Saturday, June 18, 2016

Kerala Elections 2016: LDF Takes Off from Where They Left at the Panchayat Elections

Balu S

The Kerala elections results were remarkable for the Left Democratic Front (LDF), which ended up winning 91 seats of the total 140 seats, humbling the incumbent United Democratic Front (UDF). Most political commentators have analyzed the results from the view point of the “pendulum swinging back and forth in Kerala”, without looking seriously into the political context in which the elections happened. It should be noted two years back, when the UDF triumphed at the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, it seemed doubtful whether LDF will bounce back to its winning ways in 2016. It is my understanding that the political context leading from Lok Sabha elections 2014 to Panchayat elections in November 2015 is relevant in understanding the victory of LDF in the current assembly elections. This is because the reasons which explain LDF’s comeback victory in Panchayat elections are also explanatory for its victory in the assembly elections.


2014 Debacle and Arukikkara By-elections

One important reason which is being ascribed for LDF victory in the current election is the charges of nepotism and corruption against the UDF government. But it should be noted that these charges did exist also during the 2014 election. But that did not prevent UDF from winning at that time. The point being that, corruption charges can definitely swing away votes but not to the extent of determining electoral victories.  LDF lost 2014 elections due to numerous factors. First, it was not a cohesive unit. The bickering with respect to seat sharing led to LDF partners like RSP leaving the coalition at the last moment and LDF loosing otherwise walk over seats in the process. Second, the candidate selection of LDF in constituencies like Trivandrum and Ernakulam were abysmally poor. These individuals had absolutely no history of associating with the Left or any other progressive movement.  It seemed that community/caste consideration was the sole reason behind propping up these candidates.  While community/ caste of candidates are important that cannot be the only reason in their selection. The Left forgot the most important fact that they have cultivated their own supporters along Left progressive lines and it would be disappointing for them to digest candidates that come out of nowhere. Moreover, too many discussions around the identity of the candidates resulted in blunting of the Left’s political message. Third, there was massive consolidation of minorities behind UDF due to the so-called Modi wave in the general election. While minorities have always been strong supporters of UDF, their consolidation was particularly strong at this time.  The majority of the UDF candidate in the Muslim dominated constituency of Mallappuram was a record for Kerala’s electoral history. The murder of T.P. Chandrashekaran, a CPM rebel, allegedly by the Left workers also showed the Left in a negative light in some of its citadels. Apart from all this, the campaign of LDF was primarily a negative one. It was quite similar to the campaign of Left front in the current assembly elections in Bengal. Rather than putting forward a positive message of its own it was primarily focused on the negative traits of the opposition. This need not be always politically effective.

Table 1: Vote Shifts between 2014 and 2009 Lok Shabha Elections


The BJP performed decently well in the Lok Sabha elections. But the perception that BJP can be a major player in Kerala politics was not sealed until Aruvikkara by-election which happened almost a year after the Lok Sabha election. BJP fielded its senior most leader in Kerala, O. Rajagopal. Vote share of BJP significantly increased in the elections at the cost of both fronts. The performance of BJP was strengthened also by the irresponsible statement of Chief Minister Oomen Chandy who claimed that the contest is between UDF and BJP in Aruvikkara by-election.

 Table 2: Aruvikkara By-election



BJP increased its vote share by about four times in this election. Reduction of votes for UDF and LDF was almost equal in this particular constituency which has always been a UDF stronghold. But the understanding which gained currency, particularly among media was that if the BJP increases its strength in Kerala, it will be predominantly at the expense of the LDF and not the UDF.

In the run up to the Panchayat elections, this speculation got intensified because of the open alliance of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) which claims to represent the interests of backward caste Ezhavas and BJP. Since the SNDP is the largest community organisation and also since the Ezhavas have been the strongest support base of the Left, this further increased the understanding that if the BJP makes further gains in local body elections it would be primarily at the cost of the LDF.

Panchayat Elections 2015; Political Context
It is the Panchayat elections which turned the table in favor of the LDF. The media speculation that BJP will gain at the cost of LDF remained strongest at this juncture. At the same time, the political context in Panchayat elections was different from that of the Lok Sabha elections. The corruption charges against the UDF government remained strong. But, the additional factor was that the NDA government had completed nearly 18 months in office by the time. Dadri lynching had happened, many progressive activists were murdered and the beef ban had become a major polarizing tool in the hands of RSS. The response of UDF towards these events, especially Congress was timid indifference. When continuously probed by news reporters on his reaction  to these incidents, Oomen Chandy merely pointed that they do not pertain to Kerala and therefore are not worthy of any response. The real reason behind this indifferent attitude towards RSS was the firm belief that the political gains made by BJP/RSS in the state will be at the expense of the Left, resulting in a possible reelection of UDF in the assembly. On the other hand, the Left was involved in a massive ideological campaign against RSS and Dadri lynching. Throughout the state, the student and youth fronts of CPI (M) held beef festivals proclaiming firmly the right to eat beef. Sensing the grave political situation, massive political onslaught at all levels was launched by the Left against RSS with no holds barred. The tactics proved to be fruitful in the Panchayat elections which happened in the first week of November 2015. Not only did the Left emerge victorious; the SNDP- BJP alliance increased their vote share compared to Lok Sabha elections primarily at the expense of UDF than LDF.  

Why Did the SNDP-BJP Alliance Affect UDF More Than LDF?
It is a non-debatable fact that SNDP under the leadership of Narayanaguru played a historical role in galvanizing Ezhavas against the injustices of cast system. For several decades since its inception, it was considered the legitimate body representing the interests of Ezhavas. But, by late 1930s the support which SNDP enjoyed among the Ezhavas had considerably reduced. The penetration of capitalist relations in Travancore created an upwardly mobile Ezhava middle class who formed the SNDP and controlled it from its inception. But the same capitalist relations also created a huge chunk of proletariat among Ezhavas, especially around the coir workers in Allappey.[1] The inability of SNDP to address the demands of this huge chunk led to its eventual decline. Eventually, the conflict between the middle class which led the SNDP and the majority of poor Ezhavas came out in the open during the 1938 coir workers strike in Allappey. SNDP took the side of factory owners rather than the workers leading to alienation of poor Ezhavas from it. Issac[2] points out how Ezhava coir factory owners were active collaborators with the imperial government in suppressing the movement of the Ezhava working class. Thus, the major chunk of Ezhavas who were small tenants and labourers drifted away from SNDP and played active role in the Communist movement which erupted by 1940s in the state. The point being that, those who remained in SNDP were the upwardly mobile Ezhavas consisting a small minority, and the vast majority of them, who were from the downtrodden sections left it and allied firmly with the Communists. In the post independence era, true to the class nature of Ezhavas who controlled it, SNDP allied with the Congress. SNDP president Shankar even became the Kerala Chief Minister from the Congress. All the presidents of SNDP in the post independence era, except the present one, Vellappaly Natesan, were associated with the Congress. It is these historical factors that Oomen Chandy overlooked when he and the Congress believed that SNDP allying with BJP will affect the Left rather than UDF. Ezhavas did shift to BJP albeit in low numbers but, at the expense of the Congress and not the Left. In the post election discussion in TV channels, many Congress leaders openly admitted this. On the other hand, the massive campaign by the Left against fascism led to a section of minorities shifting their support to it at the expense of UDF. In Muslim majority districts like Mallappuuram, the performance of LDF had rarely been better than the 2015 Panchayat elections.

Table 3: Panchayat Elections, 2015

Districts
Grama Panchayats
Urban Bodies
Assembly seats
LDF
UDF
BJP
Others
LDF
UDF
BJP
Others
LDF
UDF
BJP
Others
Trivandrum
 51
18 
04 
 
 5
 0
 

9
4
1

Kollam
 59
09 
 
 
 5
 0
 

11
0
0

Pathanamthita
 28
19 
02 
02 
 2
 

4
1
0

Alapuzha
 48
24 
01 
 
 1
 

8
1
0

Kottayam
 25
45
 
 01
 1
 

2
6
0
1
Idukki
 22
28 
 
 
 

3
2
0

Ernakulam
 40
35 
 
 01
 6
8
 

5
9
0

Thrissur
 66
19 
01 
 
 6
 

12
1
0

Palakad
68 
18 
 
01 
 2
1

9
3
0

Malapurram
 31
63 
 
 
 3
 

4
12
0

Kozhikode
 45
24 
 
01 
 6
 

11
2
0

Waynad
 16
05 
 
 
 2
 

2
1
0

Kannur
 50
20 
 
 
 5
 

8
3
0

Kasarcode
 15
17 
04 
01 
 2
 

3
2
0

Total
570
339
12
 08
47 
 44
 1
0
91
47
1
1

As can be seen from the table, there is remarkable continuity with respect to results in both the elections. Districts like Thrissur, Kollam, Palakkad which the Left swept in the assembly elections were also swept by them in the Panchayat elections. Similarly, in the districts which the UDF had an upper hand in the assembly elections which are Mallappuram, Ernakulam and Kottayam, they performed well in Panchayat elections. The similarity in the results is also because of the similarity in the political context. With the clear understanding that the Panchayat victory was due to the militant stand which the Left took against Saffron forces, campaigns along similar lines were initiated. Congress on the other hand did not have time to recuperate from the defeat. The gains made by NDA in Panchayat elections stared at Congress like a Frankenstein’s monster it created. Their hands were too full with problems running up to the elections. Two UDF ministers had to resign due to corruption charges in the months preceding election. There was no unity with respect to candidate announcement. While the LDF faced no hiccups in seat share between partners and candidate announcement, it took nearly a week for Congress after massive discussions in Delhi for announcing their candidates. On the other hand, LDF conducted a strong campaign with a positive spirit. The tagline “LDF verrum, ellam sheriyavum” (LDF will come, everything will be fine) was a runaway success and it highlighted the positive outlook of the entire campaign. Essentially the difference between the assembly elections and Lok Sabha elections was one thing. The politics of the Left was at the forefront rather than electoral gimmicks. Had it not been for the resilience shown by Muslim League, which won 18 seats out of the 22 contested, the results would have been even worse for the UDF.

 Table 4: Vote Shift between 2011 and 2014 Elections


BJP polled almost as many votes as it got in the Panchayat elections. It won a seat and came second in eight seats. In most of these seats UDF suffered massive setbacks pointing again at the challenge that BJP posed to UDF. Now if the votes which have drifted away from the UDF to BJP remain consolidated with the BJP, it will result in a major political problem for UDF. It will have to work really hard to come back to power. The pendulum may cease to swing back in Kerala in the next election.

Challenges and Lessons for the Left
The Left has some important challenges. The core of the Left’s support still comes from political alignments created several decades ago, especially on the question of land. But this might not be viable forever. Despite the UDF facing setback, some of their MLA’s could not only retain their seats but even increase their majority. This is because rather than their political position, their visibility as an MLA in the constituency was the deciding factor in elections. This is not a good trend. This is a sign of de-politicisation and in the long run will adversely affect the Left. The Left has to think about policies and movements which can polarize the society politically. Enacting legislations to make appointments in unaided colleges and schools thorough government can be one policy in that direction. Employees in these institutes despite getting funds from the government are in a vulnerable position because of the control of these institutes by private management. The issue has always been an important one in Kerala and it is the intervention in these institutes which was considered to be the most important reason for the launch of ‘Liberation struggle’ against the first Communist government. Entry of women in Shabharimala temple can be another issue. Already some Left leaders have started speculating the possibility of a referendum on the matter.  This is a welcome move and can be used as an entry point to propagate the ideas of gender equality in a militant manner.

The Left will also have to seriously look into developing the productive base in the state. There is always a fallacious tendency to associate the Left with merely redistributive activities and not productive ones. The tendency is particularly strong among ultra left circles which have absolutely no vision regarding productive activities. The crisis that many Latin American left governments are presently facing is a direct result of their lack of intervention in increasing productivity in their respective countries. Take the case of Venezuela for example. A high global price for oil could enable the country to garner resources to fund its social welfare programs. But the dive in oil price has shocked the country and without a strong manufacturing sector to fall upon in the absence of profits from sale of oil, the Left is facing difficult times to avert a defeat in the next presidential election. The Kerala model of government is known for its tremendous contribution to the welfare schemes and human development. But similar achievements cannot be said in the field of productivity and employment generation. Many left leaders have been conscious of this. They did not have to address these problems in an emergency manner like the Left movement in Bengal because of the massive migration of Malayalees to the Gulf and the resulting remittances. Even the most employment generating industries in Kerala like the construction sector is a result of the spin off effects from remittances from the Gulf. But dependence on Gulf need not last. Already many Gulf countries have initiated Nitakat[3] laws which plan to reduce the percentage of immigrants employed in their country. This can result in a crisis in Kerala and the only solution is to independently increase the employment generation potential of the state without adversely affecting the environment.

The Left government in Kerala has a historic responsibility to project concretely a successful alternative development model in the midst of saffron surge across the country. It is important that they are successful in this regard to give a boost to the Left progressive movement in the country.



[1] K.P.Kannan (1988), Of Rural Proletarian Struggles: Mobilization and Organization of Rural Workers in South-West India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press
[2] T. lsaac (1985), ‘From Caste Consciousness to Class Consciousness: Alappey Coir  Workers During Inter-War Period’,  Economic and Political weekly, 20 (4)
[3] What Nitaqat means for Kerala’, The New Indian Express, 13 April, 2013.

The author is a PhD scholar at Center for Political Studies, JNU

1 comment:

Comments are subject to moderation. It may take some time to appear in the blog.