Swinging between two secular fronts - Hindustan Times

Swinging between two secular fronts

Apr 23, 2024 12:06 AM IST

Pragmatism has defined Kerala’s electoral choices in state and parliamentary elections

Kerala’s assembly elections of 1977 were groundbreaking in many ways. Held a week before the lifting of the Emergency, the elections, for the first time, brought an incumbent political front to power for a second consecutive term. The beneficiary was the Congress-led United Front, which included the Communist Party of India (CPI). Indira Gandhi’s arch-loyalist, K Karunakaran, became the new chief minister after his dubious record as the state’s repressive home minister during the Emergency. The election saw many stalwarts of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M), including KR Gouri Amma and VS Achuthanandan, biting the dust and even EMS Namboodiripad, managing only to scrape through. The result provoked eminent Malayalam litterateur Paul Zacharia, then living in Delhi, to deride Malayalis as frogs in the well, notwithstanding their tall claims about literacy and political wisdom, for failing to rise with the poor and illiterate of North India who ended Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian rule.

A woman walks past a wall filled with campaign posters of various candidates contesting in India’s parliamentary elections at the Thiruvananthapuram constituency, southern Kerala state, Monday, April 22, 2024. The state goes to polls on April 26. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)(AP) PREMIUM
A woman walks past a wall filled with campaign posters of various candidates contesting in India’s parliamentary elections at the Thiruvananthapuram constituency, southern Kerala state, Monday, April 22, 2024. The state goes to polls on April 26. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)(AP)

Kerala’s electoral behaviour has often been unique. In 1957, it elected the first non-Congress government, barely a decade after Independence. That the victor was the CPI, banned until six years previously for calling for the armed revolution against the newly born independent India’s first government, was even more stunning. The tiny state’s Left turn also made global headlines as one of the world’s earliest instances of the Communists coming to power through the ballot box. Some western observers even called Kerala the “Yenan of India” after the Chinese province’s capital where the Red Army first established its base. Some saw the southern state as the new laboratory for Communism’s tryst with parliamentary democracy as they were the days of the Soviet president Nikita Khrushchev’s dramatic exposure of his predecessor Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. More than six decades later, the Communists still hold sway in Kerala, much after they have nearly vanished from the rest of the world, including India’s only two other states where they ruled for decades.

However, Malayalis have never been blind loyalists of any party, including the Communists. They voted them out of power and brought them back when they chose. Kerala is the only state that has shifted electoral loyalty from one political front to another with near regularity. If it elected the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI(M) in one election, it rooted for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the next. Whoever won, the margins were razor-thin in almost every assembly election. Many have found this highly competitive political race an excellent advantage to the state as no party could take the voter for granted or abuse power much. There have been only two exceptions to this 67-year-long pattern. The rival fronts shared even the exceptions equally. If the ruling United Front (UDF’s former avatar) came to power back-to-back in 1977, it was the LDF’s turn in 2021.

The cyclical pattern continued even after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) emerged, posing itself as the alternative to Kerala’s “political Tweedledee and the Tweedledum”. However, the Malayali largely ignored the saffron party, which won its only assembly seat in history in 2016 but lost it in the next election. Even after the Hindutva juggernaut drove into the South, the BJP never won a single Lok Sabha seat in Kerala.

Another unique Malayali voting behaviour is their conflicting preferences for the legislature and Parliament. The see-saw game between the two rival fronts witnessed in the assembly elections vanishes in the Lok Sabha polls. In the 11 elections since 1980, when the two fronts came into being, the UDF won more Lok Sabha seats eight times and the LDF only twice — in 1980 and 2004. Once (1996), the fronts shared the spoils equally, taking 10 each.

However, dual voting did not happen when elections were held simultaneously (only twice) in the assembly and Lok Sabha. The LDF romped home in the assembly and Lok Sabha in the first instance (1980), and the UDF in 1991. But, the dominant pattern was visible even when elections to the assembly and Lok Sabha were held close to each other. While the UDF swept 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the incumbent LDF grabbed an unprecedented consecutive term, winning 99 of the 140 seats in the assembly two years later.

To many observers, this “dialectics” owes to the Malayali’s sense of pragmatism overtaking ideology. From 1957 to 1967, the Left enjoyed the upper hand even in the Lok Sabha elections. In the country’s first general election of 1951-52, the CPI emerged as the main Opposition party in Parliament, and the redoubtable Communist AK Gopalan was respectfully treated as the Opposition leader (there was no such formal post in Parliament till 1969) by former Prime Minister (PM) Nehru. Many even dreamt during those days of the red flag soon flying over the Red Fort (“Lal kile mein Lal Nishan”). However, the CPI split in 1964, with one faction allying with the Congress and the newly formed CPI(M) joining the Opposition.

Consequently, the Left’s votes and seats were also split in the later elections, and the hope of the red star rising began to fade. This appears to have made Malayali voters introspect why they should vote for the Left, which stood no chance of coming to power at the Centre. From 1971, the Congress has outscored the CPI (M) in 10 of the 13 general elections until 2019.

India’s politics changed dramatically by the second decade of the 21st century. The Congress has been out of power since 2014. The 2019 UDF landslide owed much to hopes of a Congress recovery and Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Kerala when he was projected as the potential PM. However, nationally, the Congress could only marginally improve its worst-ever performance of 2014. Its chances in 2024 also do not appear too bright sans big surprises. Will the Malayali’s realism trump ideology again to favour the current national favourites — the BJP — when they vote this coming Friday? Unlikely, since it may not be as smooth as a shift from one secular party to another. At least, just as yet.

MG Radhakrishnan is a writer and broadcaster based in Thiruvananthapuram. The views expressed are personal

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