan returning to power.
The excitement is palpable. Ordinarily, people in Kerala do not prefer stability. No state government has been re-elected, except in 1977. Some of the governments rejected by voters over the last 65 years had, in fact, performed reasonably well, but faced ouster nonetheless.
But this time, six opinion surveys have predicted the return of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPM. In many ways, Kerala is witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime election.
For the CPM, Kerala is the only state where the Left can realistically hope to take power in the country anytime soon. For the Congress, losing Kerala would be a big setback, as the grand old party is not in power anywhere else in south India. For the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in the words of its de facto chief strategist Amit Shah, the party’s glory days will not come until Kerala is won.
During a recent journey across Kerala—which included the entire length of the state except the very south—a singular characteristic of nearly every election-related conversation was this: strong opinions either for or against Vijayan. It is almost as if Vijayan is the candidate everywhere.
In Kerala’s northern-most district Kasaragod, where Vijayan’s CPM is historically an average performer, Ahamad Mirshad, a Gulf returnee, said he wanted the chief minister to continue. “Do you know the name of our food minister?" he quizzed me. I replied that it is P. Thilothaman. He nodded his head in agreement and went on to make his point. “Not many would know. But have their rations stopped? Because our CM is handling even that portfolio very well. He stole the show. Every portfolio is ultimately handled well by him," said Mirshad.
“I think this is his charisma. Everybody is satisfied. Nobody is hungry. He is able to run a government like that," added Mirshad, who says he will vote for the LDF this time, switching over from his usual favourite, the Indian Union Muslim League, which is an ally of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
If this indicates that welfare schemes have brought the Left party closer to the people—even among religious minorities who, in the context of Kerala, do not necessarily view the CPM as their first preference—it is a vindication of Vijayan’s leadership style more than anything else. Slowly coming out of his former image as an unsmiling Stalinist commissar, the first-time chief minister has solidified his place as one of Kerala’s most important and divisive politicians.
Vijayan was an unlucky politician for most of his term, encountering severe problems that no other government in the state’s recent history has had to face—including two years of mega-floods and two public health emergencies, first in the form of a Nipah outbreak and then the covid-19 pandemic. But Vijayan positioned himself as a skilful decision-maker and an efficient communicator.
On vexed issues like the Sabarimala temple row and the Citizenship Amendment Act, he got lakhs of people to rally behind him, and antagonised an equal number. But it is his handling of the economic fallout of covid-19 that seems to have set him apart in the eyes of the electorate, especially among a broad array of disadvantaged groups. At the height of the lockdown, the government ran several welfare schemes, which fed, housed, and gave financial relief to lakhs of people. The most popular among them is a hot topic in this election—kits of essential grocery items, or food kits, distributed to nearly every home in Kerala.
During the last five years, the amount provided as welfare pension was increased; investment in health, education, and infrastructure were increased in nearly every budget; and an escrow mechanism called the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) was set up to raise ₹50,000 crore from the market. Companies such as Nissan and Tech Mahindra picked Kerala to set up their information technology (IT) centres after nearly a decade, indicating that attitudes toward private sector investment was also shifting.
All of these were crucial to Vijayan’s popularity. In fact, the LDF is so confident that they will stake claim to power that their campaign slogan is “Urappanu LDF", which translates to “LDF, for sure".
But while there might indeed be a sizeable number of new Vijayan fans, it is not the mood everywhere. In central and southern Kerala especially, a sense of anti-incumbency is tangible. Huge posters from both the Congress and the BJP fill the walls and roads in the southern districts, asking voters not to forget the alleged high-handedness in curbing the Sabarimala protesters. The gold smuggling scandal, which rocked Kerala’s political establishment last year, is also a hot topic. One of the chief minister’s top aides was arrested in the scandal.
“Everybody knows how close this government was to the gold smuggling scandal. It is a sleazy affair," said Chandran, a mechanic in Thrissur, which is represented currently by the LDF. The food kits haven’t changed his mind. “Do you think anything in the kit can be used? We got the kit. You can’t eat that thing. We had to throw it away after a year," he said.
Some others voice anti-incumbency not in the usual way, but by speaking about the danger in deifying Vijayan as the “captain" or “iratta chankan" (meaning, one with two hearts, which is a compliment about his fortitude). Most notable was a seminar held this month by subaltern writers, who are usually flanked by Left sympathizers, about the “dangers in giving a second term to the government". In effect, Kerala’s preference to swing back and forth has not fully disappeared.
The Congress, meanwhile, is struggling to find a winning election narrative and a tall leader who could match the gauntlet thrown by Vijayan. The grand old party’s devastating performance in the local body elections in 2020, which were seen as a precursor to the assembly polls, didn’t help matters either.
An Asianet News-C4 survey, released this week, is telling. It revealed broad popular appeal for nearly all the allegations that have been levelled against the ruling LDF government by the opposition, but there is no popular support for the opposition’s leaders. Vijayan’s main opponent from the Congress, Ramesh Chennithala, managed a 7% approval rating for a question about chief ministerial choice in the survey, as against 51% for Vijayan.
The mechanic Chandran, for instance, is more moved to vote for the BJP than the Congress as an expression of his anti-incumbency. “They (Left and Congress) are equally bad. Like we cannot forget the gold smuggling scandal of this government, we cannot forget the solar scandal and the bar bribery scandal of the previous government. The only one who seems to be different is the BJP," Chandran said.
Adding to this small, emerging pocket of support are the many fresh faces that the BJP is fielding as candidates, including popular technocrat E. Sreedharan. Chandran’s local BJP candidate is a popular actor and Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP) Suresh Gopi, who is known for playing roles that mete out vigilante justice in movies. BJP candidates like Gopi may not win but could emerge as kingmakers with their ability to polarize the anti-incumbency votes.
In order to course-correct, the Congress brought about a leadership change on the eve of the elections. Former chief minister Oommen Chandy, who is considered to be more popular than Chennithala, was flown to Delhi. After a meeting with the Gandhi family, he was tasked with heading the election committee.
The Kerala Congress also suffers from organisational problems due to factional feuds as well as due to the sudden rise of the BJP as a wild card. A 2017 paper by political analysts J. Prabhash and Sajad Ibrahim, based on two CSDS surveys which were conducted between 2011 and 2016, pointed out that with the BJP’s rise as a third pole in Kerala politics, the anti-incumbency vote— which earlier used to go to either the LDF or the UDF— are now polarized. According to their analysis, the biggest loser in this process is the UDF, as they are losing more votes to the BJP than anyone else.
In a tight election, this could be crucial. The Congress is also beset by the threat of its workers flocking to the BJP. In the Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, the only assembly seat with a sitting BJP legislator, the Congress’s unofficial poll committee was functioning out of the house of a local leader, Vijayan Thomas. As soon as the poll dates were announced, Thomas swiftly switched over to the BJP.
Despite the many crippling limitations, perhaps the most impressive feat for the Congress party in Kerala is that it has a candidate list that features several youth leaders, even though it was the last to finalize its list.
“Malayalis usually have a tendency to pull down someone who is seen as too successful… or someone who makes definitive statements (like ‘Urappanu LDF’)," said a senior Congress leader in Kerala, requesting anonymity. “We think it is going to be a tight contest and the swing votes will be in our favour."
The big picture
While the three principle contestants—Congress, BJP and the Left—might portray the electoral battle in purely ideological terms, ordinary voters, as is the case with most elections, speak primarily about basic necessities—or entitlements, as they see it.
This is perhaps a fundamental shift in Kerala’s polity over the last decade. The living standard of the state’s residents has risen quickly, a fact that its human development indices would attest to. All that wealth creation has weaned voters away from simplistic grand narratives like pro- or anti-liberalization, social justice, empowerment, and secularism—slogans which used to dominate the poll landscape in the past. Instead, issues of everyday life—be it food, shelter, roads, or jobs—are prioritized more.
The food kits, for instance, are not necessarily a topic of conversation in rural areas alone, although distress was worse in the villages. It is discussed even among urban voters, who are either drawn by the fact that it is a symbol of a functioning state or because they just want to acquire their share.
“I’ve often heard my parents say that the roads will be good now that elections are near. But if that happens always, I think we can live in a better space," said Aparna Balamurali, a popular movie actress and a millennial icon, whom I met in Thrissur.
But this focus on everyday issues and the desire for accountable governments has not taken away the intensity that Malayalis tend to associate with politics, she added. “Nowadays," Balamurali said, “when there is a topic of discussion in my class groups, (I realise) a lot of people are involved in politics at a level that I didn’t expect them to. The same people who used to sit on a bench in school and fight over Mohanlal and Mammooty are now fighting based on political parties." Those political differences, and the distance between them, perhaps matter more than ever this year—ahead of a close, once-in-a-lifetime election in a state that is trying to recover from a long series of crises.
Nidheesh M.K. is a journalist and analyst based in Kerala.