There is an unwritten rule in Kerala politics, that a Congress-led United Democratic Front government is followed by a CPM-led Left Democratic Front government. Just like voters in Rajasthan believe in turning the roti every five years lest it burn, so do voters in Kerala.
The alternation comes with the force of history. And that is all the Congress party in Kerala is banking on. Except for the idea that the people will give the Congress its due chance in power in 2021, there is little else for the party to pin its hopes on.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s management of the Covid crisis has been so popular that it is now a matter of wide speculation that the Left Democratic Front (LDF) could make history and return to power in Kerala when elections are held in May next year.
Vijayan’s Covid success has been remarkable: his daily evening press conferences in March-April became a cultural phenomenon. His unassuming Health Minister K.K. Shailaja ‘Teacher’ has been hailed internationally for nipping Covid in the bud. Given that the Gulf returnees were bringing the infection with themselves, Kerala should have been the worst-affected Covid state. That is what makes the achievement so remarkable.
And yet, this is only one reason why Pinarayi Vijayan is — as of now — the frontrunner in the race to win the election next year. Perhaps a bigger reason than his Covid success is the Congress party, which is unable to hide its irritation, jealousy and anxiety over Vijayan’s success.
The top Congress leadership in Kerala has all gone into Mani Shankar Aiyar mode. Mani Shankar Aiyar had famously called Narendra Modi to come and sell tea at a Congress gathering in early 2014. This was a turning point in the 2014 Lok Sabha election because it confirmed everything the Modi campaign was saying about the Congress being disconnected elites who hated Modi because he was not from an elite background. This helped Modi make the 2014 election look like a class war.
The Congress in Kerala is ‘learning well’ from Aiyar and has been attacking the CPM leadership in a derogatory way, making light of its Covid achievements. The latest controversy is the Kerala Congress chief Mullapally Ramachandran making sexist remarks about Shailaja Teacher. He said Teacher was a “guest artist” who used the Nipah epidemic to become “Nipah Rajkumari” (Nipah princess) and has now become a “Covid Queen”. He went on to say that it would be fair to call her a “modern dancer” since she had been described as a “rock star” by The Guardian.
Apart from the misogyny, what comes through is a Congress leadership disconnected with Kerala’s young voters. When your leaders can’t even understand a metaphor like ‘rock star’, you are living on another planet.
Following the footsteps of Mani Shankar Aiyar, Ramachandran has refused to apologise. This is just the latest goof-up. The Congress in Kerala has been complaining non-stop about the Vijayan government’s popularity, thanks to Covid. The Congress’ whining begins with the assertion that since its past government also contributed to the state’s health infrastructure, they should also get some credit. The whining ends with a cry that Vijayan is doing “nothing” to contain Covid.
The Congress comes across as a cry baby, perturbed by Vijayan’s popularity in the fourth year of his government, which could mean the United Democratic Front (UDF) losing the election 11 months from now. In other words, the Congress is after power, whereas Vijayan is presenting himself as a pandemic slayer.
Pinarayi Vijayan also has luck on his side. He had a strongman image, the tough leader who ran the formidable, and often violent, CPM cadres. He’s not your intellectual Left leader. His rival within the party was V.S. Achuthanandan, who is now 96 years old.
With Achuthanandan going into the ‘Margdarshak Mandal’, CPM’s equivalent of the BJP’s consulting body, Vijayan was freed of factional pressures and became an unchallenged leader. The party chose him over Achuthanandan for the CM’s post in 2016. By contrast, the Congress in Kerala is ridden with the same factionalism as it is everywhere else.
The two main factions are led by Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly, and former chief minister Oommen Chandy. Despite the controversies that plagued Chandy’s previous regime, he remains the party’s most popular leader in Kerala. But the party’s reigns are with the Chennithala faction. At 64, Chennithala is younger than Chandy, 76. But young voters can’t relate to either, whereas Vijayan has become a millennial icon.
Then there are others, such as a group of bright young leaders who owe their allegiance to the most important Congressman in Kerala politics, Wayanad MP Rahul Gandhi. As the Congress looks embattled with endless factionalism, Vijayan has surprised people by becoming more and more of a mass leader. He’s a hardliner who has become a large-hearted patriarchal leader.
CPM vs BJP
What helped CM Vijayan was crisis after crisis. In the past four years, Kerala has been hit by non-stop crises. There was Cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018, and the devastating floods of 2018 and 2019, which are expected again this August. With every crisis, Vijayan has been able to learn better how to manage the political messaging during a crisis, and what it is that the people want to hear. And with every crisis, the Congress has become more and more of the whining, jealous kid.
There is still 11 months to go. Eleven months is an eternity in politics, but the slide of the Congress is made worse by social media. From Twitter to WhatsApp, the Kerala political conversation is between the CPM and the BJP. The Congress just doesn’t know how to butt in. The BJP’s outsized influence on Kerala politics means it is able to put the CPM on the mat better than the Congress, but it still has no chance of winning more than a seat or two.
As a result, the BJP can actually help the CPM by taking away the Congress’ Hindu upper caste votes. Meanwhile, the CPM has been doing its best to convince Muslims and Christians that the Congress practices soft-Hindutva.
Maybe, the force of history will make the UDF win in 2021. But if it loses, the defeat may be a devastating one.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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