Polls 2011: What happened in Kerala?
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The 2011 Assembly Election of Kerala has been one hell of a roller coaster ride against the usual trend in Kerala politics. Traditionally, the people of Kerala always voted for an alternative government very decisively every five years irrespective of their performance in government during the last three decades. While V. S. Atchuthanandan of the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) successfully fought anti-incumbency, the antics of his detractor in his own party Pinarayi Vijayan resulted in conceding a slender margin of four seats to the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). The BJP again fell woefully short of opening its account in the state. This perhaps will remain the only time that the people gave such a close mandate, almost voting the LDF back to power. This was made possible by one man who earned much respect not only in Kerala but also has many secret admirers elsewhere in the country: V. S. Atchuthanandan.

V. S. has been a crusader against corruption from the time he was the opposition leader. That was when his persona began to grow beyond the party. After assuming the mantle of Chief Minister, he continued his fight against corruption, with the Munnar eviction drive being the highlight. He was totally unbiased and treated every case with merit, so much so that he did not spare his own son by referring him to the Lok Ayukta recently when corruption charges were levelled against him by the UDF. Of course, there were a few exceptions where the party overruled him like in the case of sanctions against Pinarayi. His image peaked once again in an environment where there is so much corruption and nepotism across the political spectrum all over the country. His relentless crusade against corruption invited the wrath of his own party men, with Kerala CPM supremo Pinarayi Vijayan himself leading the tirade against V. S. There have been many instances where the CPM politburo was tempted to remove V. S. but none of this made an impact on the man who worked tirelessly for the benefit of the people who voted him to power.

The UDF on the other hand did exceedingly well in the 2009 Lok Sabha and local Panchayat body elections. Taking the Church-led education sector head on in an attempt to regulate fees and Pinarayi’s constant flirting with Islamic radical groups, despite V. S. taking a stand against these elements, led to the LDF’s rout in the 2011 election, with all sections of society being dismayed for some reason or the other. Pinarayi-induced friction among Front partners also contributed to this. All this while, to the voters they were punishing the Pinarayi-led faction. During these years, the V. S. persona had started to dim as he was not able to make much headway with the Pinarayi faction throwing a spanner in his works. He himself had to face the accusation of not standing by his men. To the people, V. S. was a lone man and it was the Pinarayi-led faction against whom they were voting. The mishandling of the Abdul Nasser Madani arrest by the Kerala Government and also that of the Professor Joseph hand chopping case by the Home ministry, much against the wishes of V. S., ensured that the rout continued in Panchayat polls as well, thus breaching the foundations of the cadre-based Left. At the ground level, the above incidents had also led to committed Left voters staying away.

It was immediately after the Panchayat polls that the UDF’s problems started, with the 2G scam and Adarsh Housing Society scam occupying centre stage. Adding to this embarrassment was the CVC P. J. Thomas issue in which the Union Government in Delhi was caught lying. This again gave the much needed kickstart for V. S. to call the UDF bluff by exposing the blatant lies of Prithviraj Chavan, who was a Minister of State in the Department of Personnel and Training at the time of P. J. Thomas’ appointment. Another gift for V. S. came in the form of Congress spokesperson and lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi’s defence of the lottery mafia don Santiago Martin. V. S. did not stop at that but called the bluff of the Union Government’s refusal to investigate the lottery case by the CBI. The final nail in the coffin for the UDF’s prospects came in the form of the arrest of the 76 year old former Power Minister and seasoned politician Balakrishna Pillai in a graft case.

The LDF’s attempt to regulate education fees and reforms in private education did not go down well with the Christian community in particular and the influence of the Church leadership in politics did not go down well with other sections of society. The raking up of the Kozhikode Ice Cream Parlour sex scandal case against Kunhalikutty, which happened in the early 90s and costed him his ministry in 2004, did not go down well with the Muslim community which forms a substantial 25% of the state’s population. It was this divide which was clear when the poll results came. This divide affected the Congress the most but also gave more ammunition to V. S.

Towards the beginning of the poll campaign, people knew that V. S. once again had the upper hand against Pinarayi. This was like a mandate for his government and much to the dismay of Pinarayi and Congress, people began to rally behind V. S. He had also won over the women electorate with his crusade against ‘stri peedanam’ ( harassment of women). The timely judgement in the Balakrishna Pillai case allowed him the leeway to deflect criticism on different standards over issues, like Pinarayi or the sexual harassment charges against the then Kannur district secretary P. Sasi, by pointing to the judicial time process.

Meanwhile, the BJP fared well in the local panchayat elections. They did make some strong inroads with the help of RSS cadre. To be fair to the Kerala BJP leaders and its cadres, they did have a real chance of opening their account this time around. While the party was confident of winning Nemom and Manjeshwar, some of the cadres were very confident of the Kasargod seat.

While Nemom had not seen strong performance from the BJP before, Manjeshwar and Kasargod always saw excellent performances from the BJP both in the Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. They always fell just short in these two places. It was always said that, as the BJP threatened to win the Assembly seat, the two Fronts worked in such a manner as to ensure victory for either of the Fronts and defeat for the BJP, so that the BJP does not enter the Assembly and thereby get much needed momentum in the state. This time though, the TV channels predicted a pre-election sweep for the UDF and the Left cadres knew on the ground that this was going to be a close call. Hence it was expected that the BJP would not suffer from transfer of votes and had an excellent chance. In Nemom, the BJP was relying on the candidature of its most towering leader Rajettan, as the cadres call him.

Jayalaxmi Bhat, the candidate from Kasaragod, has been a strong woman representative from the Sangh for quite some time and had a good following among the Konkani population. The local BJP units made some covert understandings with caste based groups like the NSS and the SNDP. This covert understanding was probably not a good idea. They should have cultivated a stronger partnership with these groups and that would have ensured committed votes from these societies. The covert understanding has not gone down well with some voters and hence the BJP fell short of winning in the seats it expected to win. There is also a very distinct lack of understanding displayed by the Delhi leadership of the BJP. The local dynamics were never addressed effectively. The Delhi leadership of the BJP should have realized that this was Assembly elections and not Lok Sabha elections. Issues differ and one person who has more appeal in the BJP vote bank and could have tilted close conests in its favour, Narendra Modi, was conspicuous by his absence during the pre-poll campaign. It still is a puzzle to many BJP followers as to why Modi never addressed the people in constituencies where the BJP had a real chance to win. The irony though is that his campaign at Kottayam ensured the defeat of the LDF by a thin margin of 711 votes.

Also, the Karnataka Assembly by-elections and Yeddyurappa’s situation there meant that a campaign by Yeddy that was initially planned did not happen. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) triumphed in Kasargod by clever candidate selection of Nelikunnu, who had finished third the last time time under the INL.

The biggest surprise in this elections came from the IUML. It has won 20 out of the 24 seats it contested. This stellar performance by the IUML though ensured good votes/seats for the UDF from the constituencies it contested, made the Hindu voters consolidate and rally behind the LDF where they saw a crusader in V. S. Atchuthanandan. This had a direct impact on the BJP vote bank which is primarily the Hindus and hence it ended up as a no show. The BJP though did affect the LDF in a few seats like Manalur, Kuthuparamba, Peravoor, Kozhikode south, Thrithala, Paravur, Piravom, Kottayam, Parasalla and almost payed spoilsport for the Left in a few other seats like Azhikode, Vadakara, Kunnakulam, Adoor. It was these seats that added to the excitement of results day. Thus, though BJP may not have opened its account, it did affect the final results. The LDF may have been better off working up a secret understanding to help the BJP win two Kasargod distrct seats and, in exchange, return in a few closely contested seats.

Overall, the Kerala voters gave the Assembly elections of 2011 a very interesting result. In a complete departure from the last three decades, the voters gave a wafer thin margin to the UDF which was supposed to win this election hands down. It is so close that byelections due to unfortunate incidents can alter the whole dynamics of the Assembly.

While the UDF polled 45.83%, the LDF polled 44.94% of the votes. This difference of 0.89% gave the edge to the UDF with 4 seats more than the LDF(72 for UDF and 68 for LDF.) The BJP polled 6.06% votes much to the disappointment of many. The UDF has 60% MLAs from Muslim and Christian communities which again is a new trend in Kerala. What kind of implications this will have on the state and at the national level is worth watching. But this divide had the maximum impact on the Congress. From a position of almost forming a government on its own two to three months before polling to finishing a poor second, it has been one big tumble for the Congress. The CPM, contesting in 84 seats, won 45 seats against 38 of the Congress contesting in a near equal 82 seats. The CPM also won the popular vote by a good margin of over 2,50,000 with 28.8% against the Congress’s 26.73%. The crusader image of V. S. as against the image of corruption of the Congress and the UDF induced a divide and spelt doom for the Congress at the hustings. No wonder Chandy is worried. This though in future may help strengthen Chennithla and Shashi Tharoor’s chances when the inevitable change happens.

This result also means more rounds of traditional internecine one-upmanship in the Congress and more brave arm twisting by allies, with governance being affected as a result. Passage of bills will also be affected. The state conferences of the CPM and other socialist jantha will be the ones to watch out for. The decency with which the Left has conducted itself post elections without attempting to form a government against the prevailing talk has gone down well.

While UDF may have won the battle, the Congress has failed miserably. The real winner in the state is the CPM as the single largest party courtesy its old war horse and the last standing Communist of Kerala, V. S. Atchuthanandan. In all its fairness, it is only proper and right to sign off this blog post with a “Laal Salaam” to one of the most popular and tallest leaders of the CPM on the Kerala political stage.

This write up was written by Tatvamasi in conjunction with Visaraj and Naveen. All of them are friends of CRI.