There is no denying what the results of the local body elections in Kerala indicate. The people have clearly rewarded the Left Democratic Front (LDF) coalition led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the positive impact it has had on everyday lives in spite of the unprecedented challenges the State had to face during its tenure, including two devastating floods and the economic crisis that followed, the spread of the Nipah virus and then the COVID-19 pandemic.
What makes the LDF victory very sweet is that it came about despite the negative focus placed on its government’s functioning and the targeting of its popular policy initiatives with a haze of allegations of corruption and nepotism by the opposition parties and a section of the media.
That the LDF could use its governance and development record to override whatever benefit the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hoped to achieve with their allegations and the ongoing investigations by different Central investigative agencies makes its electoral gainsall the more remarkable.
The LDF won 11 out of the 14 district panchayats as against seven it won in the 2015 elections. It won five of the six city corporations in the State. It also emerged victorious in 40 of the 86 municipalities, 108 of the 152 block panchayats and 514 of the 941 grama panchayats. Thus, it reversed the recent trend of no ruling front emerging triumphant in the grass-root elections to the local bodies of the State, which are held every five years, usually a few months before the Assembly elections.
Also read: Kerala local body polls 2020 campaign
Preliminary estimates showed that the LDF got 41.55 per cent of the total votes polled, while the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) got 37.14 per cent and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) got 14.52 per cent. The LDF registered good performances in the southern districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki, and Alappuzha, the central district of Thrissur and the northern districts of Palakkad, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod.
In spite of the intense anti-government campaigns it had launched, almost always following those of the BJP, the UDF found its hopes dashed in almost all districts, except Wayanad and Malappuram, and Ernakulam, to an extent. Of the two corporations it had won in 2015, the UDF could register a clear victory only in Kannur. The LDF won the corporations of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Kozhikode hands down, and won the largest share of seats in Kochi (a former UDF stronghold). It is also set to run Thrissur corporation with the support of independents, including UDF rebels.
The results of the elections to the district panchayat, which are normally taken as a sign of the political mood in the State, have gone completely against the UDF.
The most fruitful gains for the LDF were in central Kerala, especially in the traditional UDF stronghold districts of Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Idukki. Congress leaders, who were claiming that the exit of the Kerala Congress faction led by Jose K. Mani (son of veteran Kerala Congress leader K.M. Mani) from the UDF would not affect the coalition’s prospects in the region, were taken by surprise when the results showed otherwise.
Central Kerala has all along been a UDF stronghold, but the exit of the Jose K. Mani faction saw the LDF utilising the opportunity to the hilt by welcoming the party into its fold unusually quickly. As a result, the UDF suffered serious setbacks even in areas that were personal fiefdoms of top Congress leaders, including Opposition Leader Ramesh Chennithala and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy.
What the elections revealed was the extent to which the Congress, with a terribly weakened party structure, has become dependent on the limited but critical strengths of its smaller regional allies such as the Kerala Congress and the Muslim League, in order for it to have at least a fighting chance against the LDF. Significantly, the LDF has now become an expanded coalition of 10 partners, the latest entrants being the Kerala Congress faction led by Jose K. Mani and the Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), both Congress allies until recently. With the split in the Kerala Congress and the exit of the Jose K. Mani faction from the UDF, only the Congress remained a worthwhile UDF force in central Kerala, but it was found wanting in the elections.
Also read: Opposition’s campaign in Kerala violating Covid norms
At least for now, the Jose K. Mani faction has won the upper hand in its bitter feud with the Kerala Congress faction led by veteran leader P.J. Joseph, on whom the Congress leaders placed full faith, instead of trying to keep both factions within the UDF fold. In retrospect it was a serious error of judgement, with Joseph’s faction and the UDF suffering defeats even in Joseph’s strongholds in Idukki district, especially in Thodupuzha municipality, his home turf. Moreover, for the first time in its 68-year-history, Pala municipality, a stronghold of K.M. Mani until his death a few years ago, was won by the LDF with the help of the Jose K. Mani faction. In the Assembly byelection held in Pala after K.M. Mani’s death, the LDF had won the seat against the UDF candidate fielded by the Jose K. Mani faction. Clearly, the Congress had committed an egregious blunder in letting go of the Jose K. Mani faction.
The BJP-led NDA alliance, which came up with its best ever political campaign against the LDF government, increased its tally by about 400 plus seats.. However, while it won 15.53 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha election a year earlier, it got only 14.52 per cent of the votes this time.
Its key objective of winning the Thiruvananthapuram corporation, where it came second in the 2015 elections, came to naught once again. The BJP could only come second with 34 seats, as against 35 it won previously. However, the LDF increased its tally from 40 to 51, winning a majority on its own in the corporation council, largely benefiting from the utter rout of the UDF, which managed to win only 10 of the 100 seats.
Elsewhere in the State, the BJP, which had all along been struggling to break the dominance of the two prominent coalitions, and even managed some decent electoral gains at the local level in the 2015 elections, could win a majority only in two municipalities this time: Palakkad, which it retained, and Pandalam, a major centre of the Sabarimala agitation, where it posted a surprising victory. The party also registered a comparatively better performance in the grama panchayats, winning 23 of the 941 grass-root panchayats, as against 14 it won in 2015.
Also read: LDF’s thumping victory in 2015 local body polls
However, despite the commotion it created against the LDF government, and the obvious glitter in its election campaign, the BJP and its six-party NDA coalition ended up with very little of the spoils to match the pre-election posturing, even though in many local bodies it displayed signs of improved gains. The party contested more seats than in 2015. In most of these seats, it had the satisfaction of seeing an erosion in Congress votes benefiting its candidates, even though the eventual victory went to the LDF.
The only region where the UDF could salvage some of its prestige was north Kerala. But there, too, the Congress-led front rode on the back of its strongest ally, the Muslim League, and on a controversial ‘secret’ understanding with the Welfare Party, the political wing of the Jamat-i-Islami. This secret alliance turned out to be a double-edged sword for the pposition Front, winning crucial votes for some UDF candidates while antagonising a large section of voters in other areas, leading to an open fight within the Congress and driving a large chunk of Christian settler votes and secular votes in general to the LDF camp. At many places, the BJP also tried to make use of this pact at the local level to its advantage.
The Congress’ poor performance in the three-tier panchayats is a worrying sign of the party’s weakening base in Kerala, when it is about to face the Assembly election in April. Just before the local body elections, in an interview to the Deshabhimani newspaper, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had drawn attention to a significant change in Kerala politics in recent years.
He said: “What is special in Kerala politics in recent times is that you cannot differentiate between the Congress and the BJP. If you examine their positions and approaches, in a lot many issues, you will feel ‘isn’t the Congress truly the BJP and isn’t the BJP, the Congress’. The people know what will eventually be the consequence if somebody tries to gain benefit using the BJP as a prop. Perhaps only those who have continuously suffered losses by venturing out with the idea that they can make some gains by thinking and acting like the BJP alone may be unaware of this.”
In general, the results of the 2020 local body elections once again became a celebration of the secular spirit of Kerala and a confirmation that the State does not favour alliances of mainstream parties with communal forces. The secret pact that the UDF struck with the Welfare Party reiterates the fact that it only proved beneficial to the BJP, and gained more credibility for the LDF’s claim that it is the real secular force in State politics, not the Congress.
Also read: LDF’s victory in 2016 assembly polls
Indeed, the BJP, which had remained on the margins of electoral politics in the State, has managed to win an equivalent presence along with the two major fronts in the past few election campaigns. It has extended the nature and scope of its almost single-handed challenge from a few pockets in some districts to almost all districts and corners of the State, and reaped rewards by making deft use of the weaknesses of existing coalitions, kindling controversies and raising hazy allegations.
This time it chose to hunt with the UDF and reaped incremental rewards at many places. But Kerala’s response has been the unambiguous mandate it gave once again in favour of the LDF, among other reasons for the challenge the ruling coalition continues to offer against the BJP’s communal agenda and the credible pro-people alternative policies it poses against those of the BJP-led Central government, which have often proved to be detrimental to the State’s interest.
Both the UDF and the BJP tried hard to pin the election-eve political discourse in Kerala on the alleged “findings” of the Central investigative agencies in the gold smuggling controversy and the related allegations raised by them, away from the State government’s governance record. But all through the election campaign, the Chief Minister stuck to his position that anybody who had experienced life in Kerala at this critical juncture would not abandon his government.
Indeed, among the tangible achievements of his government were the way it handled the floods in two consecutive years and kept the COVID-19 pandemic at bay for several months, and, despite an acute financial crisis, ensured free supply of provisions to all ration card holders, distributed welfare pensions and opened free community kitchens to all those who needed it. Elsewhere, it distributed houses to 2.5 lakh homeless people under the Life Mission and brought about visible changes in the State’s health and education sectors. In spite of the smokescreen of allegations, the majority of voters seem to have been convinced that no government in the recent past could have done more for them in such a short time, especially amid the challenges faced by the State. In retrospect, it seems the only thing Ramesh Chennithala got right before the elections was to identify the Chief Minister’s daily press conferences as a threat to the electoral prospects of the Congress and the UDF.
From July this year, about the time when a television channel conducted a premature survey and announced that the ruling LDF was all set to return to power next year, the Congress and the BJP began their onslaught of yet-to-be proved allegations against the LDF government. The Chief Minister’s hugely popular daily press conferences, conducted mainly to update the people about the State’s COVID-19 status, also slowly became venues where he responded to opposition allegations against his government by repeatedly stressing the administration’s achievements. On its own steam, it became the best public relations election exercise for the LDF, even as the Opposition Leader began meeting the press every other day to raise allegations one after the other.
Also read: The Kerala model to battle Covid
As the elections approached, at one point Pinarayi Vijayan even described the Opposition as the “instigators of baseless allegations and specialists, thereafter, in withdrawing them”. He added that “their biggest contribution has solely been the ruination of the historic social and welfare measures progressing in the State”.
Going by the votes won by each front in the panchayats, municipalities and corporations, the LDF leads in 101 of the 140 Assembly constituencies in the State, the UDF in 38, and the NDA (BJP) in one. (In the 2016 Assembly elections, the LDF got 91 seats, the UDF 47, the NDA one, and Others one.)
Pinarayi Vijayan said the result of the local body elections “is the answer given by those who love Kerala against those who try to destroy the State and its achievements”.
He added: “The State has given an appropriate response to middlemen and those who raise false allegations. The UDF is becoming irrelevant in Kerala. The BJP’s claims have once again been demolished.”