File image of Kerala Chief Minister and CPI(M) leader Pinarayi Vijayan
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Pinarayi Vijayan has won a historical second term bucking the four-decade-long trend of voting out incumbents in Kerala. The LDF’s win has been a result of meticulous planning, and it had been systematically working towards this end ever since it won the mandate in 2016.
Apart from presiding over an uncertain period when multiple crises like avian flu, recurring floods and COVID-19 unfolded, it also helped that Vijayan had control over the party machinery to achieve this end.
Vijayan’s comeback is reminiscent of the win of the emergency-era Congress-CPI United Front government led by C Achuthamenon, which withstood the trend across the country to win by a landslide margin in 1977. Congress leader K Karunakaran’s role as home minister during this regime had since attained notoriety, with the treatment meted out to detainees, including the infamous man-missing case of engineering student P Rajan well-documented.
Vijayan’s term as chief minister (also holding the home portfolio) had many parallels with this emergency-era government, having used the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act with abandon along with police atrocities, custodial deaths and alleged fake encounters perpetrated under his regime.
Not only has Vijayan fashioned himself on Karunakaran (rather than his predecessors from the Left) on the way he has administered the state, but he also took a leaf out of the veteran Congress leader’s rulebook in social engineering, by forging alliances with various caste and religious combinations by opening lines of communication and by constantly engaging with them.
Vijayan’s quest to retain power was also aided by a listless United Democratic Front (UDF), which was lulled into believing that the state’s record of voting out governments would propel it to a win. In fact, the Congress’ base has been steadily eroding in Kerala since 2004 when Karunakaran walked out of the party and, although he was back in the party before his demise in 2010, the Nair vote base he commanded had since switched over to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJP’s rise in fortunes in Kerala also means that the Index of Opposition Unity is low with the anti-incumbency votes splitting between the UDF and the BJP. Although the BJP hasn’t yet reached a critical mass, its vote share has been consistently going up in the past decade, and this has eaten into the UDF’s share of the pie.
A dispassionate analysis would reveal that Vijayan’s stock among the general public began to rise exactly a year ago when he began addressing his daily COVID-19 press conferences. By tactfully utilising this opportunity to address people directly, Vijayan had turned the tide around after losing the Lok Sabha elections badly following his mishandling of the Sabarimala protests.
The UDF got a jolt when it lost the local body elections in late 2020 and although it served as a much-needed wake-up call, it was probably too late to ring in the changes. The failure of Congress to address the leadership question and not making the generational shift despite ominous signs will come to haunt the party in the near future. The absence of strong leadership also meant that the Congress was often perceived as being arm-twisted by its ally, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which caused anxiety among its Christian vote bank.
The LDF’s win has also been aided by its tactical alliance with Kerala Congress (M), which held key to the Syrian Christian vote bank and despite Jose K Mani’s defeat in Pala, the community’s changing voting preference is amply evident in the results in the UDF’s traditional bastion of central Travancore.
The welfare pensions and food kits provided by the LDF government to people in distress went a long way in accomplishing this win. Vijayan’s image makeover as a strong leader, partly aided by the media, also went a long way in accomplishing this win.
In contrast, the UDF couldn’t put its house in order and failed to elevate mass leaders such as K Sudhakaran and K Muralidharan into leadership positions. It would also seem that the UDF’s attempts to rake up the Sabarimala issue once again on the eve of this poll misfired with its secular voters.
The BJP blanking out after opening its account in the state in 2016 is a setback to the party, but the UDF’s successive loss gives an opening to the saffron party to widen its base. The LDF’s win despite taking calculated risks by denying tickets to many sitting legislators will further consolidate Pinarayi Vijayan’s cult of personality.