Will the state buck the trend of voting out incumbent government in an election marked by array of fresh faces and convergence of ideologies?
Elections to the 140-member Kerala Legislative Assembly will be held on Tuesday. Most pre-poll predictions have favored a big win for the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF). However, as the poll day approached, the battle seemed to have tightened. Nonetheless, has the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) got enough momentum to be able to overcome infighting within a key coalition alley, the Kerala Congress, and storm back to power after five years?
Interestingly, because of decisions by three major parties not to field incumbents who have won two back-to-back elections, a number of fresh faces set to enter the assembly next month. It was the Communist Party of India (CPI), which is part of the LDF, that first announced the policy. Soon the two parties that lead the LDF and the UDF, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — CPI(M ) — and the Indian National Congress, followed suit.
Thus CPI(M) stalwarts such as Public Works Department Minister G. Sudhakaran and Finance Minister Thomas Isaac are not contesting this time around. Because of the absence of these two popular leaders, who have far outgrown their party, contests in their constituencies — Ambalappuzha and Alappuzha — have become tough. Would the vaunted CPI(M) organizational machinery be able to make up for their absence? Only time will tell.
Having trailed in the opinion polls, the Congress party was also cautious in selecting its candidates. To its credit, the party has fielded some impressive candidates. They include little-known cattle farmer Arita Babu, a candidate in Kayamkulam, and Sobha Subin, who grew up without both parents. Subin is contesting from Kaipamanglam.
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There are many other candidates who are from similar humble backgrounds. Until now, the Left Front has been known for fielding such candidates. The Congress candidate in Chirayinkil is the son of an NREGA worker. The candidate in Adoor is collecting 10 rupee contributions to finance his campaign, which is very unusual for a UDF candidate.
The party is also supporting candidates like K.K. Rema of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India (RMPI) in Vatakara. Rema is known as a fighter. In Kazhakkoottam, the party candidate is reputed international health professional Dr. S.S. Lal, while in Ottappalam, it is P. Sarin, who quit his Indian Administrative Service post to fight the election. In a way, the Congress was forced to field some of its best candidates.
Would this set of candidates be able to land a knockout punch against a government that has delivered on a number of areas, including social security pensions, in a remarkable manner? That apart, the Left Front also has well-oiled election machinery in action. Would the Kerala electorate’s tradition of voting out governments continue?
For good or bad, the Left Front has an uncontested leader in Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Some have even billed the election as the “Vijayan election,” which is unusual for the left front, which has in the past refused to go by this parliamentary logic.
On the other hand, for the UDF again, which used to have one leader, there are several leaders. Apart from former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala, former junior external affairs minister Shashi Tharoor has become one of the most sought-after campaigners.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been slowly gaining ground in the state over the years, is hoping that it could pull off some upsets. However, the rising price of petroleum seems to be dampening the party’s chances, despite the high voltage campaigns by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah.
Interestingly, the state’s voters are now witnessing a “Great Convergence” of ideologies. The Congress, which has criticized many welfare schemes of the LDF government, terming them “freebies,” is now trying to counter the left with its own social welfare program Nyay (Nyuntam Aay Yojana). Unveiled during the 2019 parliamentary elections, the program guarantees minimum income for citizens.
On the other hand, the Left Front is aggressively courting foreign capital for the development of the state. Now the Left Front has non-left partners and the UDF has welcomed to its fold some left leaders.
Another interesting nugget: Kerala politicians are now discussing digital-age issues such as data ownership.
By the end of Tuesday, Kerala voters will have delivered their judgment. But the results won’t be known until next month. Till then, while Kerala await sits new captain, pollsters and pundits will have a great time.
(Krishnakumar S. teaches economics at Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi.)