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Are electoral malpractices a serious problem in Kerala?

The bogus voting scandal raises serious questions about the electoral process in Kerala where victory margins are wafer-thin 

April 02, 2021 / 09:20 AM IST

The tagline of the Communist Party of India(Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala this election is ‘Urappanu LDF’ (For sure it’s LDF). This can also be interpreted as a sign of the LDF’s confidence in winning a second term — bucking the four-decade-old trend of voting out incumbents. But beyond Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s emergence as a mascot, one wouldn’t be blamed for wondering how the CPI(M) could be so certain about retaining power.

True, ever since Vijayan assumed power in Kerala in 2016, the single-point agenda of the CPI(M) has been to work towards winning a second term. However, in a state where people are so used to changing governments every five years, even the much-acclaimed previous LDF government of VS Achuthanthan had to bite dust, albeit by a narrow margin. Moreover, there is no visible pro-incumbency on the ground.

Rigging Polls

On March 31, Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala in a press conference exposed a bogus voting scandal which raises legitimate questions about the whole electoral exercise in Kerala, and whether the over-confidence of the LDF has anything to do with it.

It has to be recalled here that in Kerala, the difference in vote shares between the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) are often so narrow with a majority of the constituencies witnessing tight contests. In such a situation, if bogus voting to the tune of 400,000-plus were to happen, it would be tantamount to rigging the whole process.

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The CPI(M) had made election rigging a cottage industry in its strongholds in West Bengal during its three-and-a-half decade rule in the state. Even in the 2000s, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee often lamented about ‘scientific rigging’ prevalent in the state.

Left’s Strong-arm Tactics

In Kerala, however, any form of rigging was only limited to some half-a-dozen constituencies in Kannur where the CPI(M) has total hegemony with ‘party villages’ where only the writ of the party prevails. Apart from strong-arm tactics, here the CPI(M) machinery ensured up to 100 per cent polling in booths in their strongholds by making outstation and dead voters to register their votes through surrogates.

During the 2019 general election, Shalet Sebastian, a voter in Pilathara in Kannur was stunned to see that her vote had already been cast by an imposter, prompting her to lodge a complaint. The Chief Electoral Officer in Kerala ordered a re-poll but the CPI(M) duly responded to it by attacking her home and that of the UDF booth agent. During the more recent local body elections in Kerala, KM Sreekumar, a professor of Kerala Agricultural University on election duty in Kasaragod, had put out a detailed Facebook post describing his harrowing experience and how LDF MLA K Kunhiraman threatened to chop off his legs if he didn’t toe the line.

Party Tentacles

Chennithala’s expose is something that goes beyond stray incidents. The prevalence of bogus voters and dual voters in massive numbers point to a much larger plot orchestrated by the lower level bureaucracy, presumably affiliated to the ruling party. One of the major banes of Kerala is the unionisation of every service with even the bureaucrats assigned to the State Election Commission not devoid of such affiliations. If these duplicate voter cards were bona fide cases of duplication due to routine transfers, change of addresses et al, it would have made sense; but there are many cases where the same photograph has been used to enrol people with different whereabouts in multiple booths across constituencies.

This is not all. Four hundred and fifty thousand postal votes have already been cast in Kerala. Apart from COVID-19 patients, those undergoing quarantine and the handicapped, the State Election Commission had made a provision for the first time for voters above the age of 80 to cast votes directly from home. These are direct votes supervised by state government employees with the help of the state election commission; doubts have been raised about the allegiance of some state government employees involved in the process.

Although three UDF candidates — K Muralidharan, Anad Jayan and Deepak Joy — filed a joint petition after coming across reports of coercion and other malpractices, it was too late for the high court to intervene as the process had reached culmination. Even during the preceding local body polls, there were anecdotal instances where it was said that health workers tried to coerce COVID-19 patients to vote for the ruling party.

The unusually defensive response of the CPI(M) to the expose also raises suspicion whether such practices are being abetted or at least have the sanction of higher-ups in the party. It also heightens suspicions on how the LDF is so sure of coming back to power despite the absence of any wave; and increases suspicion of whether it has anything to do with electoral malpractices.
Anand Kochukudy is a journalist. Views are personal.
first published: Apr 2, 2021 09:20 am

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