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Assembly Polls 2006: A Foregone Outcome in Kerala?

While the forthcoming assembly elections in Kerala will be bitterly contested, for very many the writing on the wall clearly portends a return of the Left Front to power. The question of importance is what influence K Karunakaran's outfit will have and who he will ally with.

ASSEMBLY POLLS 2006

A Foregone Outcomein Kerala?

While the forthcoming assembly elections in Kerala will be bitterly contested, for very many the writing on the wall clearly portends a return of the Left Front to power. The question of importance is what influence K Karunakaran’s outfit will have and

who he will ally with.

P S NIRMALA

T
he brief lull that descended following the shock that resulted from the “ditching” of the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran) or DIC(K) by the CPM has passed. Politics in Kerala has come to life again with the call of assembly elections, the sudden announcement of which took the major political players by surprise, as none of them expected this to happen so soon. The elections will be held in three phases, April 22, 29 and May 3. The puzzle created by the Karunakaran factor or the K-factor is, however, still unresolved. Rumour mills continue churning out stories about the octogenarian leader returning to the Congreee fold once again, though Karunakaran himself has not hinted at this so far. On the whole, with assembly electionsround the corner, it looks again like a straight contest between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF), with or without Karunakaran and truly, it does not seem to matter much.

Still apprehensions remain. Soon after the CPM general secretary, Prakash Karat, announced that there would be no truck or “arrangement” with Karunakaran’s Indira Congress (DIC (K) by another name) for the coming assembly elections, a senior LDF politician advised the Indira Congress to be bold enough to stand on its own. Obviously, the LDF does not like the idea of the Indira Congress returning to the UDF fold. If it is a party of some principle, the suggestion seems to be, it should avoidsuch a step. Do they fear that Karunakaran’s return to the UDF might perhaps strengthen the latter?

Karunakaran’s Waning Influence

It seems the LDF is not very clear about Karunakaran’s influence among the masses. This is somewhat apparent from available statistics. The local body elections in 2005 resulted in a magnificent victory for the LDF; of 1,223 local bodies, the LDF won 805, i e, nearly 65 per cent. In 14 district panchayats, the LDF won in 11, and in 999 gram panchayats, the LDF secured victory in 659. All five corporations went to the LDF. The UDF lost even the slight, upper hand it wielded in the municipalities. In these elections, the LDF

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006

had an electoral adjustment with Karunakaran’s DIC(K). Then came the Lok Sabha by-election of Thiruvananthapuram where the CPI’s Panniyan Ravindran won with a margin of 74,200 votes. Karunakaran was seen blessing the LDF electoral effort like a “Grand Old Man” of politics. But the share of the K-factor in these victories is not easy to calculate.

Well, all the hints the “Bhishma” of Kerala’s politics received then were that he would be very much a part of the LDF once the assembly election dates were announced, to ensure the defeat of the UDF. Bygones are bygones, and as they say there is no permanent foe in politics. It was as if the Emergency and the case of Rajan (the engineering student who died in custody during the Emergency) could simply be waived away by a magic wand, and Karunakaran actually came to believe this. It seems the only other person who actually believed in the K-magic was none other than Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPM state secretary. He appears to have implicitly believed that Karunakaran had a role to play in the remarkable victories secured by the LDF in the local elections as well as in the Thiruvananthapuram by-election.

In fact, nobody can disprove this at least for the time being. Only the CPI belittled the influence Karunakaran wields among voters. It was the CPI which vehemently and very vocally opposed the inclusion of the DIC(K) in the LDF, as did the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). Karunakaran replied that the decision about his inclusion could be made by only one man, the only one who really mattered, Pinarayi. And how painfully wrong he was proved!

Pinarayi was forced to keep mum as the politburo intervened and the CPM general secretary Prakash Karat was at pains to explain that there would be no truck with the DIC(K) in the coming elections, not even an “arrangement’” or understanding. The CPI, which is considered to be a junior partner in the LDF, was appeased. The Left is thus, left intact, without any addition or deletion. The immediate response of Karunakaran was to launch a battle cry against the LDF. That very night he met Vellappally Nadesan, the leader of Shree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP); there were again talks about the formation of a third front, but the idea had a premature demise. In Kerala, the climate is still not conducive for a third front. Major caste organisations in Kerala, including the Nair Service Society (NSS), representing the nairs and the SNDP that represents the ezhavas had already burned their fingers once by experimenting with this idea. In politics, though caste considerations do exist, caste parties do not have much of a chance in Kerala. The Muslim League and the Kerala Congress are the only ones who have a political identity, maybe because their minority status ensures some degree of patronage from both the LDF and the UDF from time to time. (Recently the LDF has stopped the practice of seeking to appease them; there is just one splinter group of Kerala Congress in its folds, i e, the Kerala Congress Joseph (J).)

Fighting the elections on its own is unimaginable for the DIC(K). The other option is either to (a) merge with the Congress, which would be very difficult, considering all the mudslinging Karunakaran has hurled at the Congress leaders or (b) to be a partner in the UDF, which would be a more beneficial option. As a partner in the UDF, the DIC(K) can bargain for seats, and if it wins, it can bargain for ministerial berths. The DIC(K) in the Congress will be a pain in the neck for all Congressmen; it is not yet time for them to forget that Karunakaran used to call their leader Sonia Gandhi “madamma”, a racist term to describe a white woman. There is sympathy for the grand old man in some quarters as he has now been ditched, but the Congress is largely nervous about having him back unconditionally. The bitterness the K group created in the Congress is still fresh in memory.

UDF’s Tenure in Power

It was with a two-thirds majority that the UDF came to power in 2001. Out of a total of 140 seats, the UDF won 99, the Congress alone securing 62. The LDF performed poorly securing 40 seats: the CPM 23 and the CPI a mere seven. The major reason for this debacle was ostensibly the financial crisis the LDF government faced, perhaps brought on by some of its own illconceived plans. Looking back, however, the scenario then does not appear much different than the present: Agricultural products brought in less returns for the farmer, traditional industries were on the path of decline, unemployment still raged and treasury constraints meant that pensioners were not paid their pension. The much-acclaimed “People’s Plan” found itself in rough waters. A court order necessitated an auditing of Plan funds in 1999 itself. But political skirmishes, incidents involving consumption of illicit liquor, violence on women, etc, had also taken place in both the LDF and UDF eras.

However, the euphoria of securing a big majority vanished soon for the UDF. It took almost two weeks for the front to decide who the new Congress ministers would be. Groupism was strong, and bargaining for ministerial berths appeared never-ending. In fact the rot began right from the beginning. Though the election results were declared on May 14, 2001, the swearing-in took place only on May 26 and soon after the chief minister designate A K Antony was confronted with one hurdle after another. There were clashes in Nadapuram between the CPM and the Muslim League that soon took on communal hues. The Muthanga incident, involving adivasis under the leadership of C K Janu who were agitating for the restoration of land promised them by successive court orders, also took a violent turn. The fatal injury inflicted on one policeman led eventually to police atrocities on the adivasis, an event hitherto unknown in Kerala. Then there was the infamous incident at Marad. The communal tension among fisherfolk in this region brought to the fore the brittleness of communal amity in society and the political exploitation of religion for short-term ends; it was only much later that good sense prevailed. The government’s stand was allegedly pro-RSS and anti-minority. On the administrative front too, he was forced to take some major steps. An increase in electricity tariffs, limiting the ration subsidy, a cutting down of expenditure on government employees which resulted in their losing certain benefits. On the education front, he was seen to favour private management, which led to strikes by students. These agitations reached their peak with the suicide of a girl student who failed to get a promised bank loan, right in the heart of the capital. Antony was no good in the art of makebelieve as well, bogged down as he was with financial constraints. He could not be an Umman Chandy who indulges in declaring one new project after another, distributing (at least on paper) crores and crores, when onlookers can only gape at him not knowing where the money is going to come from and how the money will be realised.

Meanwhile, Karunakaran proved a source of constant worry for Antony. He put up his own candidate against the official UDF candidate, not once, but twice.

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006 Karunakaran’s moves against the party constituted at times blatant indiscipline but his motives were as clear as daylight, he was singularly focused on improving the prospects of his son (K Muraleedharan), and perhaps to some extent, those of his “chamchas”. These internal squabbles came to a head once Chandy became the chief minister, who was not very tolerant of Karunakaran. Disregarding the K-factor, Chandy has tried to hurry through every act of governance, as if to atone for the precious time lost earlier and hoping to regain some credibility for the government, in time for the 2006 assembly elections.

Development for Whom?

Umman Chandy who took over the reins towards the end of 2004 rushed in with socalled development programmes. The biggest achievement of his government, he claims, is that he has put the state back on the road to development. Investments totalling Rs 22,000 crore have materialised, he said in a recent interview, including those meant for the Vallarpadam transhipment terminal, the NTPC second stage process, the LNG terminal as well as a petrochemical plant, etc. Chandy’s and the UDF’s claims of bringing in such large-scale development schemes are now being questioned by the Left. In other words, “development for whom” is the main question. Chandy says the poor of the state will be taken care of; in his scheme of things, social security concerns apparently feature.

Of course, some development activity can be seen on the streets. Most of the streets of Thiruvananthapuram are under constant renovation, day and night. Steamrollers and other grotesque machinery work round the clock to bring about “development”. The government has proclaimed a number of schemes in its budget, but how many of these will materialise, no one knows. The LDF definitely plans to put forward its pro-poor agenda this time as well. It is a fact that those below the poverty line and at the lowest stratum among the middle class have not been benefited much under this government. The UDF has made life impossible for them, the LDF insists. According to the latter, even the law and order situation has deteriorated, the underworld rules. Education without social justice, destruction of agriculture and traditional industries, etc, are causes that will expectedly be taken up by the LDF.

It is surprising that the CPM’s attitude towards the huge loans secured from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has changed recently. The CPM-ruled corporations have openly stated that they do not have any objections to accepting the ADB loan. This really has put the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) in trouble, for they had been at the forefront of many protest marches against the ADB and had even gheraoed the ADB officials. If ADB loans are now acceptable, what exactly is the difference between the LDF and the UDF regarding the perception of such loans, the strings attached to these loans and the kind of development that results? Perhaps the LDF would want to share the loans more with the deprived sections, but will this prevent the state from getting even deeper into debt?

All these questions are bound to come up and will be debated. The UDF has already shown signs that it would not leave any stone unturned, to prevent the LDF from coming to power, to prevent a repeat of West Bengal happening in Kerala. The Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president, Ramesh Chennithala, had initiated a novel move to put an end to the “undemocratic” activities in the CPM bastions of Kannur and Kasargod by holding congregations of so-called victims of “Marxist atrocities” and inviting them to share their “grievances” in public. It appears this move had the blessings of the BJP too, which had long found itself at the receiving end in this area. In fact, the Congress plea has been heeded by the Election Commission; thus, the unprecedented step to hold elections in Kannur and Kasargod separately.

And there is the SNC Lavalin issue. A deal with the Canadian company during the LDF’s tenure has led to a loss of nearly Rs 374 crore for the state. It appears that both the political fronts are responsible for this debacle one way or the other, but neither of them is willing to shoulder the blame. When the vigilance directorate avoided mentioning the name of Pinarayi Vijayan in its FIR (he was the LDF’s minister of electricity when the deal was signed) the present government lost no time in ordering a CBI investigation. And it cost the vigilance director his job. (Recently, the Election Commission directed the Chandy government to rescind this order.) Email: psnirmala2003@yahoo.com.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly March 11, 2006

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