Most of the pollsters who observed Kerala assessed that the campaign trail was very intense and closely-fought. But the election results show that there was a clear wave in favour of the incumbent Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
The verdict is decisive and unprecedented for an incumbent in Kerala’s recent history. The results show that the voters are highly impressed by the able leadership of Vijayan, which was visible in all popularity charts running up to the elections. His deft handling of the crises, starting from the Nipah outbreak in 2018 to the current COVID-19 situation, won him and his government accolades. He emerged as a strong leader capable of administering the state even in adverse conditions while pushing infrastructure projects, the startup ecosystem and welfare policies.
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Vijayan comes into the second term with a lot more expectations from the voters. His first term was riddled with crises that unfolded from the second year onwards. The expectation will be to continue that good work shown in the first term.
For now, the focus will be to get out of this current cycle of disaster, and much needs to be done to contain and mitigate its impact. This would require the setting up of a permanent panel of experts coming from various backgrounds of public policy to prepare a vision document on how to restructure and revive affected groups. Welfare policies have given the incumbent government a big thumbs up from the voters. However, the sustainability of these policies could be a challenge for the new government. Innovative and targeted policies are the demand of the day, and how the new government responds to the realities would be an interesting factor to watch for.
The economy is in a shambles, and it needs a booster dose. The booster could be the reform agenda that many past governments in Kerala were reluctant to exercise. Many of the public sector undertakings are loss-making ones and have been on life support for years now.
Vijayan is not stuck by communist dogmas, but is perceived as a pragmatic politician who is open to ideas that will attract investments in Kerala and revive its economy. Having won the second term with a huge mandate allows him to get rid of obsolete ideas and get out of the vicious cycles of changing management and refuelling them with the taxpayer’s money.
Consultation and continued engagement with private players in the health and education sectors are another important policy initiative. They need to be provided a level playing field. Vijayan’s focus could be to make Kerala a knowledge hub, and a competitive knowledge-based economy.
In 2016, during his first term, Vijayan announced the Nava Kerala Mission with a key focus on four social sectors: health, education, agriculture and housing, with the help and involvement of local self-governments. Now that most local administration and the state government are with the Left, the threat of centralised decision-making and administration will increase, especially given the nature and style of the chief minister’s functioning.
Just as it has been witnessed with the Opposition at the Centre, the Opposition in Kerala could be further decimated and pushed to the margins, if the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is not quick to learn from its mistakes. Much of this, however, also depends on how accommodative Vijayan would be in consulting the opposition.
During his first term, Vijayan converted every crisis into an opportunity. Now, he has the unique chance to open a new path to governance and economic reforms. The challenge before him will be to use this opportunity, and ensure that it does not turn into a crisis. The burden of expectations should not weigh him down. How the Left governments in West Bengal failed in its 34-year rule is a grim reminder in front of him. One hopes that Vijayan does not repeat those mistakes in Kerala.