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Monday, May 17, 2021

How the Left took Kerala with a convincing narrative and master narrator

What weighed with people was not scams, corruption, Sabarimala or investigations by central agencies. Instead, they saw in Pinarayi Vijayan a crisis manager who measures up to any event, whether a flood or a pandemic.

Written by J Prabhash |
Updated: May 3, 2021 8:55:55 am
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, center, greets other leaders and supporters as he arrives at a vote counting center following the LDF's victory in Kerala polls (AP Photo)

In terms of political grammar, the 2021 Assembly election will go down in the history of Kerala as one which has changed the very common sense of its electoral politics. At the core of this common sense lay the reluctance of the people to offer a second consecutive term to a government. The only time Kerala breached this was in 1977 when a Congress coalition won a second term. Now it is the turn of communists to create history.

The election also proved that the primary art of politics is power seeking. The chemistry of election, hence, shifted towards the physics of grabbing power, sans ideology. All the three fronts, therefore, harped on freebies rather than debating any worldview. This was safety-net politics at its best. The nature of alliances and the preparedness of parties to accommodate opportunistic politicians also stands testimony to this. Efforts were also afoot to lure each other’s coalition partners. Thus parties and alliances remained borderless, encouraging free traffic of disgruntled elements.

The verdict shows that the Kerala electorate has overwhelmingly voted for the LDF — it won 99 seats, eight more than its previous tally. That it has swept 10 out of 14 districts shows the comprehensive nature of its victory. Among the constituents, the CPM’s performance is most impressive with 68 seats.

The greatest setback in this election is for the UDF. For the first time in the history of Kerala it failed to defeat an incumbent government. It got just 41 seats, six seats less than in 2016. Out of this, the Congress share is 22 and that of IUML 15. The BJP came a cropper this time as it lost even the lone seat it held. The initial reading is that the LDF has cut into the social base of the Congress substantially, and the BJP to a lesser extent.

People always look at politics in a way that makes sense to them. They may choose political facts they can define and understand and reach certain conclusions. This time what weighed with the people was not scams, corruption, Sabarimala or investigations by central agencies. Instead, they saw in Pinarayi Vijayan a crisis manager, a strong leader who measures up to the event, whether the flood or the pandemic.

And the LDF knew too well the story it wanted to tell the people and who should be its master narrator. For the first time in the history of Kerala, the CPM projected one leader, Pinarayi Vijayan, eclipsing all others including its central leadership. Like a democratic supremo, he handled the campaign single-handedly. It was not for nothing that Deshabhimani, the CPM mouthpiece, described him as Captain. It was a personality cult at its best. Whether it would augur well for the party or democracy is too obvious to be left to anybody’s guess.

Welfare measures and development works undertaken by the government too helped to enhance its image. Not only that, but it also convinced the people about what it did through advertisements, slogans, songs, and the effective use of social media.

Further, the realignment of political forces also worked to the Left’s advantage. With the induction of KCM and LJD into its fold, it became a rainbow coalition of 11 parties as against the eight-party coalition led by the Congress, most of whom are splinter parties/groups. The competition was not between equals.

Besides, the Congress seemed not to know the story it wanted to tell. Neither could it agree upon the master narrator. It was a cacophony of sounds with little organisational prowess and monetary resources. While it concentrated on exposing the lapses of the government, it failed to effectively counter the Left move to play on the insecurity of the minorities by ascertaining that the real fight this time in Kerala was between the LDF and the NDA. This ultimately resulted in a sizeable number of minority votes swinging towards the LDF even in UDF strongholds.

The results clearly show that in the brave new world of Kerala politics, power is the new religion. The fact that the UDF has lost this race will be disastrous for its very survival as a major actor in state politics. The results will definitely fuel inter-party and intra-party feuds in the UDF, leading to a clearance sale of political turncoats. The front will also suffer further depletion in terms of coalition partners who would desert it the moment they sense political wilderness for themselves. The rejuvenation of UDF depends on the readiness of the Congress to address its organisational weaknesses.

Without doubt, the election has also completed the transformation of CPM from an ideological party to an electoral force. For quite some time, it has been clear that the Pinarayi government has been shedding ideological pretensions at the altar of political expediency. Now that he has created history by being the only CPM chief minister in Kerala to lead the party to power for a consecutive second term, his hold over the party and the government will be beyond reproach. Interestingly, what is left of the Left in Kerala today is not the Left as an imagination or a dream, but just another political force with its own set of cold political calculations.

This article first appeared in the print edition on May 3, 2021 under the title ‘Keeping to the Left in Kerala’. The writer was professor of political science, University of Kerala

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