Politics in Kerala very much follows the revolving door policy. In one election the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is in office, the next time around without fail, the comrades are out and the United Democratic Front (UDF) is in.
So, if past record is anything to go by, it is exit time for the UDF now after the elections. And indeed there are many reasons why the UDF led by chief minister Oommen Chandy should be shown the door.
The ongoing solar scam has shed a lot of harsh light on the dark dealings of those close to Mr Chandy, and on the CM himself. To add colour to the whole thing is a woman Sarita Nair, who is now in the clink for misappropriation and cheating in the solar scam and who is singing like a canary. The burden of her song is Mr Chandy’s complicity, and, somewhat incredulously, an allegation that he sexually abused her. The CM, who prides himself on his personal honesty and dresses the part often in torn and tattered shirts replete with ink stains, has put up a shambolic defence.
But the many travails of Mr Chandy and his partners, former finance minister KM Mani included, can be of little comfort to the Left. The battle hardened veteran VS Achuthanandan, who enjoys the kind of hysterical adoration which is worthy of a Justin Beiber among the young, has thrown his hat in the ring. His arch enemy and state party chief Pinarayi Vijayan, all angles and anger, is also in the fray. This is quite clearly thanks to the diplomatic skills of the affable party general secretary Sitaram Yechury.
But, the question of who will be chief minister if the Left wins is already exercising the party. It cannot afford to sideline Mr Achuthanandan as it did to its peril under the regime of the glacial Prakash Karat, former general secretary of the party. It cannot afford to alienate Mr Vijayan, who controls a substantial portion of the rank and file.
Yet, the passion which accompanies these almost predictable elections is missing in Kerala this time around. Mr Chandy has been in overdrive inaugurating projects before the Election Commission’s clampdown as is clear from the many foundation stones across the state. The state’s notoriously uneven roads are now as smooth as Hema Malini’s cheeks, albeit a dream girl past her prime. The reflector lights on the road are worthy of an airstrip.
Across the state, there is considerable sympathy for Mr Achuthanandan. “We should give him a chance, as this will be his last shot at power,” said a cheery houseboat owner to me. Business and tourism in the state are on a downward curve thanks to Chandy’s near evangelical drive against alcohol. So all bars and establishments now serve wine and beer, not any other sort of liquor. For the Malayali, more than fond of a drop, these are namby pamby drinks. The number of fatalities from adulterated liquor has shown an increase, the latest victim allegedly being popular cine actor Kalabhavan Mani. The normal elections excitement is markedly absent, rather religious processions galore are out and about on the roads.
If it is not some temple utsav, it is a line of mournful Christians commemorating some significant day or other. Deprived of throwing it down the hatch, the alcohol-dependent seem to find solace in the so-called bakery items so popular in Kerala. Of course, most of them get the names of popular confectionaries totally wrong, e.g. milly filly cake but a sugar rush is the order of the day, it would seem. I saw quite a crowd outside the quaintly name Kunju’s jam rolls, though I never actually got to see the said rolls.
The posters of politicians put up in anticipation of the elections are dwarfed in all corners of the state by advertisements for gold. The swarthy visage of the evergreen Mohanlal sells delicate gold jewellery and promotes gold pledging in lieu of cash. Other filmstars, none of whom could be described as particularly fetching, sell a variety of products from villas to cement. Until now, unlike in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, they were rarely present in the electoral fray. This time around, some film actors have been roped in to campaign and as candidates, evidence of the desperation among political parties to come up with what they think is a bit of novelty in these almost boring elections.
Kerala is clearly disenchanted with both the LDF and UDF. A new formation is yet to take shape despite the best efforts of BJP party president Amit Shah to bring together the Hindus of all castes on one platform. This is easier said than done, given the age-old loyalties of the electorate to the Left and Congress. But the BJP’s vote share, which did not translate into seats, had gone up in the last Lok Sabha election. There is anger and disenchantment with both the UDF and LDF as the job market shrinks and the opportunities in the Gulf dwindle. Establishments and start-ups open and shut with clockwork regularity.
I see new saloons, bars, showrooms and now malls every time I go visiting, only to find they have vanished the next time around. This time I noted that far away from his Oscar triumph for the Revenant Leonardo di Caprio is the face of the new Zookie hair salon and lounge near Kochi. Not too far from that, Gwen Stefani advertises yet another beauty parlour.
At the risk of sounding like a Cassandra, things are not likely to get any better whether it is the LDF or UDF which comes to power. The people accept that they are six of one and half a dozen of the other. The ideas are tired, the faces are tired, the beginnings of the campaign are lackadaisical. No one even seems to be trying hard enough. Not even the electorate seems able to whip up the sort of interest and passion which goes along with elections. A dismal turn of events for God’s own country.