Thiruvananthapuram: The Bihar assembly elections later this year may be the next big litmus test for national politics but a silent churning is taking place at the southern tip of India too, where a by-election in one of Kerala’s 140 Assembly constituencies on Saturday is expected to provide a pointer to which way the political winds will blow when the state goes to the polls in May 2016.
The June 27 by-poll in Aruvikkara in Thiruvananthapuram district is taking place because of the death this March of Congress leader G. Karthikeyan, who was the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly. The Congress-led ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) has fielded his 31-year-old son K.S. Sabarinath, fresh to politics, as its candidate.
Opposing him under the banner of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is former Speaker and CPI(M) leader M. Vijayakumar. Also in the fray is former Union Minister O.Rajagopal of the BJP.
Victory or loss will not affect the government, since the UDF has a four-seat advantage over the LDF in the Assembly. But the by-poll is being seen as a bellwether for the mood of the electorate in the State.
In the four years he has been chief minister, Oomen Chandy has moved from one controversy to another. Each scandal has served to overshadow the image of a ‘forward looking, no-nonsense’ administration being projected by the government.
In what has become famous as the ‘solar scam’, his office came under fire on the charge of assisting a woman and her male partner – both of whom are now in jail – in duping several gullible people of cash by collecting investments on behalf of a non-existent solar energy firm. The CM fought off the Opposition campaign against him on that count, but not without receiving some dents to his image. His office was found partially manned by persons of dubious integrity. In one instance, a favoured member of his official security detail got exposed as a key player in an urban land-grab case.
More recently, the ‘bar license scam’ has brought fresh discomfiture to the government. An office-bearer of the state association of bar licensees charged Finance Minister K.M. Mani – who leads the Kerala Congress (M), the third largest party in the UDF after Congress and the Indian Muslim League (IUML) – of having accepted bribes from its members for pushing a favourable liquor policy decision, which, however, did not materialise.
The decision turned unfavourable to them due largely to a dose of social concern injected into the state by V.M. Sudheeran, a leader in the Gandhian mould, soon after he was made president of the Kerala unit of the Congress before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Over 400 cheerfully buzzing bars in the state turned into sullen ‘Beer and Wine’ parlours following Sudheeran’s activism, which a government headed by a Gandhian party had to perforce accept.
On the positive side of the ledger, the progress made by the Kochi metro rail project is demonstrating a new kind of decisiveness in executing development projects. A deepwater container terminal too looks as if it getting off the starting block at Vizhinjam near the State capital after decades of wishful talk. These developments appear as bright spots within an otherwise dark background but Chandy is also hampered by his somewhat loose resource management. The government’s revenue has been sagging and, claims notwithstanding, its capacity to spend what it must on the state’s welfare programmes has been compromised.
Brimming with confidence at the start of the campaign, Chandy declared that he considered the by-poll to be a referendum on the performance of his government. ‘Aruvikkara’ means ‘the riverbank’ and the constituency has derived its name from the beautiful stream flowing past it. Just one holy dip in the river flowing down the low hills of the constituency – virtually, it would seem – and he would feel himself washed clean of all the dirt thrown on him.
However, his optimism was not shared by others. Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala the next day said he did not see the by-election as a barometer gauging the performance of the government, adding that even if the UDF won, there might be issues that needed looking into. He was clearly leaving things open. Leadership change, obviously, is in the thoughts of one section of the Congress.
Within the CPI(M), politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan – who stepped down as the party state secretary earlier this year after a long tenure of 17 years – is being seen by his well-wishers within the party and outside as the LDF’s chief ministerial candidate for the next Assembly elections. The party has fully mobilised itself, hoping to turn the Aruvikkara contest into an energising message for 2016. But the LDF’s public meetings during the campaign started seeing overflowing crowds only after his Vijayan’s bête-noir, V.S. Achuthanandan, stepped into the constituency.
Vijayan and the present party secretary, Kodiyeri Balakrishnan are camping in the constituency directing the campaign, while Achuthanandan is the LDF’s biggest crowd puller. It is a love-hate relationship with many unpredictable elements. Achuthanandan is past 92 but he is like the samurai in the Zen story who goes on sharpening his sword all through his life, day in, day out, without rest or diversion, and so time for him comes to a halt and he never ages. No one can predict whether he would not be willing to lead the LDF’s team in the next elections. Popularity is the issue.
For the coalition partners within the UDF and LDF, not all of whom are happily bound together, the by-poll result could signal the time for considering new strategies for the 2016 Assembly elections. Kerala had for decades been a state running on coalition politics with power swinging regularly from one direction to the other with each election. The smaller parties, therefore, have come to believe they have a decisive say in setting the pendulum swinging. There are floating elements within the coalitions and so a definite indication of the mood position might set in motion a kind of reverse osmosis across the membrane dividing the two fronts.
On its part, the BJP garnered less than seven per cent of the polled votes in the constituency in the last Assembly election; but in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, its vote share in the segment doubled. That the party is seriously making a bid to open its account in the State – it has not succeeded in winning either an Assembly, or a Lok Sabha seat from Kerala so far – is apparent from its choice of the 85-year-old Rajagopal as its candidate. It cannot think beyond ‘Rajettan’, as he is endearingly called by party people, as the one who might some day break the jinx in the state. As the BJP’s candidate, he had come second behind Shashi Tharoor of the Congress in the last Lok Sabha election in Thiruvananthapuram constituency, pushing the LDF candidate to third position.