Hat trick by Oommen Chandy

Sabarinath with CM

K. S. Sabarinath (Right) with Oommen Chandy

It was a hat-trick victory for Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the ruling Front in Aruvikkara Assembly constituency on Tuesday. The United Democratic Front (UDF) had won by-elections earlier at Neyyattinkara and Piravom after Mr. Chandy came to power in 2011.

The result indicates that Mr. Chandy’s mass contact strategy is still working though some might be disappointed by the unchanging face of bureaucracy. It also shows that the corruption charges against the government did not have the impact that the Opposition hoped for. The failure of the candidate put up by UDF dissident P. C. George to garner even one per cent of the votes perhaps underlines this.

The UDF had cleverly fielded a new face in the election instead of a seasoned politician. Now, almost every citizen know that politicians routinely take money from businessmen including bar and quarry owners for doing favours. But UDF candidate K. S. Sabarinadhan could not be grouped with them as he has not been in politics before.

Vote sharesHowever, it is notable that opposition parties, including BJP, and NOTA carried away a vote share of 56.87 per cent while UDF’s vote share dropped by 9.17 percentage points (from 48.78% to 39.61%.). The Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) suffered a loss of 7.1 percentage points (from 39.61% to 32.51%). NOTA polled one per cent of the votes. The vote share of BJP increased by nearly four-fold from 6.61 per cent to 23.96 per cent.

It showed that BJP could extend the advances it made in Thiruvananthapuram at least partially to neighbouring constituencies provided that it has the right candidate and political climate. BJP’s O. Rajagopal had won 33.3 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha polls from Thiruvananthapuram constituency in 2014. Now, he has won 23.96 per cent votes from a neighbouring Assembly segment.

This does not mean that BJP can duplicate the performance in the Assembly elections in 2016. It simply lacks candidates of the stature of Mr. Rajagopal to be fielded in other constituencies. It is also notable that Mr. Rajagopal’s popularity is not as strong as in Thriuvananthapuram in Aruvikkara. His appeal may have also diminished compared to the time of Modi wave and loss of popularity of Shashi Tharoor (who defeated him in Thiruvananthapuram).

However, the BJP’s performance is a clear warning to both the UDF and LDF. They will lose votes if people find an alternative, perhaps even NOTA, if they take the voters for granted. People are also not ignoring issues like development. The UDF lost a lead in Aruvikkara panchayat of Aruvikkara constituency over issues of local development. It won because BJP took away votes of LDF also. by-electionRelated Post:
Crucial battle for Oommen Chandy in Kerala

Crucial battle for Oommen Chandy in Kerala

The by-election from Aruvikkara constituency in Kerala is a crucial battle for Ommen Chandy government, beleaguered by corruption charges.
Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has taken it upon himself to win the election by fielding a novice. He has already addressed or interacted directly with half of the electorate in the constituency.

by-election

Finale of by-election campaign in Aruvikkara constituency in Kerala. Photos: Roy Mathew

A victory in Aruvikkara will enable Mr. Chandy to claim that his government still has people’s support. The ruling Front will be winning the third by-election after coming to power in 2011. (It had earlier won by-elections from Neyyattinkara and Piravom).

A defeat would show that support for government has slipped. This would encourage his detractors and he will face increasing pressure over corruption, questionable associations and misdemeanors of his Ministers and his own office. Though challenge to Mr. Chandy’s Chief- Ministership is not as strong as before, a defeat in the by-election can spell serious trouble for Mr. Chandy.

The campaigning is throwing out characteristics of a neck to neck race. However, the chances of the ruling Front (UDF) or Opposition Front (LDF) making a significant advance at the finish line could not be ruled out. The UDF candidate K. S. Sabarinathan, being a novice, has the advantage of being unblemished. The LDF candidate M. Vijayakumar, on the other hand, has to carry his own baggage. He faces an unusual situation of a counter affidavit having filed against his affidavit given as part of his nomination papers.

electionThis may be first time that a counter gets filed against an affidavit filed by a candidate. This could now become a trend in future elections.
The BJP candidate O. Rajagopal is sure to carry away a notable number of votes from the UDF and LDF kitty. He had been runner up in elections from Thiruvananthapuram.

His party’s vote share in Aruvikkara in the Assembly election of 2011 was only less than seven per cent. Mr. Rajagopal, who is popular around Thiruvananthapuram, and his foray into an adjoining area is sure to increase BJP’s votes.

Related links:
Kerala Assembly election database
By-election results: Neyyattinkara and Piravom

Oommen Chandy’s last trial

Chief Minister

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy with Industries Minister P. K. Kunhalikutty, Vice Chairman of State Planning Board K. M. Chandrasekhar and some members of his personal staff. Joppan, accused in the solar scam is just behind Mr. Chandy

Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been called to Delhi for discussions. This will be his last trial as far as his continuation in office is concerned.

Mr. Chandy has tided over the solar scam which threatened to unseat him. Though at a cost, he has practically defeated the Opposition, silenced his opponent group in the party for the time being and brought peace with government Chief Whip P. C. George, who is vice president of the third major party in the ruling front; besides making the media that campaigned against him look ridiculous.

However, his victory could still be unconvincing for the Congress high command. The question that would worry the high command is whether Mr. Chandy could lead the ruling Front in the State to victory in the coming Lok Sabha polls. Congress party’s leverage in the scenario after election would be determined by seats won in the South.  And the message the party is getting from some Congress and other Front leaders in the State is not very positive.

It is notable that both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s office as well as Mr. Chandy’s Office has come under allegations. Mr. Singh is facing bigger charges than Mr. Chandy. So, the Congress high command will hesitate to ask Mr. Chandy to step down. Yet, it is notable that Mr. Singh has already expressed willingness to step aside. Will Mr. Chandy also be persuaded to step aside as he names the judge for judicial enquiry into the scam in a few weeks time? It will depend on how far Mr. Chandy could convince the high command that he could lead the party to win substantial number of Lok Sabha seats from the State.

A. K. Antony’s criticism is a warning to Congress-led coalition in Kerala

Defence Minister A. K. Antony has issued a warning to the UDF government in Kerala by expressing his anguish over the situation in Kerala at a function of Indo-Russian firm BrahMos Aerospace in Thiruvananthapuram.  The Defence Minister said that though Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and P. K. Kunhalikutty have been asking for projects for the State, he was not courageous enough to locate any project in Kerala after the UDF government came to power.

Defence Minister A. K. Antony

Defence Minister A. K. Antony in his office in New Delhi

Though Antony did not say it directly, he was warning that the Congress led coalition in the State (UDF) would not be able to retain the seats it had won in the last Lok Saba Elections unless its performance improves. It is significant that his warning comes at a time when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has reshuffled his Cabinet with a view to the elections due in 2014. As the Number Two in the Union Cabinet, Antony has to see that the Congress performs well in the next elections.

The UDF had won 16 seats in the last Lok Sabha election out of 20. Every school boy knows that the Front would not be able to retain them in the next elections under the present circumstances, not to speak of winning more seats.  When he was the Chief Minister in the State, Mr. Antony had not been able to lead the Front to a victory in the Assembly elections. As Union Minister he wants to be one who has contributed to victory of the Front in the next Lok Sabha elections.  However, he is admitting that he was unable to do anything for the State because of the situation in the State. He was not getting the cooperation he wanted.

It is also notable that Mr. Antony praised the (previous) LDF government in Kerala. He knows only too well that the Congress will have to fall back on the Left too if it did not win enough seats to form a government at the Centre.  So, he is building bridges. It is also a fact the previous government had facilitated establishment of defence projects in the State.

Antony could also be concerned about a number of other issues.  There is growing discord among the ruling Front constituents. They are even making unethical bargains. The front could lose votes if Congress played to their tunes on some of the controversial positions they are taking. There is also considerable discord in the Congress. The proposed reorganisation of KPCC is getting delayed. All this should worry Mr. Antony more than anyone else. So, it is not surprising that he has fired a salvo against the UDF government, though he is unlikely to repeat that as elections come closer.  The crucial point is how far the Congress and UDF constituents in the State would heed his warning and act in larger interests.

Tailpiece:
Above all these, there is a personal factor to Mr. Antony’s criticism. Image-conscious Antony is hurt by the fact that allegations had been raised over the take over the Kerala Hitech Industries by joint venture Brahmos Aerospace and that neither Mr. Chandy nor Kunhalikutty had come to his defence. In fact, the INTUC unit in the company joined hands with the AITUC union which raised the allegations. Mr. Antony would not have voiced his concerns openly but for this factor. His remarks stemmed from personal hurt and diminishing influence in Kerala politics. (Revised and tailpiece added as post script on 17/11/2011).

The politics of green politicians in Kerala

The green brigade in the UDF in Kerala is striking a distinct position compared to rest of the members of the Assembly in the Front. They have also started using the new media for their campaign.  (T. N. Pratapan, V. D. Satheesan, V. T. Balram and Hibi Eden (Congress) K. M. Shaji  (Muslim League )and  M. V. Sreeyams Kumar (SJD) are blogging at GreenThoughtsKerala)

Title image of blog of the MLAs

Title image of blog by V. D. Satheesan, T. N. Pratapan, M. V. Sreeyams Kumar, V. T. Balram, K. M. Shaji and Hibi Eden

The scenario in the Assembly has been changing over the past decade with more members coming forward to propound the cause of environment. The Legislative Committee on Environment has over the years produced well-studied reports. Two decades ago, K. V. Surendranath of CPI was the only member campaigning for environmental causes. On the other side people like Seethi Haji (IUML) asked how it rained at sea if forests were required for precipitation.  Now, there are several members both in the ruling and Opposition fronts wanting to protect the environment. They include Opposition Leader V. S. Achuthanandan who once spoke against environmentalists.

However, a question would arise as to how deep their commitments are.  Are they simply moving with the tide or playing politics? It is notable that almost all members of the green brigade are people who had missed out on ministerial positions. They have an axe to grind against Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and other UDF leaders.  And they know that fighting corruption from within a la Achuthanandan has a market. Yet, that does not make the causes they are expounding less important.

Yes, they are indeed playing politics and it is notable that Mr. Chandy and industries Minister P. K. Kunhalikutty are in the defensive.  Mr. Chandy even said that they are doing the campaign because they are sincere.  May be, people can trust them more than Mr. Achuthanandan who is also expounding the same causes.

If they are sincere, they will persist. Mr. Achuthanandan forgot many of the causes he expounded when he came to power. The litmus test for green politicians of UDF too would be what they do when they come to power.

Update: Well, we did not have to wait until they come to power to know how steadfast they would be on their views. The green politicians are now supporting tourism projects such as that proposed in Nelliyampathy disregarding questions whether the land proposed to be used for such projects are forests or environmentally fragile areas. They do say that they changed their stand because Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has conceded their demands including environmental impact assessment of all projects under Emerging Kerala initiative.

Dissent in UDF and LDF

Both the ruling and Opposition fronts in Kerala are plagued by divisions. However, these should be viewed as positive signs for the State’s polity. For, the divisions are over political morality.

The Congress and the Muslim League were and are at odds over certain issues ranging from induction of the fifth League Minister in the Cabinet to several policies in the education sector. However, the Leaders of both parties have seen to it they don’t spill over to affect governance and cohesion of the United Democratic Front.

Congress leaders like V. M. Sudheeran and T. N. Pratapan are in the forefront of opposing various policies of the government such as the mineral sands and abkari policies and measures to help estate owners and land mafia. Government moves to regularise filling up of paddy fields have come in for serious criticism though the government is yet to budge.

Hartal day

ON A HARTAL DAY: M. G. Road near Secretariat in Trivandrum look deserted. The hartal was called by the CPI (M) in protest against the arrest of its Kannur district secretary P. Jayarajan in Shukkur murder case.

Constituents of the Left Democratic Front have hardly lend any support to widespread protests by the CPI (M) over the arrest of party Kannur district secretary P. Jayarajan in the Abdul Shukkur murder case including the hartal.  In fact, CPI and other constituents are not willing to support murder politics. They want the law to take its course in the murder of T. P. Chandrasekharan and others.

Opposition Leader V. S. Achuthanandan had been spearheading a fight within the CPI (M) over what he calls its shift away from leftist polices. His strategy is to take a few steps forward and a few steps backward. He had demanded proper investigation into the murders and had not opposed the arrests by the police in the Chandrasekharan murder case. However, he said that the arrest of Mr. Jayarajan was partisan.

UDF government courts controversies

The open sparring in the UDF over the lease of estates in Nelliampathy and the controversy over regularisation of conversion paddy fields have dented the image of ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) in Kerala.

The Government Chief Whip P. C. George took cudgels against Forest Minister K. B. Ganesh Kumar for initiating steps for takeover of estates over expiry of lease or violation of lease conditions including sale or conversion of the estates. Mr. George’s contention is that the Forest Department is acting against farmers, meaning the estate owners.

Nelliampathy Estates

Nelliampathy Estates

Estate owners have been trying every trick in the book to prevent reversion of their estates. They have also gained support of a section of the UDF in favour of their efforts to retain the leases.  However, a section within the UDF is opposed to it. In fact, there was a section favouring the estate owners in the previous LDF government also. However, the CPI which was in charge of the Forest portfolio had favoured take over.  After the UDF government came to power, interested groups were working for change of policy and that yielded some results.

The fight in the UDF over the issue would not die down easily as much is at stake.

Similar is the situation on the question of reclamation and conversion of wet lands and paddy fields. Those attempting large scale conversions had received the support of a section of the previous government. Now, they were getting almost full support from the Cabinet with it approving a proposal to regularize pre-2005 conversions. This would have helped realtors and investors in resorts and other projects. However, opposition is growing in the UDF with V. M. Sudheeran and others openly speaking against the decision. What they are pointing at is obvious.

These controversies are accentuating dormant internal schisms in the front and could even threaten the cohesion of the government.