Thiruvananthapuram: The Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala appears to be invoking the gods to keep it in power this Assembly election, hoping to break a voting pattern that has alternated between it and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) for the last 40 years.
At Peyad Junction, on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s roadshow Sunday was packed with party comrades raising clenched-fist slogans in unison, interspersed with the rattle of drummers you could hear a mile away.
But it was the Theyyam dancers who were the stars of the parade. Wearing their enormous blood-red masks and blood-red costumes and red face-paint, Theyyam dancers are the manifest forms of deities on earth. In Peyad on Sunday, they were re-enacting a thousand-year-old ritual worship in praise of heroes or warriors.
The dancers led Yechury’s poll chariot, twirling round and round in the hot afternoon, before ushering him into a road-side meeting. Yechury was soon listing the LDF’s achievements over the last five years — not least, the management of cyclone Ockhi in 2017, the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018, devastating floods in 2019 and Covid-19 in 2020 (Kerala is still among the states reporting the highest number of cases).
“You are going to create history this time, just like you did in 1957,” Yechury told the committed crowd, referring to the time when Communist stalwart E.M.S. Namboodiripad led the undivided CPI to power on the back of a peaceful ballot. He added: “2021 is another crucial year, when there are severe challenges being posed to the Indian Constitution and the secular, democratic republic.”
Far away in north Kerala, 75-year-old Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was book-ending the campaign, carving up the miles in his home district Kannur as well as Kasargod, Wayanad and Kozhikode. Elsewhere, key leaders like Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, Politburo member M.A. Baby and Health Minister K.K. Shailaja are holding up the front, while Delhi’s Politburo members such as Prakash Karat and wife Brinda have flown in to consolidate the tide.
Hurdles before Left Front’s return
According to a Manorama News-VMR pre-poll survey from a week ago, the LDF is set to retain power with 82 out of 140 seats, while the UDF will get 54 seats and the BJP-led NDA will win as many as three seats — up from the single seat they own today.
Of course, a week is really a long time in politics. In the Christian holy week that began with Palm Sunday on 28 March and ends with Easter on 4 April, when the campaign for the 6 April single-day election also concludes, the shifting sands of people’s needs, beliefs and desires can run through your fingers without even a mild warning.
M.A. Baby was the first to put out the red flag, pointing out that the Manorama survey could breed over-confidence in voters. The LDF is being buffeted by two storms — apart from the murky 30-kg gold smuggling scam in which the key characters are a young woman called Swapna Suresh, the UAE consul-general in Kerala, a former principal secretary to the chief minister, M Sivasankar, as well as Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan.
The first squall threatening to damage the government is a Rs 5,000-crore memorandum of understanding with a US-based company, EMCC Global Consortium LCC for “upgradation and promotion of deep-sea fishing” in the state — which included the building of 400 deep-sea fishing trawlers, five mother vessels, upgrade of 14 fishing harbours according to EU standards, 50 seafood processing plants, hospitals and air ambulances for fisherfolk.
What was meant to be a feather in the cap for the LDF government, aiming to provide jobs, is now blowing up in its face, with Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala accusing the government of “cheating the fishers”. Meanwhile, Union Minister for Animal Husbandry Giriraj Singh has said the central government will reject the agreement if it involves any fishing beyond 12 nautical miles, because those waters are under its jurisdiction.
Fact is, fisherfolk in Kerala’s 38 coastal constituencies, a large number of which belong to the Latin Catholic community and are traditional UDF supporters, are upset that this deep sea trawling pact with the US firm could affect their livelihood.
And while the Left Front has won over the influential Kerala Congress faction led by Jose K Mani to its side — the predominantly Roman Catholic party has, until now, been a part of the UDF alliance — the race has certainly tightened this week.
The ‘love jihad’ controversy
The second political tempest blowing through Kerala is over “love jihad”, the controversial term given to alleged forced conversions through marriage, with the selfsame Jose K Mani proclaiming in an interview to ThePrint Sunday that “love jihad has again come up as an issue, society has apprehensions over it and his party will be addressing them”.
Only in January, the Syro-Malabar church had said “love jihad is a reality” and accused the police of not taking timely action against it.
Mani’s statements have been welcomed by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference, with its spokesman Father Jacob Palackapilly saying all parties should clarify their positions on the issue. The BJP manifesto states that the party will enact a law on this if voted in.
While CM Vijayan has refused to be drawn into the storm, CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran has said Mani’s statement does not reflect the views of the Left Front.
A chastened Mani has since backtracked, saying the matter was of no relevance to the polls, but clearly both gods and mortals are centre-stage in Kerala this week.
For the Left Front, the chance to make history — to come to power for two consecutive terms — is almost within its grasp. The faction-ridden UDF and Rahul Gandhi’s inability to paper over the cracks in the alliance as well as the fact that the BJP cannot dream of challenging the Left for a few lifetimes, means Kerala could be looking at Pinarayi Vijayan sitting on its throne again.
For the atheist chief minister, the coming days are crucial. By the time Easter Sunday ends on 4 April, the matter of his political resurrection may also be a foregone conclusion.
(Edited by Sanghamitra Mazumdar)