The elections to local bodies in Kerala that began on Tuesday can be seen as a curtain raiser to the assembly elections scheduled to be held in about six months. Despite the pandemic, there was door-to-door campaigning, and polling in the first phase (in five southern districts) crossed 70 per cent, close to 77.68 per cent (for the entire state) in the 2019 general election. The hectic campaign and heavy polling indicate the importance that politicians and voters give to local bodies in the state. The outcome of these elections will have a bearing on the tactics the two main political fronts and the BJP will adopt for the assembly polls. For the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front, this is the first test since a case of suspected gold smuggling with alleged links to the chief minister’s office was reported a few months ago, and after the Kerala Congress (Mani), one of the oldest constituents of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, switched sides. A strong performance will help the LDF, which had lost 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state to the UDF in the 2019 general election held in the wake of the polarisation over the entry of women devotees to Sabarimala, to brace for the next electoral test.
In the local bodies’ polls, the focus, expectedly, is more on local governance issues than on national political narratives. So, political parties have run hyper-local campaigns, even offering separate manifestos for each panchayat and corporation and highlighting qualities of individual candidates over and above party agendas and legacies. A standout feature is the large number of women candidates — while 50 per cent seats are reserved, political parties have fielded women in many general seats as well. Parties have also preferred young people over known political faces. This augurs well for the state since the local bodies handle the last mile in the delivery of public goods and services. Much of the credit for Kerala’s success in containing COVID goes to the local bodies, which are involved in the running of primary health centres.
Though the big fight is between the LDF and UDF, the performance of the BJP will be keenly watched. The party’s influence has been steadily rising and it finished as the second largest party in the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation in 2015. In fact, the BJP’s rise has turned Kerala’s two-front politics more complex, and more polarised.
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