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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Kerala’s ‘jinx’ factor: LDF hopes to buck trend, UDF thinks anti-incumbency will prevail

While a shot at power in Kerala is still a difficult dream for the BJP and its allies, the coalition hopes to make a dent in the vote-banks of the LDF and UDF and increase its strength in the Assembly.

Written by Vishnu Varma | Kochi |
April 5, 2021 7:17:14 pm
Kerala Assembly Elections 2021Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan, Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala and BJP state president K Surendran. (Express Photo)

Concluding a bitter campaign in the brutal summer heat, candidates of Kerala’s three major political fronts and other non-aligned parties are engaged in silent, subdued, house-to-house visits on Monday to shore up some last-minute votes ahead of polling on Tuesday.

Public campaigning came to a close at 7 pm Sunday. Voting for 140 Assembly constituencies and the Malappuram Lok Sabha bypoll will commence at 7 am Tuesday. In nine constituencies, facing Naxal threat, polling will conclude at 6 pm and will go on till 7 pm in the remaining seats. The last hour of voting is reserved for Covid-19 patients and those in quarantine. While there are 957 candidates in the fray for Assembly polls, there are six candidates in the Malappuram bypoll. A total of 2.74 crore voters are eligible to vote out of which around 5 lakh are first-time voters.

Here’s a wrap of how the campaigns of the three major political fronts and other non-aligned parties in Kerala went over the last one month.

LDF aims for historic re-election

Never before have the hopes of re-election dangled so close for the CPM-led LDF. The alliance is hoping a return to power on a combination of factors — the image of the incumbent chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan as a tough and efficient administrator, the welfare programmes and heavy investments in the social sector through KIIFB, the addition of two new parties who broke ranks with the Congress-led UDF and the grassroot propensity of the Left cadre to shore up votes.

Even in an election as crucial as this, the CPM and the CPI, which fight on 75% of the seats, showed boldness by deciding that those who have had two successive terms in the Assembly would be benched. As a result, 33 sitting MLAs, including five ministers of the CPM, and nine sitting MLAs, including three ministers of the CPI, found themselves out. Though there were initial objections against declining tickets to popular ministers like TM Thomas Isaac and G Sudhakaran, the party hoped the move would benefit in slashing anti-incumbency against some of the MLAs. In their space, the parties brought in many from the organisational fold who aspired for parliamentary politics as well as young, fresh faces. However, in two seats, the decisions taken by the CPM led to public protests.

In Ponnani in Malappuram district, workers agitated against the party’s official nominee, declaring that they wouldn’t campaign for him. The leadership stepped in and held dialogues at the local level to cool off sentiments. Similarly, in Kuttiadi in Kozhikode district, CPM workers took out rallies against the party’s decision to allot the seat that it has traditionally fought to its new ally, the Kerala Congress (M). Ultimately bowing down to the cadre, the KC(M) withdrew from the seat and the CPM declared its candidate.

CPM workers protest in Kuttiyadi. (Photo Credit: K Babeesh)

Vijayan has been the star campaigner for the LDF, attracting equal enthusiasm in the Malabar, central Kerala and Travancore belts of the state. He began and ended the state-level campaign in Dharmadam, the constituency in Kannur district where he’s up for re-election. In between, he criss-crossed the state, addressing large rallies as well as small corner and neighbourhood meetings. At every speech, which ran on average from 30 to 45 minutes, he dwelt at length on the achievements of his government and the promises it makes in the manifesto such as hiking all social welfare pensions to Rs 2500 a month, a pension scheme for homemakers, creation of 40 lakh jobs in five years and housing for all tribal families.

The LDF, which won 91 out of 140 seats last time, is hoping to offset its losses especially in the southern parts of the state by making gains in central Kerala which has traditionally stood with the UDF. For example, while it swept all 11 seats in Kollam district and won 10 out of 14 in Thiruvananthapuram last time, it’s likely to lose some seats in that region this time. The controversy over the now-revoked EMCC deep-sea fishing deal is believed to have turned the coastal community in some parts against the government. The emergence of the BJP and some strong candidates put forward by the UDF are other factors. However, the entry of KC(M) is good news for the LDF as it will be able to make inroads into the Catholic and agrarian vote-bank in central Kerala.

The sexist remarks by the LDF-backed former MP Joyce George against Rahul Gandhi in the final week of the campaign was a headache for the front. The CPM quickly distanced itself from the remarks and forced the MP to apologise.

The LDF will take relief in the fact that all opinion polls by major television networks have predicted odds in favour of them.

UDF hopes Kerala will not break jinx

Since 1980, no government in Kerala has been elected back to power. That’s the iron rule of Kerala politics that the UDF puts its faith in. If the rule holds, it’s UDF’s chance to rule the state.

The UDF has approached this election under a collective leadership, declining to name a chief ministerial candidate. The Congress, which is contesting on 92 seats this time and has the natural claim to the CM’s post, has said that the objective is to return to power, post which the high command will decide on the next CM of the state. While Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy, who head the two prominent factions in the party, are the natural contenders, the high command could even choose a dark horse.

For the UDF to win, the Congress understands that it has to perform very well especially in the Malabar region, where the Left parties have always had an upper-hand. It’s reasonably confident that its ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) which is fighting on 25 seats, will be able to hold on to its traditional Muslim-dominated strongholds in Malappuram district. Last time, even in the face of LDF domination, the IUML was able to win 18 out of the 22 it contested. The IUML’s face in the state, PK Kunhalikutty vacated his Lok Sabha seat earlier this year and returned from Delhi to focus on the party’s campaign.

The Congress held intense deliberations both at the state and national level till mid-March to bring out its candidate list. The biggest surprise was the candidature of Vadakara MP K Muraleedharan in Nemom, the only seat BJP won last time. It was meant to send the message that the Congress was not reluctant in taking the bull by its horns. The party said 55% of the candidates were fresh faces, although women representation remained woefully low. In protest against the denial of ticket to her, Mahila Congress chief Lathika Subhash resigned from party posts and tonsured her head in front of the state party headquarters. The incident stunned the leadership and helped the LDF and BJP make the case that the party is anti-women.

However, as the campaign kicked off, candidate troubles were left far behind as the party united to make a bid for power. Outgoing Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala, who led a state-wide yatra, balanced campaigning on the ground as well as taking potshots at the government through press-conferences. His revelations on the EMCC fishing deal and an alleged deal of the state’s power department with Adani Group in the last weeks of the campaign put the LDF in a spot. On the other end, Chandy, even at 77, travelled extensively across the state to pitch for UDF candidates. Both Chennithala and Chandy are fighting from their respective seats of Haripad and Puthuppally.

In its manifesto, prepared over the course of several months by a committee including MP Shashi Tharoor, the UDF shines light on several promises, the key one being Nyay, the pet project of Rahul Gandhi. A minimum income guarantee scheme, it promises to put Rs 6,000 a month into the bank accounts of the most marginalised families. This will help energise the economy and enhance the spending power of the citizen, the party claims. Other promises include hiking of welfare pensions to Rs 3,000, five kg of free rice to all non-priority ration card holders, light metro projects in Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram and a legislation to ‘protect customs and rituals’ at Sabarimala.

UDF leaders release the party’s manifesto for Kerala Assembly elections in Thiruvananthapuram. (PTI photo)

The Congress believes the exit of the KC(M) will not dent its traditional Christian vote-banks in districts like Ernakulam, Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta. It’s the Joseph faction of the Kerala Congress which is in direct contests with KC(M) on most seats. By fielding young faces, Congress hopes to attract a section of the first-time voters and those disenchanted with the ‘murder politics’ of the LDF. The UDF campaign was greatly energised by rallies and road-shows of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra which saw large public support.

BJP looks to expand footprint

While a shot at power in Kerala is still a difficult dream for the BJP and its allies, the coalition hopes to make a dent in the vote-banks of the LDF and UDF and increase its strength in the Assembly. In 2016, the BJP opened its account in the state by winning Nemom and surprised pollsters by coming second in seven other seats. This time, retaining Nemom and winning those seats where it fell short last time will be the NDA’s objective.

While the BJP went on a hiring spree in West Bengal taking in disgruntled Trinamool MLAs and leaders, here in Kerala, its biggest import was E Sreedharan, fondly called ‘Metro Man’ who executed some of India’s biggest infra projects like Konkan rail, rebuilding the Pamban bridge and the Delhi Metro. Sreedharan (88) has been fielded by the party from Palakkad constituency, where it came second last time, and includes parts of the municipality where the BJP is in power. Other notable candidates include K Surendran (Konni, Manjeshwar), Sobha Surendran (Kazhakootam), actor Suresh Gopi (Thrissur), MT Ramesh (Kozhikode North) and Kummanam Rajasekharan (Nemom).

Valedictory function of Kerala BJP’s Vijay Yatra. (Express Photo)

Like the LDF and the UDF, the BJP also faced turbulence in candidate-selection. In Chengannur, when the party picked MV Gopakumar over R Balashankar, the latter lashed out at the state leadership alleging a secret deal stitched between the BJP and CPM. Balashankar, who was the former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, was expected to get the ticket. In Kazhakootam, where the party came second last time, it dragged its feet for days in order to declare Sobha Surendran’s name. Sobha is seen as a rival within the party to state president K Surendran. In further shock to the party, nominations of two of its candidates in Guruvayur and Thalassery seats were rejected by the returning officer leading to absence of candidates here. Thalassery, particularly though a stronghold of the CPM, was ideologically important for the RSS. In both seats, there are allegations of secret vote-transfer.

The NDA ran its campaign, railing against the corruption and nepotism in the two fronts, and putting forward an alternative vision under the leadership of Narendra Modi. It has promised monthly welfare pensions at Rs 3,500, five acres of land to SC/ST families, strengthening cooperative sector and free laptops for high school students. But some of its other promises have been controversial such as bringing a law against love jihad, freeing temples from control of political parties, taking steps to prevent remittances from flowing into the ‘hands of terrorists’ and a legislation to protect Sabarimala customs. In constituencies like Konni and Kazhakootam, the BJP banks heavily on Hindu votes under the guise of Sabarimala.

Like the Congress, the BJP also brought in a range of central leaders and ministers of the union government into its campaign. While PM Modi held only three rallies, Home Minister Amit Shah held several rallies and roadshows. Senior ministers like Rajnath Singh, Nirmala Sitharaman, Smriti Irani, Piyush Goyal, Pralhad Joshi along with UP chief minister Adityanath also visited the state.

Other parties

Two new parties, which have entered the electoral fray this time, are Twenty-20 and V4 People. While Twenty20 is a CSR arm of corporate firm Kitex Group, V4 People is a fledgling party based in the city of Kochi.

Twenty20 had made headlines last year by winning control of four panchayats in Kunnathunad constituency on the eastern fringes of Kochi. The party is considered to be a serious contender there to the LDF and UDF. It has also announced candidates in seven other seats in Ernakulam district.

V4 People couldn’t win any seats in the 2020 local body polls, but they garnered enough votes to trouble the three major fronts. The party is largely composed of techies and professionals who were earlier a part of the Aam Aadmi Party.

In Poonjar constituency in Kottayam district, the Janapaksham party headed by sitting MLA PC George is in the fray again. He faces Sebastian Kulathunkal of LDF, Tomy Kallany of UDF and MP Sen of NDA. In 2016, he was the only MLA who won without support from any of the three fronts.

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