Kerala’s Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala casts his vote in Haripad. (File image: Twitter/@ANI)
The grand victory of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala assembly elections, breaking a four-decade-old political pattern, is good news to the state. The re-election of the incumbent government would mean policy continuity at a critical juncture, which is important as the state is fighting the second wave of coronavirus spread.
But equally important in the democratic setup is a strong opposition side to act as a corrective force in the political system. A weakened opposition is bad news for any state, not just Kerala. However, it is doubtful whether the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), in the current form, can make a good opposition side. To begin with, it will need to repair the internal damage, infuse fresh blood and emerge stronger to play a constructive opposition. With the current leadership, it is unthinkable.
The job of opposition will be tougher and trickier this time. The LDF’s last five years in Kerala weren’t smooth. There were multiple allegations - starting with the gold smuggling controversy involving the mastermind, Swapna Suresh, and the dilly-dallying of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government on the deep sea fishing contract to backdoor appointments in state-run firms.
But the LDF government scored points by launching a bunch of populist schemes—free food kits, pension for all and so on. The strategy worked well as evidenced by the poll results. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala was seen as a leader who opposed everything that the government does, and it won his party the disapproval of the electorate. The opposition will continue to be seen as anti-people if it randomly raises allegations against a government like it did in the previous five years. The LDF has emerged as an even stronger party post the elections and its supremo, Vijayan, an unquestionable leader.
How should the Congress party approach Vijayan’s second term?
The party will require a strategy shift. It needs to play a constructive opposition side, showing the political maturity and tactics wherever required. Give credit where it is due, but hold the government accountable on performance deficiency on the reforms-front. Convince the electorate that the opposition is with the government for the state's development but won't let the guard down. The Vijayan-led LDF still doesn’t have a clear agenda in the state to lift the economy. It is resorting to massive borrowings to keep the show on. What is the economic future of the state?
There are more questions that need to be raised and pursued. What went wrong in the gold smuggling episode involving a top bureaucrat close to the CM and a key lobbyist? How did the deep sea fishing contract drama happen without the government’s knowledge? How did a number of backdoor appointments happen during the last five years?
But, post the massive, humiliating defeat, the Congress party is a weakened side. Its leaders like Chennithala lacks appeal among voters and allies. At the same time, the old guard doesn’t want to let go of the control. This has already created a major disquiet within the Congress party and the UDF. It is high time for the leadership to hand over the charge to the young leaders in the party. That’s important if Kerala needs a strong opposition and the Congress is serious about its future in the state.
Clearly, a weak and divided opposition is good news to the Vijayan camp but a big worry for Kerala’s people. Without a strong opposition, the Vjayan 2.0 could continue the path of excessive populism that worked well in the first term. That's not something the crisis-ridden state economy can afford. There needs to be a comprehensive plan to help small entrepreneurs, get big investors and infrastructure development.
Sadly, the Congress is notorious to repeat its past mistakes. The post-defeat comments of Congress leaders show the blame game is already on. The Congress party has lost its balance; it will have to get its mojo back by overhauling the organistion getting the young leadership to the front. But, it is unlikely to happen soon going by the Congress’ track record in the state. The power-hungry, dominant senior leadership wants to hang on to the political posts. Post the election defeat, it is learned that both Chennithala and Mullappally Ramachandran have expressed reluctance to resign from the political posts arguing that the state leadership alone can’t be blamed for the defeat. That wasn't a surprising response.
This is despite calls from senior leaders for a complete overhaul of the party to get the confidence back in the party workers. The reluctance from the old guard to cede space to the young leaders, who are more connected to the grassroots, is damaging for the Congress party in Kerala. The next five years will be critical for Kerala. It will have to fight the pandemic on one side and, simultaneously, carry forward with the reforms agenda. The state’s economy is struggling with high reliance on debt and from the collapse of remittances. The government has an enormous task at hand, and the opposition too has a key role to play. The game isn't over for the Congress party yet, if it can present a new set of leaders and a credible political strategy to play a constructive opposition.