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

Balu S

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

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

1: Vote Shifts between 2014 and 2009 Lok Shabha Elections

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

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


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

4: Vote Shift between 2011 and 2014 Elections

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
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
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.

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

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