Thiruvananthapuram: With its tradition of catapulting the opposition to office in every election, Kerala is set to vote on Wednesday in polls that the Congress feels would end five years of Communist rule. Two pre-election surveys have indicated a victory for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the battle for the 140-member legislature that is now dominated by the Left Democratic Front (LDF).
But one man who is still posing the biggest hurdle to the Congress is Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan, a diehard Marxist and at 87 one of the oldest candidates in Kerala. But the odds are loaded against the LDF, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), as no government in Kerala has retained power in an assembly election.
"There is no doubt we will win with ease," Congress veteran and Defence Minister A.K. Antony gloated. Antony has also been thrice chief minister of the state. Like most Congress leaders, he particularly targeted Achuthanandan, accusing him of discarding development programmes for gimmicks.
"Achuthanandan is yet to speak on what he did in his tenure. He behaved like an opposition leader both in his party and in government," he added.
Undeterred, Achuthanandan -- known to be acerbic at the best of times -- attacked Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, calling him an "Amul baby", just before campaigning ended on Monday.
The Congress, under a cloud nationally over corruption charges, hopes for an easy win. For once, the party in Kerala is devoid of its usual faction fighting, and most people believe the new chief minister will be Oommen Chandy.
The 2.2 crore electorate, including 1.19 crore women, will pick from among 971 candidates including 78 women. There are 20,758 polling stations.
The ruling LDF has nine constituents. The CPI-M, the big boss, has put up candidates in 84 constituencies. Its ally the Communist Party of India is contesting from 27 places and smaller parties from the other constituencies barring nine where the LDF has backed independents.
In the UDF, the Congress has the lion's share of 84 constituencies, the Indian Union Muslim League 24 and the Kerala Congress (Mani) 15. The other seats are with smaller groups.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has never won an assembly seat in Kerala, is hoping to open its account.
Congress veterans who campaigned in the state included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, who drew thousands at his rallies.
The CPM is parroting its achievements. Said its leader Pinarayi Vijayan: "During the tenure of the Congress (2001-06) more than 1,000 farmers committed suicide. Antony was the chief minister till 2004 and then Oommen Chandy took over. After our government took power, we have come out with a proper scheme for the rehabilitation of the farmers and also the fishing community."
The LDF campaign is led by its most popular face: Achuthanandan. In an encore of 2006, the CPM initially denied the chief minister ticket but public outcry forced the party to back down. The chief minister is a never-say-die man.
"A vote for us means you will get a corrupt free government. We will ensure that the spiralling prices of food and other items are brought down to manageable levels," he said.