The campaign style in Kerala has changed radically, from an ideology-driven fight to an acrimony-laden onslaught. The earlier highly personalised and intimate campaigning style has become history. By relying on opinion polls and surveys, pre-poll assessments of even cadre parties tend to go awry, which compels parties and candidates to put more ferocity into campaigning.
“Voter behaviour is increasingly turning out to be an enigma for political activists. Their assumptions on the poll outcome often go askew as they fail to strike an emotional and personal bonding with the public,” says K. Mohanan, former MP and former general editor of CPI(M) organ Desabhimani.
Grassroots workers have become oblivious to political undercurrents and tend to remain aloof from voters. Mr. Mohanan, who was active in politics since the 1957 elections that swept the Communist Party of India to power in the State, reminisces about election experiences over the last four decades.
“The 1957 elections were a virtual celebration that witnessed massive public involvement. When the Congress camp paid money to impoverished voters, they collected and handed it over to the Communist Party which was reeling under acute funds crunch. The Congress received Central funds and never ventured for a local fund collection drive,” he says.
There was no money or muscle power — campaigners vied to hold huge demonstrations ensuring maximum participation of women, and raised flags and festoons on trees and hilltops. The influence of money power in Kerala elections became obvious only after the 1960 polls.
Public address systems were scarce and communication was mainly through public meetings and house visits. Politics and issues that had a direct bearing on the lives of the poor were discussed at the street-corner meetings.
These were at best personal dialogues. While A.K. Gopalan discussed down-to-earth issues with voters, E.M.S. Namboodiripad chose to deal with political issues. E.K. Nayanar's inimitable oratorical skills lured the public and had them glued to their seats till the end of his speech.
Mr. Mohanan says that voters cannot be stunned through campaign gimmicks. Politicians should try to appeal to them through strong personal communication.
According to veteran socialist and parliamentarian P. Viswambharan, technology has made drastic changes in campaign modes. Mr. Viswambharan, who has contested three Assembly and two Parliamentary elections since 1952, says that earlier, the thrust of the campaign was on the manifesto. All discussions were centred on the promises made by parties and fronts. However, he says, candidates today try to project themselves through posters and other means.
“Traditionally the Left parties and their allies used to contest on a frugal budget, whereas the Congress has always been flush with funds. The limited number of posters printed for the candidates were pasted by the workers themselves. Very rarely did the posters have pictures of the candidates. The attempt was to propagate programmes of the candidates and their parties. Now, the tasks of putting up posters and writing graffiti are all being outsourced,” he says.
Earlier, the campaign period spanned about two months, and candidates and campaigners got sufficient time to reach out to voters. Mr. Viswambharan remembers massive rallies that marked the opening and conclusion of the campaign. During the 1952 elections, polling was held in phases over a month.
Over the years, however, the polling span got reduced. Veteran Gandhian P. Gopinathan Nair also believes that there has been a drastic shift in campaign styles. Earlier, he says, elections were fought in a dignified manner and rival candidates never ventured beyond acceptable limits to vindicate their claims.
All candidates exercised self-restraint in challenging and questioning their rivals' claims. But this is in direct contrast to the current trend of levelling personal charges, which Mr. Nair says is quite sickening and will only weaken democracy.