The emergence of a “third front” has effectively changed the decades-old political equations in Kerala, which is going to vote for its 14th Assembly on 16 May. The key players in this turnaround are the BJP and its prime ally, Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, the newly floated political party, mainly of Ezhavas, a powerful backward Hindu community. The ruling United Democratic Front and the opposition Left Democratic Front, which have shared power alternatively for almost 60 years, are feeling the heat. They know this is not just another Assembly election but one for their very survival.
As the protagonist of this political drama, Vellappalli Natesan, the powerful general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sangham, a socio-religious organisation of the Ezhavas, has withdrawn to the background, the state BJP’s president, RSS ideologue Kummanom Rajashekharan, has assumed the lead role. As major players gear up for the gruelling campaign trail, the BJP-Sena combine is forcing the other two fronts to the back foot. While the UDF and the LDF are still struggling to settle seat-sharing formalities with their respective allies, the “third front” seems to have a smooth ride so far in roping in film stars and erstwhile cricketer Sreesanth into its fold. The initial hiccups caused by the BJP central leadership over nominations seem to have subsided, with the party chief Amit Shah’s presence in the state.
Even as the “third front” came into existence, it was clear that it would be a difficult task for them to find credible candidates. The only consolation was that it could field hardcore RSS workers in north Kerala where the Sangh Parivar has pockets of influence dating back to the formation of the state in 1957. But this will not work for the combine in the more decisive central and south Kerala, where Christians and liberal Hindu Nairs hold sway. There is still apprehension in these parts about the BJP. Though Kummanom Rajashekharan has been trying to reach out to powerful bishops and the Nair Service Society, a non-political Hindu body, it has not borne much fruit. Hence the alliance with BDJS—which is contesting 37 of the 140 Kerala Assembly seats, mostly from this region—will be crucial for BJP in the aftermath of the elections. The only advantage the party has is that it got about 14% of the vote share in the elections to the local bodies late last year. But the Kerala electorate is known for its shifting priorities when it comes to elections to the Lok Sabha, Assembly and municipal bodies. Hence, it is important for the party to look for consensus candidates sympathetic to the party ideology and be wary of those opportunists waiting in the wings to join the bandwagon. Moreover, by this time BJP must know full well how tricky a customer Natesan is.
But the combine, in this short while, has succeeded in cutting out the task for the two existing fronts. The CPM, which is leading the LDF, was the first to press the panic button. In its desperation to capture power in Kerala, having forfeited the same in West Bengal, the party is turning traditional Marxism on its head. Sensing the danger of left-leaning Ezhavas crossing over in large numbers, the comrades went for a facelift, playing the soft Hindutva card. They started making a beeline to temples and vied with traditional believers in celebrating various Hindu festivals. The current political joke in the state is that it has become difficult for the faithful to enter temples without bumping into a Marxist leader.
The CPM is also turning to Malayalam celluloid for candidates in such earnestness that many wonder whether there are not enough party men to field. One such candidate, the illustrious “KPAC” Lalitha, after agreeing to be its candidate, has backed out following protests from the cadre in Vadakkancheri, from where she was supposed to stand. Incidentally, it is her association with Kerala People’s Arts Club (KPAC), the forerunner of Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Kerala, which was in the vanguard of the communist movement in the state with unparalleled theatre productions such as Ningal Enne Communistakki (You Made Me A Communist), that got her the name. The cadre is taking to the streets against the leadership for many other choices too, something unheard of in the past except for the one seen for veteran Achuthanandan. The party is also finding it difficult to concede to the growing demands of coalition partners, even though they don’t have much of a professed following. Moreover, welcoming rebels from the Kerala Congress (Mani) has become a burden for the front. The CPM, more than anyone else, knows that the loss of Ezhava vote will practically wipe out the party in central Kerala. Unabashedly, the party has fallen back on the much denigrated pariah in the current state party leadership, the nonagenarian Achuthanandan, himself an Ezhava, to crawl back to power.
For the Congress, which leads the UDF, Kerala holds the only hope of coming to power among the three other states and Puducherry going to polls. The UDF was hoping to ride on its development plank and the need for a continuity factor for further growth of Kerala. Till a few months back, this seems to have been a possibility. But the Oommen Chandy government has been facing corruption charge after corruption charge throughout its term. If the controversy over the closure of liquor bars and the subsequent allegations of money changing hands is not enough, the solar scam raised by Saritha S. Nair has left the government badly scarred while catapulting Saritha to the role of a heroine of sorts among Kerala women. The government has come under attack not only from outside but also from within the party over many of its decisions taken at the last moment before the code of conduct came into effect with the announcement of election dates. The state Congress state president, V.M. Sudheeran, who has a clean public image, has been at loggerheads with the Chief Minister and the other power centre led by Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala. Though party president Sonia Gandhi brought about a temporary truce among the three warring satraps, the rift has now intensified, with the Chandy and Chennithala groups joining hands against Sudheeran.
This has left the party thoroughly exposed among the public and at a disadvantageous position as the leader of the front. The Congress today stands weakened in the front and is finding it difficult to dictate terms to its partners, especially the Kerala Congress led by tainted Finance Minister K.M. Mani, which is demanding more seats despite many deserting the party. If this was not enough, the party and the front are under tremendous pressure from the religious lobby of Christians, Nairs and Muslims. How the triumvirate of Chandy (Christian), Chennithala (Hindu) and Sudheeran (Ezhava) overcome the odds is to be seen. Not to forget Kunjalikutty of IUML. With over one and a half hot summer months left before the hustings, the electoral temperature in Kerala must be measured by the barometer of the “third front”. That will be an ideal way to assess whether Kerala will call it quits to bipolar politics and test new waters.