The result in Pala will change 54-year-old equation in Kerala’s coalition politics.


New Delhi: It is quite natural that the defeat of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in an Assembly byelection in Kerala is seen as a severe setback, coming barely four months after its emphatic victory in the general elections, winning 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state. However, it will be a mistake to consider the victory of the ruling Left Democratic Front in the Pala bypoll an endorsement of the policies followed by the CPM-led Pinarayi Vijayan government in the state, as was claimed by the Chief Minister after the result was announced.

Just an hour before the counting began, CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishanan had said that his party would not consider the mandate a referendum on the government. It was clear then that the CPM was playing it safe, though the Front’s candidate belonging to Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party was confident of his victory. In fact, the candidate Mani C. Kappen would know better, for the late K.M. Mani of the Kerala Congress had swept him aside on three previous elections, in 2006, 2011 and 2016. In hindsight, Kappen’s claim that in the absence of the “real Mani”, Pala would go for the “alternate Mani” proved right. Incidentally, Kerala is the only state where NCP is part of a ruling government in the country. It will not be surprising if Kappen’s victory triggers a fresh power struggle within the state NCP for the sole ministerial berth it occupies in the Pinarayi government.

The one significant outcome of this bypoll is the end of a family stranglehold on the constituency of Pala. It has also sounded the death knell for a family-business political party, which had held tremendous sway over the state’s politics, for reasons known to the Right and Left fronts that have ruled the state alternatively for the past five decades or so.

K.M. Mani had represented Pala for 54 uninterrupted years since its formation in 1965 till his death in April this year. During that period, Mani, bereft of any ideology other than self-aggrandisement, had changed sides as and when it suited him and his family’s prospects; sadly, Pala had reposed faith in him blindly time and again. And there was a time when neither the Congress nor the CPM could win from central Kerala without the help of “Mani Saar”, as he is endearingly referred to in political circles even now. His command over the Christian politics of the strategic region was near absolute for a long time. With Friday’s byelection result, the curtain has more or less come down on that phase. But still in this election it was Mani again who dominated the discourse.

As is wont with family parties, Mani had groomed his son, Jose K. Mani, currently member of the Rajya Sabha, to take over his mantle even during his lifetime. With his death, things fell apart as was expected. P.J. Joseph, number two in Mani’s Kerala Congress, had raised the banner of revolt, refusing to give up the party’s top post.

The tussle between the two saw the candidate contesting the election on an independent symbol, pineapple which turned sour, and not on the official party symbol of two leaves. This was more than enough to guarantee defeat. Still the UDF leadership hoped that Mani’s name would carry them through one last time. Alas, leaders of Kerala Congress had other ideas. But one thing is for sure. The disintegration of Mani’s Kerala Congress gives immense hope for better days in Kerala’s politics.

Post-Pala, the question is how the UDF is going to fare in the remaining five Assembly byelections which are due end October. Of the five, four are UDF seats; among them it won Manjeswaram in northern Kasaragode last time by a margin of just 89 votes against the BJP candidate. But the state BJP seems to be down in the dumps. Its votes have come down by over 6,000 in Pala, with the candidate himself facing accusations of selling votes to the LDF: though there are not many takers for this theory. If at all, BJP votes will go for Congress, not Communists. Many senior BJP leaders, perhaps the main strength of the party in Kerala, are unwilling to contest the elections, at least under the present leadership. This includes firebrand leader K. Surendran, who was in the forefront of the party’s Sabarimala agitation and who lost in Majeswaram narrowly to his Muslim League opponent last time.

The CPM contention that people have now realised their mistake of voting for the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls is nothing but self-illusory. The party is conveniently forgetting that in Pala it was a classic case of the UDF snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. That at the same time raises questions about the Congress leadership’s overconfidence. At best, the CPM has realised that the last Lok Sabha election results in the state were more a rejection of BJP and its leadership rather than an approval of the Congress leadership’s ability to lead. The tragedy is that more than anything else, the state Congress leaders seem to believe that the next government is already theirs for the asking. Like Pinarayi Vijayan and company, they too seem to be indulging in self-delusion, a dangerous proposition in democracy.