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Kerala's fading red and the blooming lotus

Jun 15, 2024 11:38 AM IST

In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP opened its account for the first time through actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi, who contested from Thrissur

Among the Christian leaders in Kerala, emeritus bishop Ghevarghese Mar Coorilos of the Niranam diocese of the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church was always an aberration.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in this file photo. PREMIUM
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in this file photo.

Detractors within the community often described the veteran theologian as a ‘communist’ for his strong radical observations and unflinching loyalty to the state's ruling CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).

Wearing the traditional clergy dress, he used to address CPI-(M) dharnas and protest marches against what the party called the anti-people policies of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre.

In the state where Christians constitute 18.38% of voters, Coorilos has always remained a critic of the rest of the bishops, who, according to him, have deviations towards rightist and regressive forces, mainly those affiliated with the Congress, by abandoning the Left.

Coorilos was also the face of the LDF campaign, warning different church denominations for affiliations with the BJP, which allegedly targeted the Christians in Manipur communally.

Above all, he was a close confidant ochief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who has led the LDF government for the last eight years.

However, a social media post by the bishop criticising the Vijayan government for LDF’s poor performance in the recently concluded Lok Sabha election has turned him into a persona non grata t the chief minister and his cronies in the ruling front.

A furious Vijayan’s “idiot” barb directed at the bishop while addressing a public function drew eyeballs.

Vijayan made strong exceptions to the bishop's remark that an accident would be inevitable if a vehicle that indicated a signal to the left suddenly moved in the right direction, violating all traffic norms.

Also Read: ‘Congress stand aligns with Sangh Parivar’: Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan slams INDIA ally

With Vijayan's cyber supporters targeting the bishop by terming him an opportunist, Coorilos has turned into a prodigal son of the left.

But Vijayan's snubbing has provoked angry reactions from many fellow travellers of the left, who repeated what the bishop wrote on social media: “If they don't learn from the continuous shock treatment being given by the people, the Left in Kerala would be in a situation similar to the one existing in West Bengal and Tripura.”

Considering the electoral outcome, they argue that Kerala would no longer be the last citadel of the Indian left if no corrective measures were taken.

In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP opened its account for the first time through actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi, who contested central Kerala's left citadel, Thrissur.

Moreover, the BJP has emerged first in 12 assembly constituencies across the state.

At present, the BJP's representation in the legislative assembly is zero.

"It's true that the red turns saffron in different parts of the state largely because of the large-scale corruption, nepotism, and irregularities happening under the second Vijayan government. LDF had won all the assembly constituencies forming part of Thrissur in the 2021 election, and now the anti-incumbency spoiled its chances. However, the party still accuses Congress of transferring its votes to Gopi to ensure his victory. Vijayan seems not ready to learn any lesson, as reflected in his arrogant reaction to the bishop," said MN Karassery, a writer, academic, and long-time left fellow traveller.

When Vijayan took the oath as the chief minister for the first time in 2016, he was widely described as a canny politician with an iron fist who seldom tolerated the voices of dissent.

He had a long track record of being ruthless with rivals inside and outside the party and had an uneasy relationship with the media.

Critics described him as the state's most feared and toughest politician.

After eight years in power and despite a poor election performance this time, with the LDF winning only one of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state, Vijayan has not changed much.

Despite showing administrative acumen during the devastating flood of 2018 and the COVID-induced pandemic later, his public image as a harsh and rigid politician with zero tolerance for dissent continues to grow.

Even those who credit him with pulverising UDF in the 2021 assembly election by winning 99 of the 140 seats are now demanding a change in Vijayan's style of functioning.

Vijayan emerged to the leadership as the strong man of its North Kerala fortress, Kannur.

Popular among his fans as 'Captain', Vijayan led the left's campaign in Kerala this time without allowing party’s national leaders like Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat to take centre stage.

Riding on the poll plank of the Congress's incompetence in taking on the BJP, he targeted the former using harsh language, even though the CPI-(M) is a key partner of the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) bloc alliance at the national level.

His outbursts against Rahul Gandhi, terming him a poor leader with instability have not gone well with voters in the state.

His claim of Congress cheating Muslims in the country over its silence on the Citizenship (Amendment) Act issue has ruffled feathers and also prompted secular and liberal forces in the state to switch over their loyalty to the UDF, which won 18 seats.

"If the prevailing situation continues, it will wipe out the left of Kerala with the UDF recapturing power and the BJP's larger presence in the assembly. The local body elections are nearing, and the assembly election will be just two years away. A course correction is inevitable for the left in Kerala, as that would also be crucial for its national existence," said J Devika, a political analyst and faculty member of the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram.

With the disintegration of CPI-(M) units in West Bengal and Tripura, Vijayan has started wielding absolute control over the party at the national and state level.

With his staunch loyalists placed in key positions in the party organisation, he is now in total control of the party.

That is one reason no large-scale discussions on course correction are happening in the party, despite the humiliating electoral route.

After sidelining his one-time mentor, VS Achuthanandan, in a bitterly fought inner-party dispute more than 15 years ago, he emerged as the last word of CPI-(M) in Kerala. He also has clear sway over the minor alliance partners in the LDF.

Vijayan has had several run-ins with those critical of his party or his government in the past.

In 2007, as then CPM state secretary, he called the then bishop of Thamarassery Diocese, Paul Chittilapally, a "wretched creature" for allegedly lying that former CPI (M) lawmaker Mathai Chacko had been given the last sacrament according to his wish.

He also publicly used profanity against RSP leader and Kollam MP NK Premachandran.

"In the last eight years, he has been doing social engineering to get Christians into the LDF fold along with a sizable portion of Muslims. Despite his overtures, many Christians in Thrissur voted for Gopi, and the BJP opened its account in the state. Now, in the post-election, the powerful Jacobite and Orthodox denominations of the church are terming the continuing Manipur violence as an after-effect of traditional rivalry between different tribes, and it has no anti-Christian aspect. Catholics are yet to subscribe to this theory, but some of their bishops favour more associations with the BJP. Vijayan has to change his style to reverse the emerging trend," said leading Kerala-based economist Mary George.

Even CPI-(M) leaders P Jayarajan and MV Jayarajan, who were close confidants of Vijayan until then, have demanded deep investigation and corrections from the party.

MV Jayarajan also blamed those who handled the party's social media pages for being impatient with criticism and making all those with different voices enemies.

Leaders agree that the LDF won only one seat despite an efficient campaign and fielding heavy-hitter candidates in several key constituencies. Also, unlike 2019, there was no discernible pro-UDF wave nor a burning issue like women's entry to Sabarimala, making the LDF route this time a political problem.

The 2024 results in constituencies such as Alappuzha and Attingal show that voting in a major section of the Ezhava community—considered the party's backbone—in favour of the BJP affected the prospects of LDF candidates.

The erosion of votes has happened in the left strongholds.

For instance, in a party bastion like Thaliparamba in Kannur, represented by CPM state secretary MV Govindan in the assembly, UDF candidate K Sudhakaran managed to secure a lead of 8,787 votes. While LDF had secured 80,719 votes in the assembly segment in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, it has come down to 75,544 votes this time.

Also, LDF's Kannur candidate MV Jayarajan could secure only wafer-thin leads of 2,616 votes in the Dharmadom assembly constituency, where Vijayan had won with a margin of over 50,123 votes in 2021 assembly polls.

In ten constituencies, the Left candidates were defeated by a huge margin of over one lakh votes.

Political observers feel that the vote erosion in Left strongholds cannot be viewed as part of the traditional pattern where people generally prefer UDF in Parliament elections and has more to do with anti-incumbency against the LDF government in the state.

Also, the CPM campaign's excessive focus on Muslim votes and underpinning its entire campaign on issues like CAA, the Gaza invasion, and the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) backfired.

In his reaction, Vijayan said that the opposition need not seek his resignation for the LDF loss in the Lok Sabha election. Instead, the UDF should ponder why there was an erosion in its votes, especially in Thrissur, he said.

In Kerala, the general election was fought on the anti-incumbency factor against the PM Narendra Modi-led government and the poor performance of 19 sitting UDF MPs.

Then there was the anti-incumbency factor against the Vijayan-led government.

The BJP, after a decade-long attempt, successfully brought together the Hindu community beyond caste separation for the first time. Earlier, the BJP received a majority of the Nair community votes. However, the pattern in this election shows the BJP has gone beyond that. Without support from the Ezhava community, they could not have made this progress," observed J Prabhash, a retired political science professor at Kerala University.

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