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Welfare governance and Kerala’s changing politics

While much of the focus has been on the BJP and its ability to topple governments in other states, Kerala has been witnessing a quiet revolution in some parts of the state

March 25, 2021 / 10:41 AM IST
Kerala Legislative Assembly

Kerala Legislative Assembly

Both the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) are certain that their respective alliances will win the April 6 election in Kerala. While the LDF draws confidence from its much superior co-ordination and media push, the UDF is resting its hopes in that the law of averages will once again catch up and the political pendulum will swing in its favour. After all, since May 1982, power has alternated between the LDF and the UDF in Kerala.

Despite the decade-long effort of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to get into the political mainstream in the state, the UDF-LDF boat looks to be in no danger of getting rocked by a third party.

Just as across the rest of India, in Kerala also old political parties split to form new ones and parties merge to become one. However, what is peculiar about the electoral politics in Kerala so far is that during election time, all parties, big and small, gravitate to either the UDF or the LDF. Even the continuously emerging splinter groups of the Kerala Congress have gravitated to either of these two fronts.

A Third Force

A change, though a small one, has been visible since the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s noticeable arrival in 2014. The NDA is today recognised as a third force in the state, though its electoral heft is not yet significant enough to upset the UDF-LDF musical chair.

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The BJP has been steadily growing in the state, but this organic growth has been painstakingly slow. Perhaps this is why many feel that the BJP is poised to shift gears and go the aggressive route by acquiring leaders from other parties. Even though no electorally-big name is yet to join the BJP, the party will be hoping that a good show this time will make it attractive for leaders to join in the future.

A Quiet Revolution

While much of the focus has been on the BJP and its ability to topple governments in other states, Kerala has been witnessing a quiet revolution in some parts of the state. It is the rise of the Twenty20, a non-traditional political outfit, as a viable alternative to mainstream political parties. What was originally the CSR arm of corporate house Anna-Kitex group in 2013, underwent a metamorphosis in 2015 when the group won a panchayat election in Kizhakkambalam, an hour’s drive from Kochi.

Its exponential growth, from Kizhakkambalam to three adjoining panchayats in the December local body elections has caused much discomfiture for the LDF, the UDF and the NDA. Clearly, a concerted effort by the residents of one panchayat to counter political interference by the two main political fronts, has grown into a unique people’s movement.

This has resulted in the Twenty20 becoming a serious contender for at least one out of the eight assembly constituencies in Ernakulum district where it has fielded candidates. If this group manages to send at least one representative into the legislature, the main political parties will be forced to walk the talk on welfare measures and hopefully relook at their politics.

Neutral Voters

Neutral voters who account for about 20 percent of the electorate have suddenly been offered a viable alternative. It is yet another matter if the presence of such alternatives bring the indifferent voters who account for around 25 percent and mostly keep away from the polling booths. On the flip side, this election will be weighed down by those who decide not to cast their vote out of fear of rising COVID-19 cases.

Consider this: there is still a huge number of neutral voters, constituting the swing factor and providing the marginal push, who often make up their mind in the eleventh hour. The sudden credibility boost that the Twenty20 camp has received, underlined by the ilk of industrialist Kochouseph Chittilappilly, and respected film personalities Srinivasan and Siddique joining its advisory council, gives rise to a refreshingly fresh option for the neutral voter.

Welfare Shield

The LDF government’s welfare measures through the past five years are being used as a line of defence against a slew of allegations: from its early hiccups in the Sabarimala temple entry issue to the controversies surrounding ministers and bureaucrats, from allegations in the gold smuggling case to allegations of out-of-turn appointments for Left sympathisers in government institutes, from ambitious deals involving MNCs to manufacture electric buses to giving away deep sea fishing rights to foreign companies.

While the LDF is going to town with its welfare schemes, the Twenty20 has not exactly been shouting from the rooftop about its more impactful basket of welfare schemes, albeit on a much smaller scale. These include its income-based subsidy for all household goods sold in supermarkets, with 60 percent mark down on MRP. Among other benefits for a needy person based within the Twenty20 perimeter are villas for the homeless that any day top those from the state government, quality healthcare and education, as also top-notch roads.

Now the Twenty20 promises to replicate this model of welfare governance in other parts of Kerala if elected. No wonder, the sons-in-law of senior UDF leaders, Oommen Chandy and PJ Joseph, thought it fit to join the Twenty20, regardless of the trouble that could brew thereof. It was not for nothing that sociologist TH Marshall described a modern welfare state as a combination of democracy, welfare and capitalism.

Politics in Kerala is showing signs of change — are established political parties and alliances ready for this change?
Vinod Mathew is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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