Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Finance Minister Thomas Isaac
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Finance Minister Thomas Isaac (left) during a seminar on 'Youth Summit on Future Kerala' in Thiruvananthapuram, Sunday, Feb 28, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Thiruvananthapuram: Kerala could be as close as possible to creating history as it goes to the polls on April 6 – returning a government back to power for the first time in four decades. But the five-year itch is so strong even now in this last foothold of the two major Communist parties that it could well be a case of the proverbial slip between the cup and lip.

The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is pushing hard for victory touting its widely acknowledged achievements in improving the state’s public healthcare and school education infrastructure and its potent use of a well-established public distribution system (PDS) to reach timely succour for the pandemic-hit population in the form of liberally-packed food kits.

It reaped rich political dividends from the food kits distribution strategy in the local government elections and looks forward to an encore in the assembly polls as well.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi takes out a tractor rally from Thrikkaipatta to Muttil in Wayanad district on Feb 22, 2021. Image Credit: PTI

Promise of ‘All will be well’

The LDF campaign in 2016 was founded on the theme ‘LDF will come and all will be well’. This time its campaign tagline is ‘It’s LDF for sure’. It has been emboldened to make such a stout claim by, besides its stellar performance in the local government elections, three early pre-poll surveys predicting that it is poised to romp back to power.

Kerala graphic poll predictions
Image Credit: Gulf News

While the Asianet News channel has predicted that it would get 72-78 seats in the 140-member house, against the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s (UDF) possible 59-65 seats, the 24 News channel has given it 68-78 seats against UDF’s 62-72 seats. While the former has given 3-7 seats to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the latter predicts only 2-3 seats for the national ruling party. The third survey done by ABP-C Voter too has found that it is advantage LDF, without giving numbers.

A neck and neck race

The LDF’s predicted margin of victory is well within or close to the margin of error. Besides, it is early days to predict the outcome of the elections with any certainty in a state that is known for cliff-hanger poll battles in scores of constituencies.

Making predictions tougher, the UDF has not been sitting idle. It has made much headway since the local government elections, bombarding the government with a flurry of corruption and nepotism charges. The latest of these has proved particularly devastating for the ruling alliance in the state’s long coastal belt.

Where the blocs stand
■ Left Democratic Front (LDF):
Generally considered to have managed the floods of 2018 and the COVID-19 pandemic well. Buoyed by the success in the recent local body poll. However, it faces a deluge of corruption allegations including a gold smuggling case in which a civil servant close to the chief minister is allegedly involved, backdoor appointments, and an attempt to tie up with a US-based company for marine businesses.

■ United Democratic Front (UDF):
Has been bombarding the ruling CPM with a series of corruption allegations. The presence of former Congress president Rahul Gandhi in the state for an extended time – with his current stature as the MP from Wayanad – has been a shot in the arm. However, there are leadership issues, particularly whether Ramesh Chennithala or Oommen Chandy should be projected as the campaign leader.

■ National Democratic Alliance (NDA):
For a long time, the BJP in Kerala has been rife with internal bickering and the situation hasn’t changed much. This time the central leadership of the BJP is seen to be directly involved in the campaign management in Kerala. Much-respected ‘Metro-man’ E Sreedharan joining the party may give it some extra votes.

The Opposition charge is that the government had entered into a Rs50 billion (Dh2.5 billion) ‘under the cover’ agreement with a US-based company to build industrial-scale vessels and marine product processing centres, which could potentially deal a blow to the livelihood of millions of traditional fishers in the state.

Equally damaging has been the media disclosures about ‘backdoor appointment’ of hundreds of ruling alliance workers and fellow travellers in state government services at a time when the unemployment rate in Kerala hovers around 9%, far higher than the national average of 5.8%.

Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman Kerala
Union Minister of Finance and Corporate Affairs Nirmala Sitharaman during a roadshow ahead of Kerala Legislative Assembly election, in Ernakulam on Sunday, Feb 28, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

Naturally, a violent agitation by Opposition youth activists in the final weeks of February has put the government on the back-foot. Although it could avoid a greater flare-up with a quickly-put-together pact with the agitators, the issue is still simmering in the public mind.

Brand Vijayan

The LDF’s biggest asset is Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s popularity among a wide swathe of the electorate who see him as a ‘doer’ not constrained by ideological shibboleths. He has shown readiness to reach out to the wealthy NRIs, offer guarantees to multinational business behemoths to set up shop in Kerala and delivered on public infrastructure development like rarely before.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan vaccine
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan receives the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during the second phase of COVID-19 vaccination in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

He has also been successful in weaning away parties, groups and individuals with considerable clout among some of the Christian denominations and the Muslims from the thrall of Congress camp. With about a dozen constituents, the LDF is the largest political coalition that the state has ever seen.

New political muscle

New allies like the breakaway faction of the Kerala Congress (Mani) and remnants of the old Janata Dal, have come into the LDF with their share of votes, particularly in south-central Kerala and north Kerala. Their decision to move out of the UDF has left it leaner and, going by local government poll outcome, weaker.

The UDF also has a leadership issue to reckon with, as former chief minister Oommen Chandy, despite his poor health, is seen to be more popular among the electorate as compared to leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala. A truce mandated by the party’s Central leadership is in place for the time being, but for how long is a big question.

Kerala graphic party position 2016 election
Image Credit: Gulf News

For the CPI(M) too, it is a do-or-die battle as Kerala is the only state where it has a toe-hold. Its poll strategy is, therefore, built on the need to win by any means and there are already allegations that it has struck a deal with its bete noir, the BJP, to keep the Congress out.

That is a charge that the CPI(M) has lobbed at the Congress too, but less convincingly. Former Congress boss Rahul Gandhi is a big draw in Kerala, but whether he will be able to pull it off for his party and the UDF is a moot question.

The BJP is a divided house, but the state is under the direct surveillance of federal home minister and party strongman Amit Shah and the full heft of the Narendra Modi government will be on view as the campaign heats up.

UDF promises to put Kerala back on track

The Congress led UDF on Wednesday came out with their logo with the hash tag in Malayalam (Naadu Nanakan UDF) which roughly translates as ‘UDF to make Kerala better’, IANS reported.

Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala  and M.M Hasan
Leader of the Opposition Ramesh Chennithala and M.M Hasan during a press conference in Kochi on Saturday, Feb 27, 2021. Image Credit: ANI

Leader of opposition Ramesh Chennithala told the media that the state is eagerly waiting to see that there is a change and the Congress led UDF promises a clean rule and will take Kerala to new realms of development.

“For this, the only way out is to see that the Congress-led UDF government takes office. Our campaign will centre around the numerous scams which has its origin from the office of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan,” said Chennithala.

“We will expose all the misleading advertisements that was given by the Vijayan government in the past six months and we will come out with facts about it,” added Chennithala.

C.G. Nair is a journalist based in Kerala