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UDF had a chance in Kerala. Then Congress played a dangerous communal game

United Democratic Front may think losing the Kerala election will be the beginning of its end. But Congress' campaign may have already laid the path.

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The electoral success of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala always brings to mind a popular biblical saying — ‘Not by our merit but by His grace’. For the UDF, the grace of the biblical talisman is most needed in the upcoming assembly election, scheduled on 6 April. The UDF leadership has pretty much conceded that this election is going to be a do-or-die battle for it, perhaps because a defeat would mark the beginning of its end. But the Congress’ double game in the campaign may have already put the UDF on that path.

After sweeping the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Kerala, where it won 19 out of 20 seats, the UDF should have scored an easy win in this assembly election. And everything was hunky-dory for it — until the local body elections came along in December 2020. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) registered a thumping victory, leaving the UDF camp so demoralised that its leaders started their favourite habit of blaming each other. Since then, the tables have turned for the UDF and it seems that much further away from winning the election.

Looking at the lethargic UDF camp, it makes one wonder if the leadership has outsourced the formulation of its election strategy to Jamaat-e-Islami and the Sangh Parivar, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This may sound preposterous but the UDF’s two campaign themes seem to be carrying the stamp of the Jamaat and the Sangh.

Also read: Why liberals are wary of Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF’s return in Kerala

Sailing on two boats

The UDF’s first campaign plank is its claim that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have struck a secret deal to make Kerala ‘Congress-mukt’ (free of Congress). The other battle cry is that the LDF government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is hurting the sentiment of Hindus by its decision to implement the Supreme Court’s verdict permitting the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple. The patent for the ‘CPM-BJP secret deal’ plank allegedly belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami. The outfit is eager to settle scores with the CPM, which had launched a blistering attack against it during the local body polls after the Welfare Party of India, a political party floated by the Jamaat, entered into a tactical alliance with the UDF. While the LDF leaders accused the Kerala Congress of having joined hands with ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ for the sake of garnering few votes, the UDF and the Jamaat hit back by saying that the CPM was showing the worst traits of Islamophobia and speaking the language of the Sangh Parivar.

The UDF’s latest charge of the CPM-BJP being in a secret deal received a boost when BJP leader R. Balashankar, former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, levelled the same allegation after being denied a ticket to contest the upcoming election from Chengannur. BJP and RSS leaders have rejected the charge, but Congress and UDF leaders have latched onto the controversy hoping to put the BJP and the LDF on the mat.

Sabarimala, the other major campaign theme of the Congress, has all the ingredients of a vintage Sangh Parivar propaganda blitz. The Vijayan government’s decision to allow women of all ages to enter the hill shrine has been projected as a ‘golden opportunity’ by some top leaders of the BJP. Many of them are clearly seeing it as the ‘Ayodhya moment’ for the Sangh Parivar in Kerala. The ineptitude of the state government, bordering on stupidity, in the handling of the court verdict has given a huge fillip to the Sangh Parivar, which has posed itself as the champion protector of traditional values and rituals through a series of street agitations during the 2019 pilgrimage season. The Congress was also at the forefront of this agitation.  

In its election manifesto, the UDF has promised to bring legislation that bans the entry of women in Sabarimala with jail term for anyone found violating the tradition and rituals of the temple. They have also circulated a draft of the proposed legislation. 

In a way, the Congress in Kerala is playing a dangerous double game of scaring the minorities, especially Muslims, with a ‘CPM-BJP secret deal’ and running a highly inflammable communal campaign on Sabarimala, which would warm the hearts of the Sangh Parivar zealots. The Congress and the UDF’s strategies are strikingly similar to the politics of appeasement practiced by Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s.

At the same time, the Congress’ national leadership, devoid of any coherent strategic vision and perspective, is unable to make any meaningful intervention. Rahul Gandhi, who initially supported the Supreme Court’s verdict on Sabarimala, soon backtracked at the behest of the leadership of the Kerala unit with some mumbo-jumbo on respecting tradition and faith. If the CPM and the LDF are successful in exposing the double game of Congress and the UDF, the fortunes of the alliance are certain to suffer irreparable damage in the coming days.

Also read: What we don’t know about the crisis in the Congress

Shifting votes of the Congress

The major hurdle facing the Congress in Kerala is the erosion of its vote base and the emergence of the BJP as a contender for the Right-wing conservative political space. The Congress has been the fulcrum of Right-wing politics in Kerala ever since the Communists came to power in 1957. The Congress successfully gathered a broad spectrum of conservative forces, which included religious and community groups, into a political umbrella to checkmate the Communists. Since then, the electoral history of Kerala could be divided into two categories. The Congress-led UDF became the lynchpin of Right-wing politics and the CPM-led LDF a social democratic alternative with a progressive veneer. The two sides dominated the political scene with either front winning the election every five years.

The political scene has undergone a gradual change since the 1990s, especially in the electoral matrix of the UDF alliance. Its principal vote base comprised upper-caste Hindu votes plus Christian and Muslim minorities. The Congress’ support base was also composed of mainly upper-caste Hindu votes while various factions of Kerala Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League chipped in by bringing a substantial chunk of votes from Christian and Muslim communities. And then the Congress began to suffer incremental damages in its support base.

The BJP encroaching upon the Hindu upper-caste vote base of the Congress, especially of the Nair community, reached critical mass in the 2016 assembly election when the party increased its vote share to nearly 15 per cent from just 6 per cent in 2011. Apart from Nair votes, a section of Christian votes also started drifting away to the LDF and, to a lesser extent, to the BJP. Muslim voters are also seen dropping their inhibitions to vote for the LDF. The challenge before the Congress is to regain its traditional vote base and devise effective strategies to prevent the BJP from making further inroads into its support base. This is the only way to ensure electoral success and the survival of the UDF.

The author is a journalist and former senior editor at Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant Dixit)

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  1. when one has a non resident leader – bankrupt of any basic common sense – leading the congress and also some one who is known to be the prime reason why the BJP finds elections such a piece of cake – what else can one expect. One sincerely hopes he will make a quick exit after this current round of elections.

  2. Good article ,Congress compramise to all communal forces in Kerala .They polute the Kerala politics for the past 63 years .Now Congress and UDF in Kerala facing its natural death.

  3. Congress policies have always followed policies which would get its votes and have followed what one could call communal policies. In 1946, when riots took place, Nehru did not condemn them or did not bother to prevent congress workers. now, Rahul says he is Shiv Bhakt, janenu dhari brahmin again for votes. overall, congress comes across as party that has zero ideology. only ideology is votes to dynasty

  4. Who is not playing the communal card in kerala. From candidate selection to topics everything is communal. So Don’t give your biased outlook, not ideal for a journal of your stature

  5. UDF members don’t have a correct unity
    They just play a cat an mouse game , which makes them weaker as we all see in panchayat election

  6. I am afraid you have less or no knowledge about the issue. Even CPM cadres don’t follow Pinarayi line in Sabarimala issue because Hindu belief is beyond Politics. That’s why the CPM minister Kadakampally സുരേന്ദ്രൻ recently apologised to voters as even CPM followers said they won’t vote for him. Don’t forget that in last Lok Sabha poll Congress led UDF got 19 out of 20 seats as Congress line had more acceptance.

  7. The Congress are known for their appeasement of both majority and minority communities. Their uncompromisimg alliance with muslim league and majority church leaders are the only scope for their survival. There are no party fundamentals of their own. The reason for their vanishing trend in many parts of the nation is due to incompetent leadership.

  8. Where RaGa, there congress out. Long live his leadership. He should listen to his veterans and still be an intern in congress till gets a pass score.

  9. Who is this idiotic former editor who writes rubbish. Stupidity at its peak. Can’t even put the name of the editor in your articles mr print .

  10. Congress could have remained silent on Sabarimala since the matter is sub judice. Vijayan has the upper hand in this because he is merely going by the current verdict of the SC , which still holds good.
    Rahul’s confused thinking and strategies are behind every blunder the Congress makes.

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