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The challenges of ruling Kerala

May 20, 2016 13:13 IST

'Continuity in a common agenda is essential, not to disrupt the progress achieved so far,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

In this LDF election poster, a man with a remote in his hand watches a TV channel that talks about corruption on the shutting down bars in Kerala. Photograph: Sreeram SelvarajDemocracies around the world have watched with envy the maturity with which the electorate in India brings about peaceful change. The voters absorb developments, make their judgments and vote quietly, without giving a clear hint of their choice.

The elections of 1977, 1980, 2004 and 2014 are shining examples of unexpected dramatic changes. Politicians are taken aback by the element of surprise in demolishing citadels and restoring them on the next occasion.

Kerala once again demonstrated this phenomenon and gave a massive mandate to the Left Democratic Front, ignoring the claim of the United Democratic Front to continue on the basis of its development record.

The expectation that the advent of the National Democratic Alliance would mark a paradigm shift, which might change the fortunes of the two Fronts did not prove right. The results have proved that Kerala remains within its own ideological divide, giving no attention to the blitzkrieg by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his strategists to alter the scenario.

Most of the BJP's efforts to influence voters in Kerala were counterproductive, whether it was the introduction of institutionalised caste politics like in the north, the over exposure of the prime minister and unknown BJP central ministers, money power, Hindutva or the Somalia reference.

Though the BJP may have positioned itself for future years by gaining a higher percentage of votes, it did not alter the political landscape.

The BJP did open the account in the Kerala legislature after contesting since 1982. But the victory of O Rajagopal, a widely respected leader who is known for his contribution to Kerala during his time in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, was a foregone conclusion even before the BJP strategy was unveiled.

Rajagopal had come very close to victory in previous elections to the Kerala legislature as well as to the Lok Sabha. The popular sentiment was for his victory in what was seen as his first electoral victory. His battle for the BJP as a disciplined soldier despite rebuffs was also a factor in his success.

Without the anticipated paradigm shift, Kerala voted true to form and elected the LDF to run the government for the next five years. The UDF thought that it would create history by continuing in power on the strength of the success of mega projects like the Vizhinjam port, the Smart City, Kochi Metro, Kannur airport and others, which they initiated or advanced during their term.

But the mega scandals, though unproved, outshone the mega projects and the UDF was sent to the Opposition. The LDF strategy to play up the corruption issue, by pledging to set things right on coming to power, worked well. Ironically, all the tainted ministers were not defeated.

In other words, the electorate adopted the time tested policy of trying out each coalition by turns. The alliances are compelled to perform, because the possibility of another change loom large constantly.

Development and secularism are part of the common agenda of both the UDF and LDF, but they are divergent in their definitions of both. A consensus on these concepts elude Kerala because of the ideological divide. The UDF believes in the public and the private sectors for economic development, but the LDF emphasises its distance from the private sector.

But the LDF is not averse to cooperation with big business as the front indicated in the case of the mega projects. The accepted concept of a mixed economy should be acceptable to both. The divergence gets highlighted during the elections, but in actual practice, there will be no great difference in their approach to the economy.

Basing on the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals, it should not be difficult to reach a consensus on development, so that changes in approach do not result in a reversal of policies every five years.

Secularism is basically a slogan in Kerala, because often Keralites vote their castes, instead of casting their votes. Both the fronts have had partnerships with the Indian Union Muslim League, which has positioned itself as a secular party in Kerala politics, as against more radical Islamic groups.

The BJP has united the two fronts against its Hindutva agenda, but both fronts accused the other of being in league with the BJP in secret. The concern of the minorities about the Modi government is a major factor that influences the two fronts.

One issue that came in focus this time was the UDF liquor policy, which saw the closure of low cost bars, but did not lead to a significant reduction of consumption. The UDF would like to move to prohibition, but the LDF would like to attain the same objective through a process of abstinence. Both these policies will have no effect as long as the public remains unaware of the dangers of drinking.

Like in the case of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, the popular sentiment might undermine the promoters of a reduction in consumption of hard liquor. No progress should be expected in this area under either of the two fronts.

In health and education policies, the differences between the two fronts have been highlighted for political reasons. Private investment in health is welcome for both, but the LDF has declared its opposition to private universities and autonomous colleges.

The UDF government did not approve of private universities, but suggested measures to enliven the higher education sector. These were demonised by interested parties, but their merits would be recognised if these measures were examined dispassionately. West Bengal had permitted private universities during Left Front government rule in that state.

If only the new government examines the blueprint for a new education system, put forward by the Kerala State Higher Education Council without an ideological prism, there could be a consensus on health and education.

The Global Education Meet, which became controversial, had an agenda, which should be discussed openly so that its benefits will reach the higher education sector.

The need for revamping higher education institutions is widely recognised and measures should be taken to modernise them to enable our young generation to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

A change in the government should be seen as an opportunity in a democracy.

Continuity in a common agenda is essential, not to disrupt the progress achieved so far.

Ambassador T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967)is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is currently Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General, Kerala International Centre.

IMAGE: In this LDF election poster, a man with a remote in his hand watches a TV channel that talks about corruption on the shutting down bars issue in Kerala. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

T P Sreenivasan