Kerala Assembly Election 2021: Lessons learned from P Vijayan and the Left's historic return to power
Along with welfare politics, the Left has also benefited from the significant shift in Kerala’s political landscape with the rise of Hindu nationalism
The Left win in the Assembly election in Kerala marks the first time since 1977 that an incumbent coalition completed a full term and returned to power at the hustings. This breaks the Malayali public’s penchant for keeping ruling parties on their toes by regularly showing them the door.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) won a comprehensive 99 seats (up from 91) of the 140 seats with its main constituent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) securing 62 seats, the highest in its electoral history, beating the 61 it secured in 2006. This is all the more noteworthy considering that the CPM contested seven less seats than the last time.
The other defining headline is the decimation, seat-wise, of the BJP, that failed to open its account, after the party won a seat for the first time in 2016.
The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was restricted to 41 seats, with the Congress getting 21, one less than the last time.
The Left win is an unreserved affirmation of the electorate in Pinarayi Vijayan’s leadership of the state during natural disasters like successive floods, one of which was the worst in 100 years, and pandemics like Nipah and COVID-19 . The welfarist orientation of the regime carried the day, the most pronounced example of which was the government’s stellar performance during the COVID-19 lockdown. The treatment of the inter-state migrant labour in Kerala during the period earned acclaim, especially considering the tragic journeys to home on foot of millions of workers from other states.
The biggest endorsement of this welfarism came in the form of the victory of Health Minister KK Shailaja, with the highest margin in Kerala’s election history (over 60,000 votes). Even serious corruption charges against the Left government in the last year of its rule did not stop its victory march. This was also a function of the extremely politicised use of Central agencies by the Narendra Modi government and its relentless targeting of the Left regime helping to erase legitimate question marks about the conduct of the Chief Minister’s Office.
Ironically, Vijayan’s leadership style, which has apparently earned plaudits from the electorate, is also a double-edged sword, which has seen extreme concentration of power in an individual, negating the principles of collective leadership, the norm in communist parties, and contrary to the ethos of democracy. Thus, the big victory is also a moment of reckoning for the Left when not just a celebration but an introspection is needed too.
It also is a moment for it to envisage the fulfilment of the many unkept promises about the empowerment of the most marginalised sections of the population.
Along with welfare politics, the Left has also benefited from the significant shift in Kerala’s political landscape with the rise of Hindu nationalism. The Christian and Muslim communities see the Left as a solid counterforce to the BJP at the state level as opposed to the Congress. The evidence was seen in CSDS post-poll surveys of the 2016 Assembly elections where the Christian and Muslim vote share for the Left had increased to 35 percent each (from 27 and 31 percent respectively in 2011).
The Left has, in the recent past, also actively courted the minorities, who have been the backbone of the Congress-led UDF. In the present Elections, the Christian party, Kerala Congress (Mani), which had joined the LDF only in October 2020, won five seats. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second most important constituent of the UDF, also suffered setbacks at the hands of the Left. Despite contesting the highest number of seats ever (27), it could win only 15 (3 less than time), which included one seat which it won by 38 votes! This is its second worst strike rate since 1970.
But there are fissures in the secularism of the Left as well. Its constituent parties have raised the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ in the election campaign, mirroring the BJP, just as the senior leadership of CPM has indulged in “Hindu appeasement”. The CPM also, after the initial aggressive stance on the entry of women into Sabarimala Temple, had to moderate it.
And in the labyrinthine electoral maze of Kerala politics, there have been allegations by both fronts of tacit understandings with the BJP, just as in the past the BJP had transferred votes to the Congress and the League to defeat the Left.
As far as the Congress is concerned, on the one hand, one of its central ideological problems is that on issues like Sabarimala, it becomes ‘BJP Lite’, adopting extremely conservative positions, unable to counter Hindutva. On the other, it is accused by Christian interests as becoming a tail of the Muslim League and as unable to counter its oversized influence in the UDF. This is also compounded by an ageing, extremely factionalised, Congress leadership. Thus, despite the huge popular interest in the campaign of Rahul Gandhi and the trending social media videos, the Kerala electorate discerningly did not give Congress the mandate, just as it chose to favour it overwhelmingly when it was the Lok Sabha Election in 2019.
For the BJP, the return to the status quo of having no voice in the Assembly is a serious electoral setback to its political agenda, which considers Kerala as one of the “last frontiers” of the Hindutva national project. While it hoped that this Election would be a landmark one for it, the vote share could only increase to 11.3 percent from 10.5 percent despite contesting 15 additional seats. Prominent Hindutva ideologue and icon, MS Golwalkar had once contended that Muslims, Christians and Communists constituted the biggest “internal threats” to a [Hindu] India. Ironically, all three are uniquely present in Kerala.
The BJP, as expected, focused on issues like Sabarimala and ‘Love Jihad’. The state also saw high profile election campaigns by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. To add salt to the wound, the figurehead of the Sabarimala agitation, the BJP president, K Surendran, lost in both the constituencies he contested. And the Pathanamthitta district, where the Sabarimala Temple is located, saw the victory of the Left in all its five seats. The BJP’s belated attempt to talk about development by bringing in “Metro Man,” the 88-year-old E Sreedharan as a candidate and a potential chief minister, ultimately turned out to be a damp squib.
Outside the performance of the parties, one feature in terms of diversity that has to be noted is the continuing abysmal representation of women in the Assembly with only 11 MLAs out of 140 (10 from the LDF). Another particularly important development was the victory of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India candidate, KK Rema, against the Left Front. Rema is the widow of the former CPM leader, TP Chandrasekharan, who was assassinated by CPM activists. The mature electorate of Kerala gave Vijayan a landslide victory and, simultaneously, in an affirmation of ethics and justice, elected Rema, a fierce critic of Vijayan and the CPM.
Ultimately, the Left win showed the limits of Hindutva’s expansionist politics and the agenda of virulent religious polarisation: It showed how spectacularly out of touch with Kerala’s political and development reality the BJP is by holding Yogi Adityanath’s road show in Kerala with ‘Love Jihad’ as a central plank. The consecutive Left win also reminds us, during the worst pandemic, that a governance model can make the difference between life and death, and the absolute criticality of a politics based on materialism and human development vis-a-vis one based on building statues and religious places of worship.
The author is with Dalhousie University and tweets @nmannathukkaren
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