For the first time since 1979, Kerala votes for the continuance of power and leadership. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) has won 99 seats out of 140.
This victory is a vote for Pinarayi Vijayan, too. Kerala clearly wants more of him: the stick of strong leadership on the one hand, the carrot of welfare-governance on the other.
The Congress-led Opposition, UDF (United Democratic Front), couldn't maintain the number of seats that it won in 2016. The front bagged just 41 seats, six less than the 2016 tally.
Considering Congress's precarious position nationally, and specifically in the polls in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Puducherry, the party is facing the prospect of slow death. In WB, the Congress is more or less wiped out. In Assam, they will continue to be in the opposition. In Tamil Nadu, there is no trace of them. In Puducherry, they may cross 10 seats but is not in the run to form a government.
But why slow death? Five more years in the Opposition in assemblies across the country without the advantages and spoils of power is not likely to hold a squabbling party together. A better show in Kerala would have been a shot in the arm for the exhausted party.
Rahul Gandhi’s active presence – to the absence of other senior leaders – in Kerala and his attempt at galvanizing the campus voters clearly was no match for the war machine of the CPM, whose organizational strength and clear command structure proved to be unbeatable in the state.
In 2016, the LDF won 91 seats. That they have been able to repeat the feat in 2021 is a remarkable achievement.
The victory can be attributed to the work of the oiled machinery of the party. But effectively speaking the party itself has undergone a transformation. The party has become a personality. That of Pinarayi Vijayan.
And with this election result, that cult is not likely to be checked now either by the party’s committees in Kerala or even by the Politburo in Delhi. In effect, Vijayan has become the single most important left leader in India. And along with West Bengal (where Mamata Banerjee’s TMC is all set to cross 200 seats, and Tamil Nadu where M K Stalin will form a DMK government) Vijayan offers hope of resistance to the divisive and majoritarian march of the BJP.
As Narendra Modi acquires more powers for himself, these strong regional leaders represent a check and balance.
Vijayan’s first stint met its challenges well. Whether it was – the floods, the Nipah virus, or the ongoing Covid pandemic – the Vijayan government was on top of the situation. That helped the party. In fact, the party itself made use of these disasters to interact with the affected people and increase its presence and membership drive.
Vijayan’s own personality cult — as a macho supremo — has helped to give the impression that Kerala is safe in his hands. Ironically, this is pretty much the impression his political rival and the other strong man of India, Narendra Modi, sought to give; and he would have got away with it but for the Covid tragedy that has gone out of his hands. It took a virus to reduce Modi from being a hero to Nero. In other words, Modi’s second term was his undoing. Vijayan should watch out that a similar fate does not befall him.
The BJP in Kerala scored nothing. In Palakkad, father of the Indian Metro E Sreedharan, narrowly lost. The stalwart, Kummanam Rajashekharan, lost in Nemom. And Kerala superstar, Suresh Gopi, despite running a verbally violent, filmy campaign in Thrissur (which he had earlier lost in his battle for a parliamentary seat ), traditionally a leftist bastion, too lost. That says something about Kerala's attitude to the BJP's brand of nationalist politics.
It is too early to come to grips with the voting percentages and patterns: women’s vote, community preferences, and sectarian slippages. But overall, not only has Kerala voted for Vijayan’s leadership, but also they are sending a message to Delhi that they’d rather be Red than be led by communal politics.
Vijayan now would have to deal with the dark, dominant reality of Kerala. Which is that for all the talk of welfare governance, Kerala is bankrupt.
Only in January, the then state finance minister Thomas Isaac presented Vijayan government’s deficit ( Rs 1,164 crore) budget. He could show only a paltry revenue mobilization of about Rs 200 crore.
Even that is doubtful. In the face of an economy all but destroyed by the virus, Kerala has so far shown no imagination or initiative in the direction of a sensible economy.
This is a ticking time bomb of a situation. That the Gulf economy, the main source of the state’s sustenance, down does not help either.
Nor the fact that tourism and liquor businesses — the other two cash cows — are now nearly non-existent.
The free ration during Covid, free vaccination, and the general trend of doles in direct cash transfers just cannot be sustained unless Kerala is in Nordic Europe, which it is not.
The next five years of Vijayan will be a test. A test of Kerala’s survival as a reasonably functioning economy. His party must find ways of looking at generating capital, and labour that relates to the former productively. He has to create employment. As things stand this is unlikely to happen – unless the Adanis and Ambanis of India find Kerala a friendlier place.
Vijayan has won a mandate to rule Kerala a second time at 75. In the next five years – the autumn of the patriarch – he would have to learn how to change the work culture of his state if he is to go down in history as one of the truly great statesmen that India has produced. Distribution of wealth is one thing. Its creation is another.
(CP Surendran is a writer and senior journalist.)