Beware of the Left winning the polls’ is a fashionable refrain gaining traction among a section of the liberal chatterati in Kerala in the past few days as the campaign for the assembly election scheduled for 6 April gathered momentum. Leaders of the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance making such claims during the highly charged election campaign is easy to comprehend. But why the liberal class? Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s five-year Left rule reminded many of Tony Blair’s New Labour and West Bengal’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as he tried to reinvent Kerala’s relationship with market economy. But that wasn’t all. His authoritarian streak also made people take potshots by calling him ‘Mundu Udutha Modi’ or Dhoti-clad Modi.
The anxiety of the liberal class about the Left’s return gained momentum after most pre-poll surveys predicted the CPM-led Left Democratic Front would defy the anti-incumbency to win the election in the state. A ruling front winning another successive term is unheard of in the electoral history of Kerala for the past 44 years.
The Left strategy
CM Vijayan, leading the high voltage campaign, is projected as a messiah of development with an iron will to combat the BJP.
The LDF’s main political plank has been to project itself as the only bulwark against the BJP’s Hindutva communalism marauding the secular fabric of Kerala. In this narrative, the Congress has been castigated as an entity imitating the BJP with its own brand of soft Hindutva. The secular rhetoric, underpinned by a well-planned development agenda with a progress report on achievements made by the incumbent government, is another major ingredient in the LDF campaign toolkit.
That the vikas-friendly images of Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF are on firm ground in the area of governance is evident from the leadership shown by the CM in handling the unprecedented natural and other calamities that have hit the state as well as managing the Covid-19 pandemic. Renovating government school buildings with digital-ready classrooms, government hospitals with modern equipment, and completion of a few long-pending mega infrastructure projects are some of the major highlights of the LDF government.
The single-minded focus by Pinarayi Vijayan on some of these projects, in the face of local protests, was crucial for the completion of them including an interstate GAIL pipeline and 400 KV power grid line. The distribution of a kit filled with essential items to 85 lakh ration cardholders in the state was a masterstroke of the government because it ensured basic food to nearly all households in Kerala during the lockdown. The success in controlling the coronavirus spread in the early phase has given a tremendous boost to the government’s image at the national and international level at a time when even developed countries like the US struggled with the spreading of infection and mounting death toll. So, on the governance index, the LDF is certainly on a winning track despite the opposition Congress and BJP disputing the claims.
The good governance claims, however, are marred by an unprecedented level of power concentrating in the hands of Pinarayi Vijayan. The LDF rule in Kerala has never seen such a personality cult being built around the chief minister. Vijayan’s detractors went to the extent of even comparing him to Modi.
As the lord and master of the government and AKG Centre, state headquarters of the CPM, Vijayan has made the entire party apparatus subservient to his own priorities. The appointment of Gita Gopinath, an unabashed supporter of neoliberal policies, as an economic adviser to the CM was a classic instance of Vijayan chaperoning his own policy-making apparatus without bothering much about CPM policies and Left ethos in general.
Gopinath quit after being selected as chief economist of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), saving the CPM leaders from further embarrassment. The authoritarian style of functioning of the chief minister surrounded by a plethora of advisers not known for any Left perspective makes the Vijayan administration unique among the LDF governments in the state. Vijayan also did not have any qualms in championing the cause of private capital in the name of economic development of the state. The highly capital-intensive development strategy pursued by his administration was indifferent to the need for formulating an ecologically sustainable development model for Kerala.
The police machinery, perhaps, had the worst track record during the five-year tenure. The killing of eight suspected Maoist activists in police encounters is a chilling reminder of the scant regard shown by a Left-front government in upholding the rule of law while tackling the menace of political militancy. The CPI, the second largest constituent in the ruling alliance, had raised doubts about the genuineness of these encounters even as human rights activists slammed them as cold-blooded murders. Rise in cases of custodial deaths and torture also calls for deeper introspection of the police administration in the state.
LDF is walking a thin rope
Pinarayi Vijayan’s style of functioning, no doubt, has many admirers within the party and outside. He certainly deserves credit for reviving the fortunes of the LDF after suffering a near whitewash in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, with the UDF winning 19 out of the 20 seats in the state. As per the 2019 results, the UDF was leading in 123 out of the 140 assembly seats in the state. But in the 2020 local body polls, the LDF gained a thumping victory and managed to establish a lead in nearly 100 assembly segments. The LDF victory came as a surprise even for many in the ruling alliance because the credibility of the state government was at the lowest, with the office of the CM coming under a cloud after Vijayan’s former principal secretary was booked by the Enforcement Directorate as an accomplice in a gold smuggling racket.
The CPM’s claim about being the only buffer between the communal BJP and the opportunist Congress in Kerala has to be viewed in this backdrop of a few great achievements in good governance saddled with the charges of authoritarian arrogance.
A section of the CPM cadres and supporters are restive with the CM’s style of functioning and this was evident when they defied the much-trumpeted party discipline to hold open protest against the choice of candidates in few assembly constituencies. The party was forced to change candidates at least in two constituencies in the wake of the protests. It could be taken as a sign that even the most regimented organisations can’t afford to ignore popular will completely. The protests by the CPM cadres may also act as an antidote to the warning that the LDF victory would lead to an administration intoxicated with arrogance. Further, the CPM and the LDF have always benefited from the politics of lesser evil compared with the Congress and the UDF facing charges of the worst kind of opportunism, venality, and administrative inefficiency.
The chances of the LDF winning the upcoming assembly election would depend largely on successfully camouflaging the authoritarian streak of Pinarayi Vijayan by highlighting the governance efficiency.
The author is a journalist and former senior editor at Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.