Not merely a two-way contest

The stakes are very high for all political parties in the election to the State Assembly of Kerala. For the Indian National Congress, Kerala is one of the few States it controls and losing it would hasten its visible downward slide. The Communists cannot afford another electoral defeat either, as it would further marginalise them in national politics. Equally important it is for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as it fancies gaining a foothold in the State’s politics by opening its account in the Assembly. The BJP hopes to redraw the political map of the State by bringing together under its leadership some political factions and thus forging a third front.

The plight of the UDF

The ruling coalition, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), is not in the pink of health. Not only has its governance been lacklustre, but it is also desperately trying to ward off the impact of a series of scams and corruption charges which are far too many to be listed. Two cabinet ministers have been forced to resign following court strictures. The Chief Minister himself is under the scanner. This government has earned the opprobrium of being ranked among the corrupt and inefficient governments in the history of the State. One way of refurbishing the image of the Congress was to distance itself from the corrupt and insist on their relinquishing the positions they held in the government and the party. Instead, the party has chosen to field them in the elections.

The main malady of the ruling coalition is internal dissensions. The Kerala Congress, a major constituent of the government, has split three ways and two of the factions have joined the Left Democratic Front (LDF). This has undermined the almost unassailable position of the UDF in the central Travancore region. The other constituents like the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Janata Dal have also split into different groups. The only exception is the Muslim League. The UDF has become an uneasy coalition which tries to hold together several disparate groups. Its social base mainly consists of upper-caste Hindus and upper-class Christians and Muslims.

Also read: >Unity within UDF will be put to test

Reorientation by the Left

In contrast, the LDF appears to give positive signals, having sorted out its internal differences. It has kick-started the election campaign with a popular march covering the entire State, which was in the nature of a mass contact programme, conducted more effectively and innovatively compared to similar programmes by other political parties. Besides, the Left parties have initiated some innovative programmes during the last five years. Most important of them is the promotion of organic farming which is seen as a constructive activity to counter the ill-effects of pesticides. Second, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) actively participated and promoted the Kudumbashree project which has played a crucial role in the empowerment of women. It also took steps to help the old and infirm through palliative care centres. Perhaps for the first time the CPI(M) gave to its political work a cultural face. By doing so, it has redefined politics and brought it closer to cultural and social life. It appears that the Left is taking into consideration the changed realities of the society and reorienting its approach.

Also read: >A traditional stronghold of LDF

Emergence of the third front

In the past, elections in Kerala were a contest between two fronts: the Left Democratic and the United Democratic. In this election there is a third player led by the BJP which in itself is a significant factor, however weak its political base is. To those who are unhappy with both fronts — their number is not small — an alternative is now in sight. The BJP’s performance is not to be judged by how many seats it would win, but by the number of votes it would be able to collect, more importantly wrest, from the two fronts. Most likely it may not win any seat or at best it might win one or two. But what is more important is its vote share which, judging from the local body elections, is likely to be substantially more than the last elections.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is an organisation which believes in investing in the future and this election is such an investment. To manage that investment, the RSS has taken over overall control of the BJP’s campaign. For the first time in the history of the BJP in Kerala a hardcore RSS swayamsevak, Kummanam Rajasekharan, well known for his uncompromising communal position on public issues, has been hand-picked to head the State unit. He is already active in his mission of community polarisation.

The BJP’s plan is to bring about the consolidation of Hindus, by drawing the Nairs and the Ezhavas, and if possible the Dalits, into its fold. It was thwarted by the Nair Service Society which refused to do business with the communal RSS. But to the leader of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), Vellappally Natesan, the communalism of the RSS was not an issue. He, along with a minor faction of the breakaway Kerala Congress led by P.C. Thomas, joined hands with the BJP to give birth to a third front. If the BJP is able to command respectable support from the electorate, several individual-centred political outfits — not unduly bothered about ideological matters and which feel uncomfortable under the overbearing attitude of the major parties — might hitch on to the new outfit.

The social churning in Kerala

So far the BJP has not been a major player in Kerala politics. In the previous elections the BJP’s vote share ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 in different constituencies. But the BJP has a much larger social support than this vote share indicates. This is because of the changes that had taken place during the last two decades. Kerala has witnessed a sudden burgeoning of the lower middle class during the last two decades, whose craving for modernity has created a cultural crisis, a solution for which they sought in superstitious practices and irrational rituals. Their logical destination is the BJP, but in the past they voted tactically for the Congress in order to prevent the Left from coming to power. Now that the BJP is bidding for power, they have no reason to continue to support the Congress. A part of the upper-caste supporters of the Congress is likely to change its allegiance as well.

The BJP hopes that the alliance with Mr. Natesan would bring it the support of the Ezhavas. The SNDP, that Natesan heads, is a social reformist organisation set up by Narayana Guru, a widely respected, far-seeing, humanist sanyasi. Although politics in Kerala is notoriously religion- and caste-oriented — almost all political parties have a strong caste or religious base — the different class formations within castes tended to offset the allegiance to an exclusive caste politics. Therefore Mr. Natesan, although he represents the community, will not be able to command the support of the whole community. Moreover, it is difficult to reconcile the interest of Mr. Natesan’s Other Backward Class politics with the Savarna politics of the BJP. Mr. Natesan’s overtures to the RSS have already created fissures within the SNDP — it has become a divided house, at least in the matter of political allegiance. It is doubtful that the combined strength of BJP, Mr. Natesan and Mr. Thomas is strong enough to make a major dent in the highly polarised politics of Kerala.

Yet, the performance of the third front has the potential to upset the pollsters’ calculations. It would undoubtedly eat into the vote banks of both the UDF and LDF. The present scenario suggests that the UDF would be the greater loser. But it is early days and the strategies and counter-strategies are yet to unravel. Nevertheless, the fate of the third front would be keenly watched. Some with hope, some others with disdain, but many more with apprehension.

Also read: >Kerala BJP gets an ally in adivasi leader C.K. Janu

(K.N. Panikkar is former Professor of History, Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

This article has been corrected for an error

In an earlier version of the copy, Mr. Chako was mentioned instead of Mr. Thomas.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 12:50:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Not-merely-a-two-way-contest/article14224514.ece

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