Among voters in India, the ones in Kerala are perhaps the hardest to please.
Since 1980, when politics in the state became bipolar with the emergence of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), they have not allowed a ruling coalition to return to power. For 40 years, governments have been voted out like clockwork.
“Even those governments that had earned the goodwill of the people—like the ones formed by E.K. Nayanar in 1987 and V.S. Achuthanandan in 2006—could not come back to power,” said Prof Sajad Ibrahim of Kerala University in Thiruvananthapuram. “Kerala voters are easily the most critical-minded and demanding ones.”
But for this voter penchant to switch allegiances, the LDF government appears to be on a strong wicket this time. “We are confident because we have delivered on our promises and done much more,” Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan told THE WEEK. “The people trust us.”
But will this trust translate to votes? “The performance of the current government may be good on some counts,” said advocate and political observer K. Jayashankar. “But, if you look at Kerala’s election history, good governance has never fetched anyone votes.”
But then, the LDF has already bucked a historical pattern. Last December, it became the first ruling coalition in 30 years to sweep the local body polls. “The government certainly has an edge over the opposition after the local body polls, and that is a rare thing for a ruling coalition,” said J. Prabhash, former head of the department of political science in Kerala University.
Three factors helped the LDF win the local body polls by a big margin: welfare measures during the pandemic, smart electoral engineering, and the induction of the Kerala Congress (M), a former UDF constituent, into the LDF. The KC(M), which is dominant in central and southern Kerala, helped the LDF split the Christian votes that have traditionally gone to the UDF.
The LDF beat daunting odds to claim victory. Weeks before the election, the Enforcement Directorate had arrested the chief minister’s former principal secretary, M. Shivashankar, in connection with a controversial gold-smuggling case. The opposition had been going hammer and tongs against the government, accusing the chief minister and his office of malfeasance. Adding insult to injury, the son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau in connection with a case of drug-peddling.
The spate of controversies in the run-up to the elections had seemingly undone the government’s much-celebrated efforts to control the pandemic. But the results proved otherwise: the LDF won more seats and civic bodies than the UDF and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance combined. “We swept the election when the party was being hounded from all sides over the gold-smuggling controversy,” said Finance Minister T.M. Thomas Isaac. “The people of Kerala rejected all these baseless allegations with the contempt they deserved. It shows the faith the people have in this government.”
Observers say the local body polls have had a dramatic effect. “It not only gave the LDF a decisive edge, but also exhausted the arrows in the opposition’s kitty,” said political observer George Podippara. “With allegations falling flat and Shivashankar having got bail, the credibility of those who raised the furore is at stake.”
The government has now pegged its campaign to the development projects it has initiated in the past five years. The visible growth in infrastructure and marked improvements in public health and education systems are factors that could help the LDF.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s leadership, too, stand the coalition in good stead. “The people felt they had a strong leader to look up to in times of crisis—be it the 2018 floods or the Covid-19 outbreak,” said D. Dhanuraj, chairperson of the think-tank Centre for Public Policy Research. “We are now living in a world where people tend to prefer strong leaders. And that psychology will work in favour of Vijayan as it did in the case of Prime Minister Narendra Modi nationally.”
Also, unlike in the past, when faction feuds had threatened the LDF’s unity, the CPI(M) and its allies have rallied behind the chief minister this time. “Had the LDF lost the local body polls, Vijayan’s supremacy would have been questioned, both within the CPI(M) and the LDF,” said political observer Joseph C. Mathew. “But with the sweep, he has once again established his complete authority over the party and the government.”
The poll results came a shock to the opposition, which had pinned its hopes on the bad press the government had received. “The results were totally unexpected,” said Mathew Kuzhalnadan, general secretary of the Congress’s state unit. “The Congress and the UDF were complacent after the landslide victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state [in which the UDF won 19 of 20 seats]. The local body results really shook us out of that. When we look back now, that was a blessing in disguise.”
The results so stung the UDF that it swiftly changed course. Measures were taken to address a crucial factor that had resulted in the rout: the loss of Christian votes. The community had been a pillar of the UDF since the state’s first assembly polls in 1957. But a slew of factors—the exit of KC(M), the Indian Union Muslim League’s outsized influence in the UDF, and increasing anti-IUML sentiments among Christians—had resulted in an erosion of votes.
“We have done everything possible to clear the Christian community’s misunderstandings about certain IUML positions. All issues have been sorted out,” said K.P.A. Majeed, the IUML’s general secretary.
The Congress’s decision to bring back former chief minister Oommen Chandy to a lead role in party affairs is part of the course correction. “Bringing back Chandy was a smart move,” said Mathew. “The moment he returned as the lead, the political discourse changed. He put the LDF on the back foot by raising the Sabarimala issue. Only a master politician can do that.”
In the 2019 elections, the CPI(M) had to pay a heavy price for its perceived eagerness to facilitate entry of women of menstruating age into the Sabarimala temple. It had lost in all but one Lok Sabha seat. Through Chandy, the Congress has managed to reignite an issue that the CPI(M) would rather sweep under the carpet. “The CPI(M) will not be able to run away from consequences,” Chandy told THE WEEK.
The Congress has also cleverly brought to the forefront Rahul Gandhi, whose decision to contest from Wayanad in 2019 had helped the party sweep the Lok Sabha polls. “Rahul is our trump card,” said C.P. John, leader of the Communist Marxist Party, a Congress ally. “Given the admiration of Malayalis for the Gandhi family, the presence of Rahul, Priyanka and Sonia Gandhi could do wonders for the Congress and the UDF.”
Rahul has been campaigning aggressively in Kerala, which is the most promising state for the Congress among those going to the polls in the next few weeks. He recently took part in the concluding leg of the ‘Aishwarya Kerala Yatra’, a statewide rally led by opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala. The Congress is in alliance with left parties in Bengal, but that has not stopped Rahul from vehemently attacking the LDF government in Kerala. His public appearances have been attracting huge crowds. “He will lead us to victory,” said state Congress president Mullapally Ramachandran.
The fact that political equations have changed in the past one month is also giving hope to the UDF. “The agitation by Public Service Commission rank holders demanding appointments has dented the government’s image,” said Chandy. “Similarly, the EMCC controversy [related to the awarding of a deep-sea fishing contract to the US firm EMCC International] has affected it very badly in the coastal belt, where the left had made a huge upsurge in the local body elections. So the upper hand it had after the poll results is no longer there, though it still has a slight edge.”
According to C.P. John, the UDF did well all through February. “By raising an array of issues, we could strip the government of the smugness it had after its poll victory,” he said. The success of Aishwarya Kerala Yatra, according to him, proved it.
“The yatra created a buzz among Congress workers who were in shock after the local body polls,” said Dhanuraj. He said things would get tougher for the LDF if Rahul leads the UDF campaign from the front. “Though the LDF has an edge now, the elections are not going to be a cakewalk,” he said.
The LDF leadership is only too aware of this. Even though pre-poll surveys have predicted victory for it, the LDF is leaving no stone unturned in its campaign. “We had an upper hand in the 2019 election, too, initially,” said a CPI(M) state committee member. “But everything changed with the entry of Rahul Gandhi as a Lok Sabha candidate from Kerala. The Congress, knowing very well that it will not survive yet another loss, will do anything to win this election. It may even make Rahul the chief minister candidate.”
Asked whether he was being serious, the leader replied: “You would have laughed at me if I had told you two years ago that Rahul Gandhi would contest Lok Sabha elections from Kerala. Desperation makes people do desperate things.”
Some CPI(M) leaders, however, think that voters in Kerala are “too sophisticated” to fall for the optics created by the Congress. “Eating in a poor man’s house and hugging old women are tricks we see in films of the 1980s and the 1990s,” said M.B. Rajesh, former MP. “It is sad to see the Congress putting on such shows to defeat a government that has caught the imagination of the people.”
Some leaders in the UDF fear Rahul’s constant presence in the state would drive away BJP sympathisers who usually vote for the Congress because of their anti-Communist sentiments. “His presence may also antagonise the BJP further,” said a senior UDF leader. “But we don’t have any other option but to bite that bullet. The BJP’s position will be critical to both the UDF and the LDF.”
The BJP had won a seat and received around 15 per cent of votes in the previous assembly polls. This time, the party’s national leadership is so keen to improve the tally that it has been directly involved in campaigning and decision-making. To attract middle-class voters, the party has been inducting ‘neutral’ faces—like ‘Metro Man’ E. Sreedharan and former director-general of police Jacob Thomas.
The BJP is focusing on 42 assembly seats where it had won more than 20 per cent votes in the local body polls. “There will be strong, three-cornered fights in all 140 assembly seats,” said BJP president K. Surendran.
But observers say the best the BJP can hope for is a position where it can determine who forms the government. Earlier, its strategy was focused on eroding the support base of the CPI(M) and the CPI, which usually receive the lion’s share of Hindu votes in the state. But its high-voltage campaign against the left parties has largely been a failure, as is evident from the LDF victory in the local body elections.
Apparently, the BJP is now banking on the UDF losing the polls. Party leaders reportedly believe that, in the long term, facilitating the disintegration of the seemingly wobbly Congress-led coalition would be far easier than eroding the strength of the cadre-based left parties. “Our aim is 2026; we are strategising accordingly,” said a senior RSS leader.
The Congress is aware of the BJP’s plan, and it has been cunningly leveraging the threat to win over minority votes, especially Muslims. And, it seems to be working. “The Muslim community is aware that the Congress will not survive another five years without power,” said writer M.N. Karassery. “It will be bad for the IUML, too. So there is a general feeling in the community that the survival of the Congress is very important for protecting the secular fabric of society.”
Controlling the election narrative, therefore, has become crucial for the fronts. “If it manages to attract swing voters and keep the focus of the election on development and welfare politics, then the LDF would win this election,” said Dhanuraj. “But if the UDF succeeds in changing the election narrative and consolidating anti-communist votes as always, then history would repeat.”
Swing votes would be key to victory. According to psephologists, at least 5 per cent of voters in Kerala are unaligned or apolitical. “The verdict of an election is mostly determined by these swing voters who switch preferences every five years,” said Ibrahim. “And they take a decision mostly in the last few days before the elections.”
The LDF’s goal would be to avoid being at the receiving end of this switch-hit. “The LDF has an edge now,” said Ibrahim. “But switching their preferences every five years is in the DNA of the voters here. And they have been doing it for the past 40 years. If Vijayan is able to change that DNA, it will be a turning point in the state’s history.”