Thiruvananthapuram: The Left Democratic Front government had hoped to face the Kerala Assembly Election in high spirits, but a couple of unexpected developments suggest that the tide is slowly turning against it just when the poll announcement is expected anytime now.
The row over the deep-sea trawling project has exposed the state government to opposition charge that the Pinarayi Vijayan administration is inimical to the interests of the fishing community. To make matters worse for the CPM-led government, Congress national leader Rahul Gandhi, MP, has won the hearts of the fishers cutting across political affiliations with unique gestures like venturing into the sea in a fishing boat and even swimming along with them.
Even though the government has now scrapped the contentious agreements with a US firm for deep-sea trawling, the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) is not ready to spare the ruling front. The Left leadership has gone into a huddle to discuss the ways to contain the damage. The Left leaders and MLAs are deeply upset by the turn of events that are set to give the Congress an edge particularly in the dense Kerala coast.
Reports from the ground indicate that a political storm is raging across the coastal areas of the state over the deep-sea trawling agreement with the US company, EMCC International (India) Pvt Ltd.
The CPM leadership has shot itself in the foot by entering into an agreement which was totally against the political position of the government on such issues. The opening up of the fishing sector to overseas entities is also against its election manifesto.
'Minister Mercykutty bungled badly'
The CPM and CPI leaders are also unhappy over the manner in which the Fisheries Minister Mercykutty Amma handled the sensitive issue. The CPI quarters have totally rejected the minister's desperate defence that the MD of a public sector undertaking was solely responsible for the controversy over the signing of an MoU that could harm the interests of the fisherfolk.
A section of CPM leaders say the initial reaction of the minister provoked the opposition no end and that encouraged them to come out against the government strongly.
The crucial coastal electorate
The coastal belt has around 40 of the 140 assembly constituencies. There are 10 other adjoining constituencies which get influenced by the political climate in the coastal areas. Of these the UDF could win just 9 in the last assembly elections and it is likely to stand by the opposition this time in the wake of the deep-sea fishing muddle and Rahul Gandhi's outreach.
The coastal population played a key role in LDF's stupendous victory in 2016. However, its credibility is now at stake as the coastal population seethes with anger.
The coastal people lead their lives fighting all odds. So when it comes to issues related to their livelihood they become emotional. It is widely said the fisherfolk will give their heart if they love, but if deceived they will pluck out the heart.
The Kerala coast starting from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod has Christians, Muslims and Hindus. The politicians are quite aware of the influence that religious leaders have on the coastal people.
While deciding to call of the MoUs the Left government took into account this profile of the coastal population as well as the stand taken by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council and the scathing criticism against the state administration by the former vicar general of the Latin Archdiocese of Trivandrum Fr Eugene Pereira.
The hartal called in the coastal areas of Kerala on Saturday has been backed by a majority of the organisations active in the coastal belt. Close on the heels of the satyagraha observed by opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala in Poonthura, the UDF is organising two rallies (jathas) titled "For the sea" and "For the children of sea."
The jathas through the coastal constituencies will begin on March 1. It will be led by T N Prathapan, Congress MP, and former minister Shibu Baby John of the RSP.
Impact of Rahul's visit
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's visit to the coastal area during which he joined the fishers at sea and engaged in fishing activities has had a lasting impression on the coastal people.
The LDF on the other hand has already directed its leaders and legislators from the coastal belt to do everything possible to regain the confidence and faith of coastal population. They have been ordered to hold a series of public meetings and mass contact programmes to explain the Left's stand.
Clearly, the coastal areas have become politically volatile even before official campaign for the assembly polls have begun.