Kerala: The UDF’s imminent return in God’s Own Country

While ‘national’ opinion polls suggest the BJP could open its account in Kerala this time with two LS seats, surveys in Kerala say otherwise

Rahul Gandhi at a rally in his constituency of Wayanad, Kerala
Rahul Gandhi at a rally in his constituency of Wayanad, Kerala

Alex Chandy

In a two-horse race in Kerala, the ‘national’ opinion polls suggest the BJP could open its account this time with two seats. The state, with 20 Lok Sabha seats, goes to the polls on 26 April.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi toured again in the week preceding, for the sixth time in recent months. The catch is that none of the surveys in Kerala has given the BJP even a single seat.

BJP supporters were indeed elated when the Left Democratic Front (LDF) declared its candidates ahead of the United Democratic Front (UDF). It became clear that there would be no seat adjustment in Kerala (or indeed in West Bengal, where the Left has an adversarial relationship with the ruling Trinamool Congress) between these two strategic allies in the INDIA bloc. The RSS has been holding shakhas in the state for the past four decades and claims to have more shakhas in Kerala than anywhere else.

However, local surveys and the popular mood on the street seem to indicate that once again the UDF, led by the Congress, will record a big win in the state. In 2019, the alliance won 19 of the 20 seats and this time, even Congress supporters concede, the UDF tally could come down by a seat or two and the LDF could make a difference to the winning margin.

Even Rahul Gandhi, all set to win the election from Wayanad, could see the victory margin come down because of some spirited campaigning by Annie Raja of the CPI. Nobody, however, doubts the eventual outcome.

Rahul Gandhi, explains an activist, has been handicapped by the complete lack of cooperation from both the Central government and the LDF government in the state. He could not do as much for the constituency as he might have wished to but still, he has done enough and said enough to win his constituents’ hearts. Biju Shivaraman of Sultan Bathery also believes that the Congress leader is handicapped by the Congress not being in power either in the state or at the Centre.

BJP’s K. Surendran also upset people when he announced that if the party won, Sultan Bathery’s name would be changed to Ganapathi Vattam. That, Biju says, put people off. “They are not ready for that,” he said.

Malyalees are not interested in Modi’s ‘guarantees’, it would seem. They seem to value a different set of guarantees, the guarantee of living in harmony, the guarantee of equal religious rights and the guarantee of living without fear.

Union minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar (Thiruvananthapuram) and Suresh Gopi (Thrissur) are the two BJP hopefuls that the party is betting on. Can they pull it off? “Not likely,” says Dr Valson Thampu, former principal of St Stephen’s College in New Delhi, who has settled in Thiruvananthapuram. The candidates put up by both the UDF and the LDF, he says, are way better than the BJP candidates.

“Muslims are highly unlikely to vote for the BJP and they are about 28 per cent of the voters. The memory of atrocities in Dangs in Gujarat, the brutal murder of the missionary Graham Staines in Kandhamal in Odisha, continued attacks on churches and nuns, besides the relentless anti-conversion rhetoric, the death of Fr Stan Swamy in custody and the Manipur pogrom are still fresh for Christians,” he points out. People are unlikely to be seduced by the prime minister, he says.

“His stepmotherly treatment of the state and the earlier insult when he compared Kerala with Somalia have not been forgotten yet,” says Dr Thampu.

The sentiment is shared by the head of the Mar Thoma Church, Theodosius Mar Thoma XXII Metropolitan in the church’s mouthpiece, Sabha Tharaka. He urged the community to vote for a government that does not deviate from the basic tenets of the Constitution. He also pointed out that the use of the CAA to divide people is dangerous. "The move to differentiate Indian citizens on religious grounds has to be opposed," the Bishop wrote.

That said, several political observers and political commentators are willing to concede that the BJP’s Suresh Gopi has a “wafer-thin edge” over his UDF rival K. Muralidharan in Thrissur, citing one of the local surveys. Rajeev Chandrasekhar, by all accounts, is not posing any real threat to the UDF’s Shashi Tharoor, the sitting MP.

Chandrasekhar, who lives in Bengaluru and is a billionaire, is not only having to fight the ‘outsider’ tag but has got himself embroiled in a controversy over the declaration of his wealth in his electoral affidavit. The Congress has complained to the Election Commission, accusing the Union minister of giving false information.

The complaint alleges that he did not disclose his ownership of a palatial house in Koramangala in Bengaluru, disclosed that he paid an income tax of just Rs 638 (possible?) and a paltry total wealth of around Rs 60 crore. The commission has forwarded the complaint to the CBDT (Central Board of Direct Taxes) for inquiry. This has only helped to prolong the controversy, to the embarrassment and discomfort of the minister.

Activist J.S. Adoor cites high anti-incumbency against the Vijayan government in the state as a crucial factor helping the UDF. “The fiscal crisis in the state has snowballed to catastrophic proportions,” he claims.

The real estate sector is stagnant, social security pensions are not being paid, fair price shops are not functioning properly, hundreds of Kudumbashree outlets for women which offered meals at Rs 20 have been closed down, the midday meal scheme in schools was stopped, electricity charges have gone up by 40 per cent, water charges are up three times, house tax, land tax, construction taxes have all gone up, he lists. Together, they have a great impact on the middle and upper-middle classes.

Remittances from mostly the Gulf region have also come down to 12 per cent, from 20 per cent in the last few years. The Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation is in a debt trap and salaries and pensions are pending for many months. The education sector is also taking a beating. Nine of the state universities do not have full-time vice chancellors because of the tussle between the governor and the state government. Most of the government hospitals are without medicines.

“It is a case of over-promising and under-delivering,” says Adoor, who thinks “UDF can use all this to their advantage if only they take it to the people in the right way because the main voters are the ones who are suffering”.

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