Narrow escape for UDF in Kerala Assembly Elections 2011:
When counting started on May 13, nobody expected that election in Kerala, one month ago, was such a closely-contested battle. UDF managed to have a narrow escape. Out of 140 seats, they won 72 seats and LDF 68. It is a very thin margin. Not many expect that the UDF government would complete its full term.
Two years back, people taught LDF a lesson in the Lok-Sabha elections. For the average Kerala voter it was their wish fulfilled when CPI (M) & partners lost majority of the seats they contested. People gave them a chance to learn and improve. In the elections to local bodies too, it was a victory for the UDF. For the communist block it was a big shock as there was a considerable shrinkage in vote share in their strongholds. In the present elections too, pre poll surveys predicted a comfortable victory for the Congress led UDF. The UDF internal predictions gave them 90 to 95 seats. Congress and UDF camp was confident about a landslide victory.
Prior to assembly elections, few of the LDF constituents migrated to UDF. Overall impression was that of a surge in public support for the UDF. But unfortunately, popular support that the UDF garnered lasted for a short period. Many factors contributed to it. More than anything, it was a PR fiasco for the UDF. While LDF used all available communication roots in reaching out to the public, UDF camp literally stunned at the new found belligerent attitude of the leftists. The left front could exploit each and every opportunity to project themselves as the right ruling front for Kerala. This article explores some of the aspects that went against UDF as that contributed in developing a negative image for them in the context of a systematic media & PR campaign by LDF.
Expansion Hurt UDF Prospects
UDF expansion literally hurt its prospects rather than helping it in anyway. For the traditional UDF sympathizers there was no beauty in the new alliance equations evolved, as for many, a communal angle was obvious. Kerala Congress merger drama was limited at their leadership level, without the grassroots supporting it. Many perceive Kerala Congress Mani-Joseph merger was an attempt at forming a grant Christian- Catholic electoral alliance with ulterior motives, mainly to emerge as a bargaining bloc in the post poll scenario. Not too many Congress sympathizers took it lightly as well as neutral UDF supporters, who wanted that secular climate prevail and communal equations remain balanced.
Veerendra Kumar led Socialist Janata faction, which was an LDF constituent earlier was given an entry into the UDF. Has Congress or UDF benefitted from this new ally? Their hard bargaining and extraordinary public postures while seat sharing talks were going on, sent negative signals to UDF and Congress sympathizers. The signal was that the UDF camp is not united, while they are going to face the crucial election. Parties without substantial electoral base and those with very little votes making huge claims during the time of seat allocation and mild success of Congress leadership in managing its alliance partners coupled with the challenge of adhering to extremely unrealistic formulas by Congress high-command to satisfy youth brigade altogether caused poor performance of UDF in Kerala elections.
Poor PR and Media Management
A close look at the UDF performance, which is indeed a debacle, convinces us that it was in the context of a poor PR and media management. Whereas, LDF could utilize each and every opportunity in building up a good image over a short period of time. It is not just VS Achuthanandan factor that helped LDF. UDF could not face the onslaught that VS and the LDF camp managed over media and communication channels. UDF was stunned when they faced them. Also, UDF camp was confident and sure about a comfortable victory. So they were callous about their campaign strategy, image building exercises and working out a successful PR & media management plan. LDF could score points on all these.
A UDF supporter received a phone call from the LDF candidate in a central Travancore constituency requesting for blessings and prayer support. He was convinced that the candidate himself called him up until he heard the same story from many in the constituency, as it was a recorded message. LDF learned to successfully use such modern communication techniques. The same candidate experimented an old strategy that the UDF leaders now discarded, sending postal letters requesting for vote, usually written by volunteers with a stamped signature of the candidate looking original, which seemed to have worked very well for the LDF, in reaching out to neutral votes.
Election results proved the weakness of overcrowded UDF camp. A UDF without Kerala Congress Joseph and Socialist Janata, would have been a much more powerful and cohesive alliance. Socialist Janata was never part of any UDF or Congress and it would be difficult for its cadres to suddenly work with and vote for a Congress candidate. Further, there are strong ideological factors that go against their working together with UDF partners. It is the case with many Joseph group supporters too. For them long term left association made them develop an inclination to the kind of left wing politics and left ideology. This is very much true for Kerala Congress Joseph’s party cadres and supporters at the local level.
Migration to UDF only at Leadership Level:
Cadres at Grassroots remained with LDF
For the Socialist Janata, long term association or not, they were one of the pillars of anti-congress politics in Kerala as well as in India. There was no strong & convincing justification for Socialist Janata to offer for leaving LDF and their supporters found it difficult to adjust with the new local level coalition realities. When LDF declared their Chief Ministerial candidate as VS Achuthanandan, that made some ripples at the support base of new UDF allies like Socialist Janata and Kerala Congress Joseph group as they now opted to go along with their old LDF friends at local level. Going along with their old political rivals ( Congress & UDF) locally, was difficult, in the future as well, they were convinced.
Intra-coalition Contradictions in UDF
UDF camp was confident from the very beginning about a clean sweep in the assembly polls. During pre electioneering days and during election days matter that bothered the UDF leaders was post poll government formation, power sharing issues and such other matters. Thus there was a grant merger drama by Kerala Congress. As Kerala Congress Joseph was in LDF for almost 30 years, many Congress workers could not come into terms with that merger. It has created intra-coalition contradictions as far as UDF is concerned. Moreover, in many parts of the State, Kerala Congress Joseph group workers remained where they were. It seems that merger worked only at the top level among the leadership, if at all any of the Kerala Congress faction really commands any considerable vote bank, except in Pala or Thodupuzha as this election proved.
Helicopter Use Affected UDF Image
UDF hired a helicopter for transporting its national leaders when they visit the State during election time between different campaign sites. It was hired for a month or so. LDF alleged that the money with which the helicopter was hired comes from 2G scam and other similar scandals like Commonwealth games etc. On one or two occasions, KPCC President used the helicopter for travelling locally between Harippad and Kottayam etc. Others as well might have used the helicopter. A congress worker whom I met said ‘this extravaganza was not needed. We found it difficult to justify such things.’
Endosulfan and Prof. KV Thomas
Many of the attempts to malign UDF image could not find much success, for instance, attempt to resurrect Ice cream parlor case. But such extravaganza ( Helicopter hiring) by the Congress leaders had a negative impact on the UDF. Similarly, LDF could create an impression that UDF and UPA is in favor of Endosulfan. LDF got a friend in Prof. K. V Thomas as early as October 2010, when his statement regarding endosulfan on October 26, 2010 in Kasargod that “None of the studies conducted by the Kerala and central governments have conclusively proved through scientific tests and analysis that endosulfan had caused these diseases and deaths. Many other states in India and also foreign countries, where this insecticide-cum-acaricide is being made use of, have not reported such ill affects.” Though later on he apologized for the statement, it had already done the damage as it was agood weapon against the Congress, UDF and the Central government. This was extensively used to portray congress’s apathy in matters of public health.
During the electioneering there was a media awareness campaign that went on throughout both in visual and print media regarding Endosulfan. Though it was A K Antony government that banned endosulfan in Kerala, awareness campaign about the dangerous of endosulfan and demands for a national level ban during electioneering that went on in the media side by side went against UDF interests.
Corruption and Congress
In addition to that there were issues related to corruption. Though there were leaders from LDF also involved in corruption, VS Achuthanandan was very successful in projecting UDF as a formation of corrupt leaders. Judgements in cases involving Balakrishna Pillai also came and it was timely for the LDF. Corruption was another matter. 2G scam and commonwealth corruption deals involving senior congress men also negatively impacted congress image. Many people here equated inaction of Prime Minister in 2G spectrum as corruption. While Congress at the Center sent out a message of inaction and their soft stand on corruption, in Kerala VS Achuthanandan gave out an impression to the public that he is the only hope when it comes to fighting corruption.
Inflation and Cochin Metro Project Delay
Prices of essential commodities were all rising. Already several times petroleum prices went up at a frequency of 15 to 20 days. Family budgets went for a tussle. All sections of society, were at the receiving end , may be except Ministers, MPs,MLAs, bureaucrats and the rich class. Voters were waiting for an opportunity to send a message to the party or formation responsible for price rise. Onion prices sky-rocketed but actions to curtail it came very late after middlemen achieving their goals. For a watchful electorate as that of Kerala, this was more than enough to vote against the state level partners of UPA. Similarly, when sanctioning of Cochin Metro Rail project, statement by Planning Commission deputy chief Montek Singh’s statement that Cochin metro as a non-feasible project brought out confusions and contradictions in the matter of policies with regard to public transport. On the one hand there is de-controlled pricing policy in petroleum sector causing prices going up making the life of all sections difficult and on the other hand planning commission chief of India making a comment that he won’t favor creation of cheaper public transport infrastructure investment. Everything together gave an impression that, UPA government as anti-poor and anti-people and they are there for protecting the interests of corporates. Most of the traditional congress supporters whom I spoke were all too much disgusted with price rise, petroleum pricing scenario, UPA – planning commission stand on Cochin metro and such other matters.
Congress’s Organizational weaknesses
Other aspects that went against the Congress is its organizational weakness and over confidence. Congress and UDF were overconfident from the very beginning and they were so sure of a victory, says, CK Vishwanath a political observer. District Congress Committees ( DCCs )in most districts are ineffective. Organizational positions are held by cronies of senior leaders. How many of them have got real organizational skills, grass-roots support base need to be looked into.
Import of candidates is always something that the local leaders always used to resist. Unfortunately, imported candidates could not get assimilated well this time and UDF had to pay the price. Though people aspired for a change in Kerala, voters and even UDF supporters were irritated over such many things. Congress leaders and PCC leadership should understand that the time of recommendations and connections being a factor in selecting party candidates as well as organizational office bearers has to be ended. Central leadership and youth brigade should understand that winning election is not a child’s play in Kerala. Fixing quotas for youth or any other particular section won’t do any good when it comes to winning a major electoral battle. Candidates win-ability should have been the major factor in selecting party candidates. Also, time has come for Congress leadership to incorporate people from local levels at the party leadership. Their upward growth in the party hierarchy should also be ensured. There should be more transparency in organizational matters especially in selection of party office bearers and candidates.
VS Achuthanandan as the Moral Crusader
Achuthanandan’s comeback as the Chief Ministerial candidate also helped LDF gain support from civil society and community based organizations. Achuthanandan could emerge as a moral crusader of Kerala society says Vishwanath,. He could really speak what people felt regarding corruption, inflation and other pertinent issues. UDF lacked such a leader, says Vishwanath and .. ‘when VM Sudheeran declined to contest the election, UDF lost a leader who could counter Achuthanandan’s moral crusader image’. Achuthanandan could also raise some hopes in the developmental front when stand-still with regard to smart city project in Koch could be ended.
Communal Political Strategy of UDF Partners
2011 election also proved that the communal vote base of Kerala Congress (M) was too shallow and they have no committed vote bank. It is a well known practice of Kerala Congress factions to count all Christian votes as their committed vote bank and bargain for seats wherever there are few Christian population. In Tiruvalla, a constituency considered to be a Kerala Congress Mani stronghold was proved to be wrong. Throughout all the wards in that constituency, LDF gained considerable lead, proving that communal political strategy can boomerang. Here LDF defeated Kerala Congress ( Mani) candidate by more than 10,000 votes. Kerala Congress Mani, in a coalition context, bargain for their seats and continuously win elections. It is an interesting phenomenon. Mr. K M Mani and his party may not have any obvious communal objective but their political strategy is communal and that encouraged communalism in Kerala politics. In fact such political practices have deeply divided Kerala society on communal lines.
To Conclude, it was the image building exercise done successfully in the last three months prior to the polling by LDF led by VS Achuthanandan made the elections such a closely fought battle. BJP could gain more votes. Congress’s overconfidence and their failure to counter PR and media onslaught by LDF was also a major factor along with the moral crusader image of VS Achuthanandan and that helped neutralize anti-incumbency factor very much. Though UDF could regain power, it would be difficult for the front managers to play the coalition politics as earlier in such an overcrowded coalition.