Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is confident the upcoming assembly election, scheduled for April 6, will see his Left Democratic Front (LDF) government return to power. If the LDF does win a consecutive term, it will be a political first, over the past four decades, Kerala has traditionally seen LDF and Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) governments alternating every five years.
In this, the latest Mathrubhumi-C Voter opinion poll predicts a good outcome for the LDF, projecting that the alliance will win 75-83 of the state’s 140 assembly seats, with a vote share of 40.9 per cent. (In 2016, the LDF won 91 seats, with a vote share of 43.5 per cent.) The poll predicts that the UDF will take 56-64 seats with a vote share of 37.9 per cent, with the BJP-led NDA getting a maximum of two seats, with 16.6 per cent of the votes. P.C. Chacko, a former Congress MP who left the party to join the Nationalist Congress Party, an LDF member, says, “The trend is in favour of the LDF and Pinarayi Vijayan, it is certain that they will return to power with 85-90 seats. The Congress is an insignificant force in many constituencies, and its leaders are following the BJP’s agenda.” That said, Kerala is a politically volatile state, and unpredictable in terms of polling. Voters tend to make decisions at the last minute, with politically neutral voters often deciding the winner. For now, the state is closely watching the contest between the LDF and the Congress and the BJP.
Despite the minimal anti-incumbency, Chief Minister Pinarayi has five major challenges to overcome, the lack of an experienced team and collective leadership, the erosion of the Hindu vote bank, the Sabarimala factor and the effect of the Kerala Congress (Mani). Another issue is that in the run-up to the election, Chief Minister Pinarayi’s CPI(M) has introduced a two-term cap for legislators. As a result, 34 sitting legislators and five senior ministers have been replaced, including Dr Thomas Isaac (finance), E.P Jayarajan (industries), A.K. Balan (law), G. Sudhakaran (public works) and Professor C. Raveendranath (education). “We have introduced a two-term cap to bring in new faces, to ensure representation for women and young people,” says A. Vijayaraghavan, acting CPI(M) state secretary. “We have selected new candidates based on party directives and their chances of winning elections.” This effort has not been without controversy—the party’s local cadres have protested fiercely against the candidate list, as well as the allocation of seats held by CPI(M) legislators to other LDF members. One consequence has been LDF member Kerala Congress (M) returning the Kuttyadi seat to the CPI(M). Commenting on the influx of new faces in the party, N.S. Madhavan, a political analyst, wrote on social media: ‘An assembly election is not an occasion for a leadership training programme.’
Inexperienced new candidates
Many say the CPI(M) has taken a gamble in implementing its two-term cap. “I personally feel that replacing popular and experienced legislators may not give the desired results for the LDF,” says T.K.A. Nair, who served as a principal secretary to former prime minister Manmohan Singh. “If a legislator has been continuously winning a particular constituency, that may be a reflection of [public faith] in his hard work. And even if the LDF wins [the assembly election], the chief minister will not have an experienced team when he forms his new government. Experience and administrative capability are critical in governance.” Some voters appear to feel the same. C. Sanal Kumar, a voter from Ambalappuzha, says that the change of guard has “given new hope to the Congress, which had no chance of winning. Ambalappuzha, which G. Sudhakaran has represented for the past 10 years, was not [considered a winnable seat] by the UDF. But after he was dropped, many wanted to [contest from there].”
The Sabarimala factor
A major political headache for the LDF is the issue of women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. While the Covid-19 pandemic had pushed this issue onto the backburner, opposition parties, especially the BJP, have frequently attempted to rake it up to win over members of the Nair community. On March 11, the CPI(M)’s Devaswom Board minister Kadakampally Surendran, who is contesting from Kazhakoottam, poured fuel on the fire by publicly expressing regret over the Supreme Court order instructing the state to permit women to enter the temple. Later, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury attempted to put the issue to rest once more, saying the state government had acted in good faith in executing the Supreme Court order. Following that, the chief minister also joined the debate, saying that he would hold consultations with the parties concerned after a final verdict is issued by the apex court.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the LDF faced a humiliating defeat—it managed to win only a single seat from the state’s 20 constituencies, with the Congress sweeping the other 19. The Congress’s victory was attributed to Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad, which triggered a shift of minority votes to that party. However, the poll also revealed an erosion of the CPI(M)’s Hindu votebank, especially from strongholds in northern Kerala. With the Congress and the BJP both attempting to stir up the Sabarimala issue, the drift of Hindu voters away from the CPI(M) could accelerate. To avoid this trap, Chief Minister Pinarayi has been focusing his election narrative on his government’s performance and development agenda.
The Kerala Congress (M) alliance
In October last year, Jose K. Mani, the chairman of the Kerala Congress (M), quit the UDF to join the LDF. This was a dramatic turn, given that his father, a former finance minister in the state government, who passed away in April 2019, was one of the founders of the UDF and had been at odds with the CPI(M) for several decades. To cement the shift, Chief Minister Pinarayi offered the Kerala Congress (M) 13 assembly seats, including two with sitting legislators from the CPI(M). The party’s leadership believed that its new ally would strengthen the LDF coalition in central Kerala and among Christian communities in Malabar. Currently, the Kerala Congress (M) has 12 seats for the polls, and is the third major constituent of the LDF. However, an overdependence on the LDF’s newest member could end up costing the CPI(M), as the two do not see eye-to-eye on several major issues.
No collective leadership
The Pinarayi Vijayan era of the LDF has been marked by his autarchic leadership. His 16 years of experience as state secretary of the CPI(M) and his successful record as chief minister of Kerala during very challenging times has meant he dictates in both party affairs and government. However, his solitary leadership has resulted in both positives and negatives, he learned a bitter lesson when M. Sivasankar, his former principal secretary, was arrested for involvement in a gold-smuggling racket. That he failed to keep an eye on the performance of even his key aides was part-owed to his solitary style. In previous LDF governments, the party acted as a watchdog, monitoring the functioning of the government and bureaucrats and ensuring they remained on the straight and narrow.
However, the chief minister’s record and stature have a strong following. “I hope for the return of the Pinarayi government in the upcoming assembly poll,” says B. Unnikrishnan, a popular Malayalam filmmaker, producer and media critic. “Kerala needs him to save the state from political junkies who are trying to ride on communal agendas. He is authoritarian and domineering, but he has a vision for the state and a focused approach. Moreover, he is ready to take risks and confront communal politics with conviction. Even in pampering the Kerala Congress (M) faction, he is taking a risk to contain the BJP and its [communal] designs, [if he had not formed an alliance with it], it may have joined the BJP. So, I bet on Pinarayi.”
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