Five major political themes Kerala voters grappled with during the 2021 Assembly polls campaign

Five major political themes Kerala voters grappled with during the 2021 Assembly polls campaign

It would have been fairly easy for the voter to make a decision during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

There was the Sabarimala agitation against what was perceived as the Pinarayi Vijayan government's haste to usher menstrual age women into the hill shrine. There was also an overwhelming need to keep Narendra Modi out of power, intensified perhaps by the presence of probable Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad.

Earlier, during the 2016 Assembly polls, too, it wouldn't have been a bother to arrive at a decision. There was the bar bribery scam and a sex scandal surrounding the marketing of solar power units and involving the chief minister's office. And in both these years, 2016 and 2019, decisive verdicts were thrown up.

The 2021 Assembly elections but seem puzzling. There are serious corruption charges but there is no apparent anti-incumbency. Caste and religious factors are at play, yet the poor man's welfare seems to be the dominant theme. There is deep annoyance about authoritarianism but leaders on the other side do not seem to inspire much confidence.

There are too many issues and considerations, all of them too entwined to be seen separately, that even if the voter's brain was as advanced as a super computer's it would still take time to process.

There is, therefore, the possibility that the Kerala voter will go to the polling booth on April 6 without properly taking stock of all the issues at hand. Here Onmanorama picks five major themes that animated the campaign scene.

Leadership crisis

For the first time ever, the CPM is facing an election projecting someone as its chief minister candidate. Not even in 2011, when the V S Achuthanandan government was seeking a second term, the party had officially said Achuthanandan would continue as chief minister.

Now, the party looks subservient to Pinarayi Vijayan. His is the only face in the CPM's publicity materials, leading to what many have called an “un-Marxian” impression that it is Pinarayi versus the others and not, as it should be, the LDF vs the UDF/BJP. It is as if Pinarayi is the assurance ('Urappu'), not the party. This is almost fascist.

Even insiders are not pleased. “Every one is a comrade in this party. The party is the captain,” P Jayarajan said in a Facebook post.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan addressing the crowd at a poll event. File photo: Manorama

However, on the UDF side there is a confusion of leadership. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala is the one raising all the grave allegations but it is former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy who is running around mending fences with estranged vote banks.

Collective leadership is what the Congress calls this. It can also mean that a power tussle is just a step away.

The BJP initially hoped voters would mass behind Metroman E Sreedharan. But for some reason, it has junked the hope. Now it banks solely on its supreme leader, Narendra Modi.

Corruption mountain, or molehill?

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has been consistently coming up with corruption charges in the last five years. The brewery-distillery scandal, the E-Mobility deal with a Swiss company, backroom deals with PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Sprinklr deal, the Pampa sand removal deal... it was as if Chennithala had the boon of never-ending supply of LDF government's shady deals.

On top of this exploded the gold smuggling scandal and the related Wadakkanchery Life Mission bribery scandal.

Although most of these allegations had some merit, it was as if the muck just slided off Pinarayi Vijayan the way water fell off a lotus leaf. The huge victory in the 2020 local body polls seemed to cement the belief that Pinarayi's welfare gains had made him invincible, had formed an impregnable armour against the gravest corruption charges.

Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala
Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala

To Chennithala's credit, he persisted. He came up with new charges. The deep sea fishing deal with a US multinational, EMCC, seems to have disturbed the coast. Then he exposed the 'vote multiplication' scandal, charging the LDF with creating lakhs of fake voters. The inordinately long protest of PSC rank holders, their allegation of backdoor appointments, had also rattled the government.

Chennithala's latest charge is about a Pinarayi-Adani deal to purchase solar power. The opposition leader, by throwing Adani into the mix, was perhaps trying to once again hint at a tacit CPM-BJP deal.

It is still not clear how these allegations, piled one upon the other, will work on the voter. Will it create fatigue? Or will the suspicions these charges could have generated stoke disgust?

Religious realignment

Knowing that the BJP was gaining in strength, the CPM had put in place an ambitious strategy to woo minorities.

The Christian community, which had historically been averse to the communists especially since the Liberation Struggle of 1958-59, was charmed by the 10 percent reservation for the economically weak among the forward castes. The Jose K Mani faction of the Kerala Congress, which had the Syro-Malabar Church's backing, was also accommodated in the LDF.

Pinarayi Vijayan's leadership role in the fight against Citizenship Amendment Act had already made him acceptable to the Muslim community. However, not to offend Hindu sensibilities by being seen as too close to Muslims, Pinarayi created a sub-section for Muslims, the terrorist Muslim, and slammed them in public.

This was only a caution as by then the upper caste Hindus, especially Brahmins and Nairs who were gravitating towards the BJP, were already softened by the 10 percent reservation for forward castes

Nonetheless, this 'extreme Muslim' bashing got out of hand and escalated into branding as “terrorist” even a mainstream Muslim party like Indian Union Muslim League. This has given rise to charges that the CPM was fanning Islamophobia. There is also a feeling in the Muslim community that the LDF is trying to exploit a nascent Muslim-Christian divide.

Getting close to the Christian community has also presented the CPM with some ideological worries. The CPM's prize catch Jose K Mani recently, perhaps to humour the Church, said 'love jihad' should be investigated. This so embarrassed the CPM that it was forced to distance itself from Mani.

Still, it is said that Mani Junior, by openly speaking against 'love jihad', could attract to his side, and therefore to the LDF, Christian votes that were dressed up and ready to move to the BJP.

Do-gooder's instinct

It is a perverse way of putting it. Yet it has to be said that calamities – floods, Nipah, COVID-19 – have provided the LDF government its biggest political opportunities. It used these tragedies that swept the whole of the state to present an image of kindness and efficiency. Most of the welfare measures that give an alluring gloss to the LDF campaign, notably free ration and provision kits, were prompted by these tragedies.

It is also true that the LDF government had instilled a certain order in the disbursal of welfare, an achievement that will show the UDF in a poor light.

Not only did the Pinarayi government increase monthly pensions, it also made sure that the money reached the front doors of the beneficiaries. There are no arrears either. These are aspects of governance that touch the people directly and would never be forgotten.

In reply, the UDF has promised the moon: NYAY scheme that promises Rs 6000 a month, or Rs 72,000 a year, for poor households, a promise that was rejected nationally in 2019. Pension for housewives is a promise of both the UDF and the LDF.

The BJP, on the other hand, has promised a law against 'love jihad' and another one granting rights of temple administration to the faithful.

'Swamiye Saranam Ayyappa'

It was with this frenzied chant that Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his speech in Pathanamthitta on April 2. It was also Good Friday but Modi made no mention of its significance during his speech. It was a clear sign that the BJP is hoping for a massive Hindu mobilisation.

The Sabarimala incident is seen as an attempt to sully Hindu faith, and not faith in general. The party seems to have even put on hold its initial attempts to woo the Christian community.

This feels strange because even BJP candidates who had made big noises about Sabarimala at the start of their campaigns, K Surendran and Sobha Surendran for instance, were not so enthusiastic about the shrine by the time they reached half way.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Kerala
Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves the crowd at the Greenfield International Stadium, during an election campaign for the Kerala Assembly polls, in Thiruvananthapuram, Friday. Photo: PTI

Modi's April 2 visit has revived Sabarimala for the BJP. When they pressed their ear to the rail track called Kerala, the BJP poll strategists must have heard some rumble they thought was exhilarating. Whether they heard right will be known on May 2.

The UDF has adopted a seemingly balanced approach. It has raised Sabarimala as a major campaign issue but it is only one of the issues that the UDF is championing. Greater importance, however, is accorded to welfare promises like the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme that would put a monthly pension of Rs 6000 in the bank accounts of poor households.

On the other extreme is the LDF. Its candidates and leaders have refused to speak about Sabarimala. They counter questions of faith with material achievements. Only on May 2, when the results are out, will it be clear whether faith is as important as daily bread.

If both are deemed equally important, the UDF can perhaps steal the show.

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