By Susan Haris
One of the most politically aware and educated states in India, Kerala is going to polls on April 10 and the political psychology of Kerala has always been so unpredictable that astute calculations could be upset by novices or erstwhile electoral non-entities. Politics is puzzling in Kerala because all the major political parties are suffused with some amount of leftism. This means that there aren’t distinct ideological differences between the different parties unlike the national scenario even when there are loyalists that will always vote for one party or the other. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) are the two major coalitions that have dominated the political situation in the state since the 1970s and that have been alternately coming to power which further attests to the lack of ideological separation vis a vis power. Further some defections that seem to be against party loyalty and core principles can also explained this way. Recently the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) which stood by LDF for 30 years changed sides and joined the Congress. One of the possible implications is that there is a higher focus on efficacy of governance and policy-making and less on differences between the two fronts themselves. Since congress and the communist party only provide leadership, the coalition has expanded to assume a broader character. The BJP doesn’t have a strong presence in Kerala, but the ubiquitous nature of the two coalitions led Modi to declare that Kerala needs a new alternative but the lack of a substantial presence can hamper BJP’s hopes of springing a Kejriwal in Kerala.
This also leads to an interesting brand of vote-bank politics which revolve around specific communities or specific personalities. In India the vote bank politics revolved mostly around caste starting from the 1950s but now scholars agree that today the correlation between one’s caste and vote is overstressed and it is only one among many factors that could prove decisive. But caste has never made inroads in the political scene in Kerala in the way it has in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. However caste and religion are harnessed as assets by politicians in Kerala not the chief cause. So often while fielding candidates, parties will strategically pick candidates who can appeal to the dominant caste or religion in specific districts in the state. Kottayam where a significant number of Christians reside has chosen Christian candidates since 1957. In the same vein, the Communist Part of India has chosen Dr Bennet Abraham, a member of the Nadar community to balance the splitting of votes between the Nair votes for Shashi Tharoor and O. Rajagopal of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
In the last elections these divisions held no weight when people overwhelmingly voted Shashi Tharoor despite being an ‘outsider’ to power. This time around he faces a strong rival in Dr Bennet Abraham who describes himself as ‘son of the soil’ who has strong credentials because he is a doctor and has a strong base among the 3 lakh base of Nadars, Also the strong memory of the Keralites stoked by widely read newspapers such as Malayala Manorama could also work against Tharoor in the view of the death of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar. Further personalities can only get so much mileage from their charisma as Tharoor has not been able to keep his promises either such as getting a High Court Bench for Thiruvanathapuram though he has a visibility that exceeds any other politician’s. His accessibility and participation in social media such as Twitter also connects him to the youth which form a large segment of the society. But Keralites are also angered by the stagnation of development in domains other than tourism and in this regard the demand for international port/harbor at Vizhinjam has been talked about and discussed for more than 40 years now but very little has come of it.
Also often Kerala politics has seemed disjoint from the national political scene and disengaged from national issues. This time around canvassing has seen a mix of national and local issues like the inflation or allocation of coal blocks and the Kasturirangan report on the Western Ghats or the solar scam respectively. A parallel could be even drawn between UDF and the UPA as the UDF’s stint has been marred by allegations and scandals of corruption such as the land grab case. The UDF has tried to return the mud-slinging by accusing the CPI of engaging in a ‘politics of murder’ in relation to the T.P.Chandrashekaran case but the spotlight has remained on the UDF and the Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. This time therefore there are equally important local and national issues in the political imagination of the Malayalee. Unlike the previous years where the local politics are separate and primary, this time voting behaviour could be influenced because of this difference.
Susan Haris is currently pursuing Masters in English Literature from Delhi University. She is interested in world affairs and India’s place in global politics. She enjoys film noir and science fiction.