Third Front not just yet

The results of the three-phase local body elections in Kerala prove that the Congress-led UDF’s base has eroded significantly since the Lok Sabha polls

What’s common among the Great Indian Hornbill, Indian Laburnum Cassia that blooms on the Golden Shower Tree, Coconut Tree, Elephant and Pearlspot? These are all designated as the State bird, State flower, State tree, State animal and State fish, respectively, of Kerala. Another important common factor is that all of them are facing the threat of extinction due to widespread environmental destruction and massive deforestation.

Also, there has been no major industrialisation drive in the State as entrepreneurs think many a time before investing in the State. Kerala may be the only State in the country where industrialists and entrepreneurs commit suicide because of the indifferent attitude of the babus and their political masters. The State which claimed that it has eradicated the pandemic on the 100th day of the reporting of the first incident is all set to face the third wave, with Health Minister KK Shailaja asking the people to get ready for self-lockdown. This is the situation in the State a day after the results of the local body elections were announced.

One is reminded of a cartoon drawn by the legendary RK Laxman in the early 1980s when K Karunakaran was the Chief Minister. In a wordy duel between two Cabinet Ministers, one is seen shouting at the other: “I am more honest than you are. There are eight corruption charges against you and only six against me!”

The situation is no different in 2020 as the Ministers in the CPI(M)-led Government face charges of corruption, impropriety and scams. Legislative Assembly Speaker P Sreeramakrishnan had to convene a Press meet and threaten the Opposition that he would initiate legal action against all who linked his name to Swapna Suresh, the gold smuggling kingpin. Tourism Minister Kadakampally Surendran, who visited the UAE Consulate General’s office in Thiruvananthapuram, claims that he had called on the Consul General to discuss the traffic congestion problem in front of the consulate! Much has already been written about KT Jaleel, the Higher Education Minister and a former leader of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

As I write this article, news channels flash the news that CM Raveendran, the additional private secretary to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, is being interrogated by the Enforcement Directorate officials about the disproportionate assets amassed by him and his wife during the past 20 years.

M Sivasankar, former principal secretary to the Chief Minister, has been sent to jail and he is yet to secure bail. Sivasankar, described as the ‘conscience keeper of the Chief Minister’, was arrested by the Customs and ED for his alleged links with Swapna Suresh, Sarit and Sandeep Nair, the kingpins of the gold smuggling racket through diplomatic channels. If the pattern of investigation by the Central agencies continues like this, Pinarayi too is likely to be grilled.

The Chief Minister has alleged that the Centre is misusing agencies like the ED and DRI to tarnish his Government’s “good image” by spreading falsehoods. Besides gold smuggling, the agencies are investigating hawala and reverse hawala transactions, the LIFE Mission kickbacks (one of the flagship programmes of the CPI(M)-led LDF Government) and K-Fone (Kerala Fibre Optic Network) project. Sadly, all the development schemes declared by the Government are enmeshed in scams and graft.

Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had to step down as the party’s secretary in-charge of Kerala following the arrest of his younger son Binish Kodiyeri by the ED and NCB on the charges of drug trafficking, hawala transactions and money laundering.

It is in this background that the local body polls were held in three phases. The CPI(M) was literally fighting with its back to the wall because at no point in its history, the party has faced so many corruption charges. The Chief Minister himself asked New Delhi to depute Central agencies to probe the allegations. He would not have expected the intensity of the probe and now everything associated with the CPI(M) is being seen as illegal by the State’s people. Sadly, the Uralunkal Labour Credit Cooperative Society (ULCCS) — an NGO launched in 1925 with the blessings of Malabar’s great social reformer Vaghbhatananda to uplift the lives of the suppressed and oppressed classes — was hijacked by the CPI(M) and degenerated as a money laundering centre for the party. The ED is grilling Raveendran, popularly known as Kerala’s super Chief Minister, for his alleged role in the illegal dealings of ULCCS.

A close scrutiny of the local body election results throws up some interesting facts. Though the CPI(M)-led LDF won five of the six municipal corporations, it would be able to wrest control in two only through horse trading or with the support of the Congress. The Grand Old Party, which had more than 30 seats in the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation, has been decimated and had to be content with just 10 seats.

In most of the seats won by the CPI(M), the BJP-led NDA is the runner-up. The BJP has failed to win any district panchayat as the LDF walked away with 10, leaving four for the UDF. The Congress and its allies won 45 of the 86 municipal councils while the LDF ended up with 35. The NDA retained the Palakkadu Municipal Council while it wrested the Pandhalam municipality from the CPI(M). Of the 941 village panchayats, the LDF won 514, the UDF 375 and the NDA 23. Twenty 20, a political entity promoted by entrepreneur Sabu M Jacob in 2015, not only retained its home turf of Kizhakkambalam but won three more village panchayats, shocking the established political parties.

But the talking point is the debacle suffered by the Congress-led UDF. The front which literally swept the Lok Sabha election in May 2019 by winning 19 of the 20 seats from the State has lost heavily in this election. “It is a reflection of the Congress high command’s weakness. It is true that Congress is at the crossroads. The UDF won the 2019 election because of the consolidation of the minority vote. You may want to remember the Assembly poll results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in November 2018, which were all won by the Congress. The minorities in Kerala were under the impression that this would be replicated in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections but that turned out to be incorrect. So the minorities, especially the Christians, have started moving away from the Congress,” said P Rajan, a renowned political commentator and author. He said the Church, especially the bishops, doubt the soft approach of the Congress towards Islamic terrorism and Love Jihad.

Sreejith Panickar, a cyber security specialist who is a keen follower of the voting pattern in Kerala, says that the UDF’s base has been eroded over the past year. “In most places, the BJP has finished the runner-up. This is a change which signals the beginning of a political process that would result in the formation of a Third Alternative in Kerala. What has happened is that traditional UDF votes have gone to the NDA. The Congress should have a rethink on its approach towards Islamic extremist parties like the Welfare Party of India and SDPI. The secularism propagated by the Congress and the UDF should be thoroughly discussed as the Christian minorities in the State have started doubting their intentions. It’s for the national leadership of the Congress to initiate this discussion,” said Panickar. He also said that the Kerala Congress is facing a leadership crisis. “There is not a face other than Oommen Chandy’s who is acceptable to all sections but Chandy is plagued by ill health,” he added.

Though the BJP has reached a position from where it could play a crucial role in the State’s politics but Kerala’s wait for a Third alternative would not end soon. “It may materialise after the 2021 Assembly elections, provided the BJP plays its cards smartly,” said Rajan. Till then, Keralites may have to wait like the Great Indian Hornbill for the occasional rain with which it quenches its thirst.  

PS: The BJP too is not free from factionalism and groupism. The truth is that there are no capable leaders in the party to guide it at this crucial hour. Moreover, the party has its own share of Saritha Nairs and Swapna Sureshs.

(The writer is a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.)

Source: The Pioneer

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