As Kerala enters the last lap of campaign for the Assembly elections, the overriding sentiment is one marked by squabbles, smear tactics, self-inflicted injuries and, most important of all, disruption of the hitherto-accepted political norms.
It has been a good 10 days since most in the LDF (Left Democratic Front) camp have hit the campaign trail after the candidate list was announced. For the other two fronts, led by the Congress and the BJP, it has been nearly a week of campaigning in the state. The CPM has silenced much of the rumblings in the ranks by even opting to not throw the rule book of discipline at dissidents. If how it handled the local rebellion against the party’s new ally, Kerala Congress (M) in Kuttiady showed flexibility beyond belief, it was the Congress leadership that behaved more like a cadre-based party, taking an uncharacteristically rigid stance when faced with a similar situation in Ettumanoor.
Problems in the UDF camp
If the CPM ally surrendered its claim on a seat it could not have won, its namesake Kerala Congress (J), an ally of the Congress-led UDF, showed no such magnanimity, leading to the embarrassing head-tonsure protest by the soon-to-be former state Mahila Congress president, Lathika Subhash, in front of the Congress party headquarters. The other two fronts did not miss the opportunity to point fingers at Sonia Gandhi. Doesn’t matter if Lathika wins or loses the election, her decision to call out misogyny in the Congress is a stain that cannot be easily erased.
This unsavoury incident poured water over the excitement the Congress would have otherwise generated on what was arguably a more imaginative candidate list than its opponents. If the CPM had claimed to choose over 30 fresh faces this election, the Congress nearly doubled that effort with 55 per cent newcomers in its list. However, this generation shift in the Congress line-up has also resulted in much gnashing of teeth by many regulars who did not make the cut this time. The side story to this is how quite a few leaders in the state fear their game has been hijacked by what they call the Delhi lobby, alias Kerala high command.
The discontent simmering in the Congress—the senior UDF (United Democratic Front) partner—seems to have boiled over and seeped into the ranks. In a first for a party whose leadership brooks no backchat, the Muslim League too is rife with schisms, at least in certain pockets. Former Congress leader and new NCP recruit P.C. Chacko seems sold on setting the cat amongst the pigeons. His clarion call to former party colleagues disenchanted with the leadership is—jump the ship because it is sinking.
Discontent in LDF, BJP camps
On the other hand, except in Kuttiady, there has not been an open dissent in the CPM-led LDF, especially in constituencies where popular CPM leaders were overlooked. But still waters run deep and the level of disaffection may come to the fore only on the polling day. Yes, conservative communists who still believe in showing solidarity with the working class and frugal living by the leadership are disillusioned by the money power and opulence that now drives the party.
Their voice of discontent may be heard on April 6. At the ground level, the decision by the mother of the Walayar sisters, aged 13 and 9, who were brutally raped and murdered 52 days apart, to fight Pinarayi Vijayan in Dharmadam may be a symbolic gesture. Nevertheless, the LDF would be wary of a rub-off effect among the women voters in other constituencies. The allegation about a police cover-up and the prosecution’s failure to build a valid case against the guilty by the mother is bound to resonate beyond Dharmadam as her electioneering gains visibility through the media.
Meanwhile, dirt has well and truly hit the fan in the BJP camp. Sure, the BJP leadership rushed to assuage the sentiments of another scorned woman, Sobha Surendran, by reluctantly giving her a seat at the eleventh hour, no doubt prompted by the Lathika episode. However, no such damage control could be done by the BJP as it fumbled when the state leadership faced a scathing attack by R. Balashankar, former editor of the party mouthpiece, Organiser.
The broadside by the party ideologue, known for his proximity to the likes of Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda, against Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V. Muraleedharan and state party president K. Surendran. Balashankar, whose demand for the Chengannur seat was denied, claimed the party leaders were more concerned about protecting their turf and had, therefore, blocked the entry of Kerala Congress (M) and Jose K. Mani into the NDA fold.
Balashankar has stirred the hornet’s nest with an unambiguous charge against state leaders entering a deal with the CPM to ensure Surendran’s win in Konni. The give-and-take involved the surrender of winnable seats in Chengannur and Aranmula, he alleged. Both the CPM and the Congress often accuse the other of colluding with the BJP in Kerala—this time, the Left has been caught on the wrong foot.
The campaign barometer
There is no election without money freely flowing into the market. Talk to the industry honchos, and you get a fair idea about how each party is faring by way of fund availability for the candidates.
The per capita (constituency) expenditure, with a variation of 10-15 per cent, could stand at:
#CPM – Rs 2.5 crore approx.
#BJP – sky is the limit but show results.
#Congress – raise your own funds, no sign of money coming from the central command.
The poll expenditure plan may or may not be true, but a fair barometer to gauge how well each of the three major political outfits are doing is visibility and top-of-the-mind recall value for their candidates. The audio, video campaign as well as the presence on the streets can indicate how well the parties are leveraging the tools for information dissemination and disruption they already have at their disposal.
Apart from the social media teams of each party slugging it out on multiple platforms, the primary tool for influencing opinion remains the party controlled newspaper-television combination. In Kerala, Deshabhimani-Kairali package from the CPM is leading, so far. The Janmabhumi-Janam is trying to keep pace and has a dedicated following among the Right-leaning. However, no such claims can be made by even the staunchest Congress follower about Veekshanam-Jaihind.
This is the second in a 7-part series on Kerala elections.