Voters are disillusioned with the two rival fronts in the state and there are no effective alternatives either. G Sreedathan explains
Stakes are high for the principal players of Kerala's rival fronts -- the Congress-led United Democratic Front and Communist Party of India-Marxist-led Left Democratic Front -- in the forthcoming general elections.
If pre-poll surveys are any indication, Kerala is the only state in south India where the Congress is expected to reach double-digit figures.
The CPI-M, staring at decimation in West Bengal, has to win maximum number of seats from Kerala to "exercise its clout" nationally.
Predicting election results in a highly polarised state like Kerala -- where even a one per cent vote swing towards a front can lead to a huge difference in the poll outcome in terms of seats -- is a psephologist's nightmare.
Still, political observers say the Congress, whose chips were down a few months ago owing to a series of scams and scandals, and the public perception that the party was being arm-twisted by powerful partners, has, of late, managed to regain some lost ground. One of the reasons, says a senior journalist, could be the appointment of V M Sudheeran as Pradesh Congress Committee president.
For the Congress, this election is significant because it is also a test of Rahul Gandhi's experiment of making Sudheeran chief, despite stiff opposition from Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and other factions in the party.
Sudheeran, like A K Antony, is one of the cleanest politicians in the Congress.
"Although he is not liked by factions in the party, at an election time his image helps party immensely," says N Madhavan Kutty, a senior journalist. Also, Sudheeran has spearheaded many pro-environment agitations, much to the chagrin of his party. His selection has not only helped salvage the image of the faction-ridden party, which has been reeling under multiple scams and scandals, but brought in a sense of entitlement among the Ezhava community, the biggest caste group among Hindus in the state.
Besides scams, other issues that could work against the Congress are price rise and disenchantment of the traditional vote base of the party -- Christians.
Christians constitute 19 per cent of the total population. The Church, which has almost complete sway over the community, is angry with the government over the way it dealt with the K Kasturirangan report about ecologically sensitive areas (ESA) in the Western Ghats. A majority of the residents in these areas are Christians.
But the party says it has managed to placate the community by forcing the Centre to keep habitations, plantations and agricultural areas in 123 villages in the state out of the purview of ESAs. Still, High Range Samrakshana Samithi, a political outfit of residents supported by the Church, has fielded candidates in three constituencies. The LDF is supporting Samithi's Joyce George in Idukki.
According to a senior Congress leader, the party could get 10 to 12 seats. But independent observers take this with a pinch of salt.
"The CPI (M) has accepted defeat even before the campaign has started, as they could not get ideal candidates to contest the elections. So they have fielded independents - some with even questionable credentials," said R Ramachandran, a Congress leader.
Besides, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, an ally of the CPI (M) nationally, joining the UDF has boosted the Congress morale.
The party's most popular MP Shashi Tharoor is fighting the battle in Thiruvananthapuram with his back against the wall. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which fielded former Union Minister O Rajagopal, is putting up a spirited fight. "People last time voted for Shashi Tharoor in the hope that he would become a minister. But this time, with the Congress on the decline, Rajagopal is the only person who would become a minister," says V Muraleedharan, state BJP president.
The BJP hopes to cash in on the "Modi buzz" in this Nair-dominated urban constituency. The party hopes it would benefit from the "Hindu resentment" in the state since there is a perception that the UDF is bending over backwards to appease the minorities. If the BJP's vote share increases considerably, Left Front candidate Bennet Abraham, a Nadar-Christian, would be the default winner.
The mood in the LDF is also "upbeat", but insiders admit the party is facing a severe "crisis of credibility". The CPI (M) managed to broker peace between warring V S Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan factions.
The LDF is playing on the fear among minorities over the rise of Narendra Modi nationally. It is also exploiting the disenchantment among Christians to the hilt. Out of total 20 seats, the front has fielded eight Christians, belonging to all denominations. In five seats, it has supported independent candidates. According to former Finance Minister Thomas Issac, supporting independents was a clever "strategy". "It is a way of building up a united front. They may not be communists, but they are not UDF either," he said.
The Indian Union Muslim League, the Congress' key partner, continues to call the shots in community-dominated seats in north Kerala. Muslims constitute 25 per cent of the population. But the Social Democratic Party of India, the political arm of Islamist Popular Front, may cut into its vote share.
In a nutshell, voters are disillusioned with both the fronts and there isn't an effective alternative to tap into the disenchantment. The Aam Aadmi Party proved to be a non-starter. Whichever front wins or loses, leaders of caste, communal and religious groups will have the last laugh.