Kerala local body elections: warm-up for 2011? (Comment)

By Aswakumaran Vinod Kumar, IANS
Tuesday, October 19, 2010

With over one lakh candidates nominated to Kerala’s three-tier local body polls this month, the stage is set for a highly-charged campaign in politically polarized Kerala. At stake is not just the dominant control of over 21,000 seats in some 1,200 local bodies; rather the polls could be a real-time, and probably the last, opportunity to measure the popular mood in the run-up to the 2011 assembly elections.

While the intensity of anti-incumbency against the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), would be on test, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) can assess if the gains of 2009 Lok Sabha election still stand.

Predicting the electorate’s mood from these polls could be a psephological nightmare considering that local bodies are too disjointed and segregated to endow a consolidated state-wide trend. Further, Kerala’s political landscape and the electorate’s collective behaviour have altered in recent years.

Despite the vertical polarization between two fronts, coalition politics and voting patterns in Kerala have distinct characteristics.

First, Kerala’s electorate has changed the ruling front every quadrennial, with the intensity of anti-incumbency reflecting in the winning margin.

Second, irrespective of the prevalent wave, the Leftists have consistently maintained dominance over local bodies, thanks to its cadre footprint which has a direct influence over local issues.

Third, the Congress-led UDF has traditionally maintained an upper hand over Lok Sabha seats, often grabbing more than half.

It was the 2004 general election that changed the scene when the LDF gained a near total win in a Lok Sabha battle. The public disapproval of the chronic infighting within the Congress caused its drubbing. A similar fate befell the LDF in 2009.

As a natural continuation of the trend, many expect the LDF to be routed in 2011, the way the UDF in 2006 lost over 75 percent seats. In that case, it is restoration of the long-held trend of quadrennial change and cyclic impact of anti-incumbency, which no front had transcended since the 1980s. How then will the local body polls impact the 2011 verdict?

Not many pollsters are ready to affirm that the October polls could throw up surprises, implying that the LDF might sustain its control over nearly three-fourth of the local bodies. Even a sharp anti-incumbency wave could at best hit this margin by a 10-20 percent but not seriously denting the Left’s dominance.

A decisive win in the local bodies could be a morale booster, but not necessarily potent enough to alter the electoral traits.

However, one cannot affirm that even this pattern is static. Just like the 2004 Lok Sabha election caused an unprecedented rout of the Congress, 2011 might also throw up surprises, if not dramatic.

Kerala’s political scene is witnessing fresh political realignments hitherto unseen in its coalition politics. The October polls are thus a testing ground for the new political chemistry.

A massive sweep will reinvigorate the Left camp, especially the CPI-M, which is undergoing a correction exercise to undo the wrongs of the last five years when factionalism vertically split an otherwise disciplined party.

In a manner unseen in the party’s recent history, a cross-section of the party’s state secretariat deplored the ethical degradation of the leadership and regretted being sucked into the faction feuds.

The Congress is bequeathed by its innate problem - factional politics, so much so that candidate nominations to the local bodies turned chaotic. In many constituencies, UDF candidates are more than one, making it difficult to discern the official candidate from the rebel.

The K. Muraleedharan factor has come back to haunt the Congress though he could be supporting the UDF this time. Muraleedharan has proved his political might by projecting his support base among Congressmen, many of who are contesting as rebels or backing official UDF nominees.

By doing so, Muraleedharan seems to drive home a point - he has replaced his father, K. Karunakaran, as a leader who could garner a committed cadre despite not being in any party.

These factors notwithstanding, the UDF nurtures hopes of a grand comeback in 2011 even if the local bodies mandate is not favourable. The Front believes a return of upper caste and Muslim votes, along with the Church’s support, will carry it through.

Such assessments are not without merit considering the Church’s open war against the CPI-M. While PDP leader Abdul Nasser Madani’s arrest in a terror case might prove costly for the CPI-M, which sought his support in the 2009 general election, the re-emergence of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) as a credible political platform cannot be music to the CPI-M, which is facing rebellion from the niche group of Muslim Leftists.

Further, the Congress dialogue with the Nair Service Society (NSS), which dominates the sentiments of the upper-caste Nair community, could help the UDF cross the margins in 2011.

(19-10-2010 - The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst. He can be contacted at [email protected])

Filed under: Politics
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