Many media houses along with research agencies have come out with pre-poll surveys where they churn out forecasts on how Kerala will vote on April 6. If they are to be believed, one major factor deciding the poll outcome would be the monthly distribution of free food kits during the last one year by the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government. True, the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are gunning for the incumbent government, citing its long list of misdemeanours, but the Left campaign managers are convinced the welfare umbrella they have unfolded will be an effective shield against the taint of multiple scam allegations.
The Congress has sought to counter the CPM offensive by juxtaposing its basket of goodies under the Nyay plank, claiming it offers a bigger welfare umbrella. And the BJP’s counter-offensive has been the argument that most of the welfare schemes presented by the Left are nothing but central projects with new names. Yet, one cannot ignore the reality. The LDF has struck home with its brand positioning, projecting Kerala as a welfare state in the making, under its stewardship.
Taking the Tamil Nadu route?
It is indeed debatable if any of these political outfits have undertaken an extensive research on the persona of the typical Kerala voter by crunching data. Therefore, what we do not know is whether research teams have been engaged by any one of these parties, tasking them with profiling the Kerala voter from the demographic and psychological perspective.
Surely, it would be far-fetched to consider that the doings of Cambridge Analytica for Team Trump can get repeated in God’s Own Country. But then, what cannot be wished away is the rather dubious sharing of personal data pertaining to a few lakh citizens compiled by state health workers. There is no conclusive evidence to affirm that this data shared with the US-based marketing company Sprinklr, promoted by a person of Kerala origin, is no longer with them.
One is not sure if unique customer needs and experiences were factored in before pitching freebies like food kits as a political tool. Because, it was not too long ago that Keralites would frown at populism that was the hallmark of Tamil Nadu politics. The trademark public durbars at tea shops and barbershops, which doubled as places of political discourse, would turn up their collective noise at Puratchi Thalaivi Jayalalithaa handing out freebies not so long ago.
Now, as Kerala politicians play catch up with their Tamil Nadu counterparts, it helps to take a look at the Amma model of welfare state.
Cradle baby scheme: The first welfare scheme launched by Jayalalithaa when she came to power in 1991 aimed at lowering the number of female foeticides and gender-based abortions. Anyone could anonymously give up their newborn babies to the state, which would then take care of the baby or give them up for adoption.
Thalikku thangam thittam: ‘Gold for marriage’ scheme in 2011 offered four grams of gold and cash of up to Rs 50,000 to women from poor families with a degree or diploma. There was also Amma kudineer (water), launched two years later, under which mineral water was available at subsidised rates.
Amma unavagam (canteen): All the canteens run by the Chennai Corporation offered meals for one rupee in 2013. Today, there are over 400 such canteens run by women self-help groups that offer three meals for Rs 15, a model that was eventually followed by other states.
Soon, there came a slew of Amma products—salt, rice, mixer-grinder, table fan, baby care kits worth Rs 1,000 for women who delivered in government hospitals. This was supplemented with free insurance and heavily subsidised medicines. Even as the rival political faction, the DMK, hit back with free TV, the latest poll offering from the ruling government includes laptops for students and washing machines.
Room for surprises
Surely, the think tank may continue to claim that what happens in Kerala is public welfare and populism elsewhere. Clearly, Malayalis can no longer take refuge in semantics even as they embrace populism with rare gusto. One may ascribe this remarkable turnaround to deft packaging of essential food products, distributed in easy-to-carry kits. Perhaps, it was a collective feeling of helplessness that prevailed during the lockdown, but the welfare floodgates have been opened.
At this juncture, electioneering in Kerala may be equated to the middle overs in a limited-over cricket match in a tournament where no team can be sure of making it to the finals. All the players are going full throttle. The advertising and marketing gurus are studying how well each player fares in optics. They weigh the pros and cons of Urappanu, LDF (It’s LDF, for sure), Naadu Nannaakan UDF (UDF, for the land’s benefit) and Kerala Modikkoppam (Kerala is with Modi).
The first and third campaign lines, from the LDF and NDA, are quite assertive, supremely confident and up to an extent, spelling things out on behalf of the target audience. The second one, from the UDF, comes across as mild, if not totally innocuous. There is no readily available evidence to suggest the first two are a result of professional marketing research, along the lines of election campaigns that are built in the US and other developed countries. Nor is there any proof that the second line has been crafted without any demographic or psychological profiling of the potential voter.
Nevertheless, there is a sense emerging among sections of the electorate that it is one thing to exude confidence but quite another to be seen as taking the outcome for granted. In this case, it runs the danger of calling the election before the votes have been cast. It has been a while since an over-sell by the NDA backfired in 2004. Then, the ruling Vajpayee government got sold on the flashy India Shining slogan, but it failed to lift the voter confidence.
It remains to be seen how the typical Keralite decides to factor in the exceedingly confident assertion by the LDF that they are sure of returning to power. And, this is on account of the overwhelming sense of irreverence or scepticism (which can only be an approximation of the real sentiment best expressed in Malayalam, ‘puchham’) he or she harbours for almost everything under the sun.
This is the third in a 7-part series on Kerala elections.