The massive fireworks tragedy that claimed more than 100 lives at a temple in the southern district of Kollam in Kerala last week, has come as a bolt from the blue for the already beleaguered ruling United Democratic Front led by the Congress. The revelations that followed the tragedy, the blame game and the bid to politicise it has sullied the image of both the UDF and the opposition Left Democratic Front in the run-up to the Assembly elections. It will not be a surprise if this unfortunate incident becomes an electoral issue, denting the prospects of both fronts. The prompt intervention by the Central government and the presence of the top BJP leadership, including the Prime Minister and party president at the tragedy site is bound to benefit the “third front”.

Though the history of Kerala is replete with fireworks accidents, it has never witnessed a tragedy of such magnitude. Each time a mishap happens, successive governments and the opposition make all too familiar sounds of constituting inquiry commissions and talk about the need to keep a close check on such activities. This time also everything is as per the script. The opposition, mainly the cadre-based CPM, instead of constructively contributing to the rescue operations, launched a frontal attack on the ruling government. The government dodged all inconvenient questions and is now desperately trying to put the blame on a lower rung official. It is interesting to note that only on 24 March a major blast took place in a house, which had stocked illegal fireworks in northern Kannur which destroyed over 50 houses in the vicinity. Then, too, there was the same hullaballoo and little else. It is immaterial whether a sitting judge or the CBI conducts an inquiry into the incident unless the ruling government shows some determination to implement the recommendations. The findings of the K. Jayakumar commission that probed another blast which claimed a dozen lives in northern Palakkad in February 2011, are still gathering dust. Meanwhile, manufacturing and use of illegal fireworks continue without any hindrance under the nose of the ruling apparatus.

The BJP  stayed away from the controversy surrounding fireworks during festivals in places of worship, especially temples, which has become a sensitive issue among devout Hindus.

Everything seems to be going wrong for the Oommen Chandy government, which is seeking a return to power on the slogan of development and the need for continuity in governance to undertake such a task. As if the revelations of Saritha S. Nair, main accused in the solar scam, about her alleged involvement with the Chief Minister and many state Congress heavyweights is not enough, the UDF found itself in a soup over many decisions hastily taken before the electoral code of conduct came into force. The government was forced to retract on many such decisions, especially regarding land acquisitions, in the face of a barrage of protests from environmentalists and the general public. Even before the government could extricate itself from the mess, came the bickering over seat allocations in the Congress for the Assembly elections. Everything went wrong from the beginning. There is a grandmother’s saying in Kerala that three people should not go together for an auspicious occasion. The three, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and PCC president V.M. Sudheeran went in a car to meet party president Sonia Gandhi to sort out the candidates’ list. That itself was a bad omen, is the general feeling. For, the three stayed put in Delhi for almost a week mainly thanks to covert fighting for supremacy between the CM and the PCC chief. The bone of contention centred round nominations for two ministers and two sitting MLAs loyal to Chandy. Though Chandy emerged seemingly victorious, a bruised Sudheeran managed to get the scalp of one of the loyalists. The end result was that the public got a glimpse of the depth of disunity in the Congress, which is seeking re-election on the planks of unity and development. With just about a month to go for the elections, the Congress still has not cleaned its own stables, with many rebel candidates threatening to contest against official candidates. With a major constituent of the UDF, Kerala Congress Mani group too plagued by dissension, things are looking pretty bad for the ruling front.

Everything seems to be going wrong for the Oommen Chandy government, which is seeking a return to power on the slogan of development and the need for continuity in governance to undertake such a task.

However, the UDF had managed to put the rival LDF in a fix over prohibition and ban on liquor bars before CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury pulled off a rescue act for the comrades. Much muck has been thrown about over downing the shutters of 720 liquor bars in the state. While the UDF has been advocating a complete ban on liquor in a phased manner, the LDF has been contending that a complete ban on liquor is not the solution. Instead, they said they would educate the people about the ills of liquor consumption. This is a sensitive issue in Kerala. While the women solidly support the UDF action, the powerful liquor lobby has been banking on the LDF’s return to power for a reprieve. The CPM’s closeness to the liquor mafia is well known. By taking a wishy-washy stand on liquor CPM was hoping to garner the votes of drinkers and a large number of employees rendered jobless following the closure of bars. Added to this is the lure of election funds from the liquor lobby and the revenue earnings in the wake of coming to power. The comrades seemingly overlooked the sentiments of women. But once the UDF started stridently exposing the non-commitment of LDF on the issue, Yechury over-ruled the state leadership by announcing in Delhi there would not be any change in the liquor policy implemented by the UDF and the closed bars would remain closed even if the LDF came to power. By this Yechury has successfully sent a message to the state party leadership, which is not too cosy with him, that the central leadership will have the final say in any decisions taken at the state level. It was when chief ministerial aspirant Pinarayi Vijayan and company were trying to wriggle out of a major embarrassment that the temple tragedy happened, which helped the party to pounce on it for political gains.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi rushed to the state just hours after the tragedy, with a team of specialist doctors and shiploads of medicine. The PM has impressed the general public in the state who feel they can depend on the Centre, and for that matter the BJP, in times of distress. The presence of party chief Amit Shah in Kerala for electioneering too came as a boon. He promptly cancelled all his public engagements and rushed to the hospitals to visit the injured.

The Sangh Parivar, unlike the CPM, lost no time in deploying its cadre in rescue and rehabilitation work. The BJP also stayed away from the controversy surrounding fireworks during festivals in places of worship, especially temples, which has become a sensitive issue among devout Hindus. But the party will have to address the contentious issue sooner or later by making its stand clear. This is not going to be easy as the season of temple festivals begins with Thrissur Pooram, known worldwide for its marvellous fireworks display, scheduled for this week.

This is going to be a tricky issue for all parties in these elections.


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