Opinion | Behind conspiracy theories, perception management and a strange political consensus in Kerala

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In the political backwaters of God's own country, there is a strange consensus cutting across party lines. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance agreed at an all-party meet that bypolls to the assembly seats of Kuttanad and Chavara, necessitated by the demise of LDF legislators, need not be held.

The government, which convened a meeting to hear the views of all parties, will now convey this rare show of consensus among political parties in Kerala, to the Election Commission, which can decide either way.

The rationale that even if elections were held in these testing times, the winning legislators will have just a term of five months before assembly elections slated before May next year, holds merit.

But why has such a camaraderie emerged in the political spectrum, otherwise seen as a bickering rat hole of even petty issues?

The answer lies in the sordid underbelly of the major political formations.

The ruling LDF was sniffing a chance to grab history. Its managers began rolling out a comeback scenario in a state where a second successive term for any formation is a political taboo.

They were boasting of political mileage derived by the government from two unfortunate incidents – the relentless assault of nature's fury on the state in the form of floods and landslides and the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both didn't spare the tiny state with minimum resources at its disposal.

Despite the catastrophic nature of these unforeseen chaos, LDF managers believed the government did well on both counts to alleviate the misery of the lay man.

There are murmurs of dissent on that count, but the fact is that it any way did manage to veer public perception to that line of thinking. In politics, perception matters, especially when polls are knocking at your doors.

So, sniffing a scent of an elusive comeback at the helm of power, the LDF was all set to go for the kill as the opposition UDF got engulfed in its own internal strife, both within the UDF and its lead partner the Congress.

All of a sudden, a diplomatic baggage with 30 kg of gold arrived at Thiruvananthapuram international airport on July 5, triggering a chain of events which pointed to a gold smuggling racket in connivance with the power centres in the government.

The LDF's perceived fortunes were on a downward spiral from then on, with the axe falling on a top bureaucrat who wielded unimaginable clout in the Chief Minister's Office.

The LDF has rallied around the Chief Minister and his office but the damage has been done on the perception front.

It failed to tackle that and the divisive house of the opposition UDF suddenly sniffed a reverse scenario.

Pinarayi Vijayan, Ramesh Chennithala
Pinarayi Vijayan, Ramesh Chennithala

The UDF began to believe out of the blue that the bells were indeed tolling for the Left government and that a comeback to power was in striking distance.

It suddenly tried to stitch it as a cohesive front certain to have a shot at power and mounted a valiant attack on the ruling front. This was despite the fact that the trio of former CM Oommen Chandy, Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and KPCC president Mullappally Ramachandran were seemingly pulling the Congress-led front in different directions till then.

While Chandy remained a bit low profile, the other two were not always on the same page on many counts.

But then the simmering tensions in the Kerala Congress (M) came to the fore. As usual, the UDF showed its customary nonchalance – or in political parlance delaying action on key issues – and kept on postponing a decision on who would represent the KC (M).

It could not stitch up a consensus between the warring Joseph and Jose K Mani factions. Instead, it doled out the peacemaker's role to IUML's

national general secretary P K Kunhalikutty.

The confused exercise almost ended in the UDF disowning the Jose K Mani faction and embracing the Joseph faction.

It had to beat a hasty retreat after the Jose K Mani faction was recognised as the official KC (M), but by then the damage was done.

Facing the possibility of having no truck with the UDF, the Jose faction began flirting with the LDF, an unofficial process which is still doing the rounds out of the glare of official party spectrum. In other words, unofficial parleys are on to rope in Jose faction, which the LDF now perceives as the camp that can have a sway over the traditional Kerala Congress voters of the Christian belt spanning pockets of central Travancore.

The LDF's calculation is that if it supports the Jose faction, it can get nearly more than a dozen legislators of KC (M) and also dent the chances of many UDF candidates in central Travancore.

The hostilities within various Christian denominations would also mean the UDF's prospects would be dented throughout the state vis-a-vis its mass base of loyalty of a majority of voters from the community.

PJ Joseph, Jose K Mani
PJ Joseph, Jose K Mani

The rock solid base is certainly set to crumble in such a scenario.

Significantly, the Jose K Mani faction was invited by the government for the all-party meet and the CM defended it saying the EC had allotted the party symbol to them and hence they were invited. The government's approach spoke volumes about the LDF line of thinking.

The Congress has, in the present Assembly, only a handful of legislators more than the Indian Union Muslim League, the UDF's second biggest constituent.

It is in this context that IUML suddenly redeployed Kunhalikutty back to Kerala, purportedly to shore up its fortunes.

Kunhalikutty, the Malappuaram Lok Sabha MP, is set to steer the party's fortunes in the run-up to the polls.

So with the KC (M)'s virtual split already dragging the UDF's fortunes, the IUML would have to weigh in more. The IUML should, in such a scenario, hold on to its own chunk of nearly one-and-a-half dozen of its legislators and push for the victory of UDF candidates across the Northern Malabar region, where it is deemed to hold considerable sway among the Muslim population.

There is no magical Rahul Gandhi candidature to assure a sweep scenario and the CPM-led LDF is particularly dominant in the north.

So conspiracy theorists cannot be blamed if IUML sensed a chance to weigh in its clout in the UDF and bargain for more seats, a scenario which may not go down well with Congress ticket aspirants. Remember, Kerala is one southern state where the Congress can command some mass base. The organisation is in a shambles in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and is afloat in Tamil Nadu, just through its association with the DMK-led front.

So, what if LDF managers can kindle the hopes of the IUML for a switch of front?

The IUML may ask for a huge price, but given the scenario the LDF wouldn't mind a divisive UDF, assuming it has already given up hope for a return to power. So if the LDF doesn't return to power, it would be glad to at least thwart the prospect of a Congress-led coalition.

The only sure shot way to ensure that is to woo the IUML base.

The BJP-led NDA can't hope to make its presence felt in Kuttanad or Chavara constituencies, though it would still like to have a shot at local body polls, in which it hopes to gain more traction.

Since nothing is impossible in politics, conspiracy theories still hold sway.

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