Political Lessons from Kerala: People’s Response to the Communist Welfare System

Amid covid-19 fears, the elections to the legislative assemblies of four Indian states- West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam and Kerala, and the Union Territory of Puducherry were conducted in the months of April-May 2021. Of these four states, West Bengal and Kerala continue to challenge the ideology of Hindu nationalism and pose serious ideological opposition to BJP.’s right-wing politics. While BJP-led NDA ruled Assam, Tamil Nadu was ruled by AIADMK, a Dravidian party with strong BJP connections.  Puducherry, the Union Territory, was ruled by a Congress-led government in which the DMK, another Dravidian political party, was an ally. Since elections to these major states were significant for the Indian political scenario, election contestations acquired national attention. Therefore, many exit poll surveys were conducted, which showed the lack of anti-incumbency in three states except Tamil Nadu, and the results almost matched the exit polls.  What is common in this election result is that Indian National Congress (INC) and their allies faced setbacks in the five states. Despite the expulsion of the AIADMK and INC-led governments in Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, respectively, the parties in Bengal, Assam and Kerala returned to power.

Of these states, election results of Kerala and Bengal have unparalleled potential in national politics, especially with the explosive performance of the LDF government in Kerala and the prospects it will raise in national politics. Moreover, Bengal and Kerala show that the tactics of the BJP, a giant of national politics, have failed miserably in challenging the party in rule. While BJP could sweep almost 75 seats in West Bengal, they lost miserably in Kerala. The loss of Nemam constituency, BJP’s only seat in the state assembly, shows that Kerala is not yet their cup of tea. On the one hand, the LDF coalition, which lost miserably in nineteen of the total twenty seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, has won a landslide victory in the local body elections and assembly elections 2021. The LDF, a coalition of 11 centre-leftists leaning parties, showed a new model of political activism in which its traditional opponents are shattered. Conversely, LDF’s success in the state shows that they succeeded in understanding and responding to the socio-political changes since May 2019.

With this election, the practice of alternating LDF (Left Democratic Front) and UDF (United Democratic Front) every five years has changed in Kerala. We have to admit that anti-government sentiment is entirely non-existent in Kerala and that the Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who led it, has succeeded in creating an alternative to the UDF centered politics. Of course, Kerala has well-rooted soil for left ideology as it is home to the first Communist Ministry to come to power through ballot paper after San Marino, a microstate surrounded by Italy. The LDF was active in the electoral field in Kerala since 1957 and the social sphere decades ago. By now, Kerala remains the last bastion of the communists who lost their political sway in other parts of India. However, this time, it is noteworthy that the left front has been able to garner neutral votes along with the traditional left-leaning votes and the Congress BJP votes. This indicates that the Pinarayi model of governance will undoubtedly influence other rulers in India and they may gradually implement such a model. On the other hand, there is no need to be alarmed if Indian politics is gradually shifting towards the Pinarayi model of governance.

The Shift towards New Politics

It is methodologically appropriate to start analyzing Kerala politics with the 2019 Lok Sabha election review. One of the reasons for this is that though left parties lost their electoral prominence in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, they returned to a glittering victory in the 2021 state elections. To understand such a transformation, we need to divide Kerala politics into two sections. While the first phase is between 2016 and 2018, the second phase is between 2019 and 2021. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) – led LDF came to power in the 2016 elections with 91 seats in the 140 – member assembly, defeating the Congress – led UDF. For LDF, the beginning was not comfortable as various natural calamities, and the outbreak of pandemics posed severe threats to the government. Cyclone Okhi, which struck Kerala in November-December 2017, claimed the lives of more than 140 fishermen. The outbreak of the Nipah virus in 2018 further dragged the government machinery into new responsibilities. Before the waves of the Nipah outbreak and cyclone Okhi subsided, a flood hit Kerala in 2018, killing and leaving thousands homeless. The floods devastated the economy of Kerala and, to some extent, blame fell on the government, raising allegations that the government failed in curbing the disaster. There were allegations that government systems were not working efficiently and that carelessness in opening the dams caused the floods. In other words, until 2018, the LDF government in Kerala, like many other Indian governments, created the impression that it was just an ordinary government.

Meanwhile, the Sabarimala issue erupted, shaking Kerala politics. A Supreme Court ruling in October 2018 lifted the ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 from entering the Hindu temple of Sabarimala. As the LDF-led state government decided to implement the Supreme Court judgment, various Hindu organizations and the Congress-BJP factions came out against the government. The entry of women in Sabarimala has long been acknowledged by Congress and BJP leaders, but they have used it as a weapon against the government. Anti-left sentiment grew decisive in the state as women were forcibly taken to Sabarimala. Of course, Hindu sentiment was against the government and reflected in the collapse of the leftists in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The shrinking to just one seat and the congress winning nineteen seats in Kerala broke the backbone of the LDF.

Nevertheless, the Sabarimala issue was not the only reason for the Congress’ victory as there was another national issue. This was the Citizenship Amendment Bill enacted by the BJP-NDA government in power at the Centre in December 2019. As the perception that the 2019 CAA was anti-Muslim spread, Muslims had a strong observation that the central government should be replaced. Although the struggles against the CAA were suppressed, the anti-BJP sentiment was strong among Muslims. Naturally, this was the reason why Muslim votes in Kerala went to the congress-led UDF. In other words, there was a strong perception among the minorities that it is better to vote for the Congress, which opposes the BJP at the national level, than to vote for the LDF, which is nothing at the national level. It is noteworthy that after the 2019 elections, the Pinarayi government’s style and the policy towards Sabarimala issue drew criticism from the parties in opposition and the general public.

Meanwhile, in May 2019, the Nipah virus, which Kerala once defeated, was back. However, the government of Kerala succeeded in controlling the disease, and with this, the state government was able to gain national and international attention. The next flood in August 2019 devastated Kerala, again killing many people and devastating the state. From this flood, Kerala society began to notice the changing face of the LDF government. The left parties became closer to the people by setting up a rehabilitation fund and intervening in charitable activities. The government’s image was enhanced because leftist youth organizations such as DYFI and SFI stood with the people in all possible cooperation. The Congress and the BJP, two major political parties with anti-leftist ideologies, were asleep all this time.

In 2020 March, Kerala entered the post-Covid-19 lockdown. During this period, food kits and welfare pensions, which had nurtured the leftist government’s famous face, became more popular. The most significant relief to the large section of the people who lost their jobs and income due to lockdown and covid-19 was the delivery of food items and welfare pensions to  all sections of the people through ration shops every month. The Life Mission project, which started in 2017, has already provided housing to two million homeless families. For the first time in Kerala’s history, the government’s activities have created the impression of a welfare state, and the UDF and the BJP were merely clowns, unable to cope with any of this.

Congress: A Baseless Palace

The fact that the perception of a coalition government is the key to the leftist victory is evident from the local body elections of 2020-2021. However, it should also be noted that instead of understanding the timely changes, even the backbenchers in Congress have adopted blind policies. Congress was in the mood to come to power after five years as a natural process without recognizing what was going on in the country. This laziness is evident in the way they dealt with the Kerala Congress (M), a previous ally of the UDF which joined the LDF camp at a crucial moment.

We have observed that since 2018, Kerala has been going through disasters. While cyclone Okhi, Nipah, 2018 and 2019 floods and Covid-19 were making the life of Kerala miserable, Congress and the BJP machinery failed to stand with the people. The pearly white leaders dressed in khadi were only involved in politics where the clothes were not soiled. It was the policy of the Congress, which had already lost its activists, to sit on ivory towers and enjoy a comfortable life without having to go down with the people during floods and illness. If people are wondering why they should count those who are not with them, they should not be blamed for it. And they have to check for themselves whether they are eligible for the 41 seats won by the Congress. At the same time, it should be noted that Congress does not have an effective organizational structure. While the LDF and BJP were fighting for more electoral success, the Congress was dragging its feet. In short, the strategy of Congress was to spread anti-leftism without trying to understand the will of the people and social reality. Further, Congress has humiliated itself by filing a complaint in court against the state’s food kits and welfare pensions. Such foolish gimmicks were seen as a power-hungry movement that affected the prospects of the Congress. In this situation, it will not be easy for Congress to mobilize organizational and political power. If no alternatives can be found, the Congress, the grand old party, will remain in the memory of Kerala as an erstwhile party.

BJP: Picture of a Dead Snake

In Kerala, the BJP is mainly targeting the Hindu population of about 45-50 per cent. The BJP succeeded in winning a seat in the Kerala Legislative Assembly for the first time in 2016, and its vote share was increased in the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2020 Local Body elections. However, the BJP has been adversely affected by its failure to reach out to the masses and its continued stigma of being a vote-selling party. The fact that the BJP’s nomination papers were rejected in three constituencies and they lost their only seat shows how pathetic the Kerala BJP leadership is while approaching the elections. Moreover, the election results also show how much the BJP’s Kerala faction has failed to understand the will of the people.

Further, BJP leadership in Kerala is indeed distancing itself from the masses.  For example, consider the case of the BJP state president’s election campaign. BJP State President K. Surendran contested from two places, and a helicopter was hired to cover these two constituencies. While the videos of the helicopter-campaign were circulated on social media, laypeople realized the futility of such filmy approaches.  That is why in Konni, the second constituency where he contested, the State President came third with tens of thousands of votes less than in 2016, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s massive campaigns. Such irresponsible attitudes from the BJP leadership in Kerala resulted in a humiliating defeat despite the pro-cyber wing and pro-organization structure. The crisis is compounded by the abandonment of the BJP’s so-called Gujarat constituency, Nemam in Trivandrum, and the low turnout of 429834 votes across Kerala.

Are these the only reasons for BJP’s electoral defeat in Kerala? There are many answers to this situation. The commoner, who has to pay Rs 92 for a litre of petrol and Rs 850 for a pinch of gas cylinder, will vote for the left that benefit him, even if he pretends to be a BJP man under the pressure of circumstances. Not many ordinary Hindus of Kerala will vote for the BJP unless Rama Rajya or Sabarimala are the factors that help his daily expense, especially at this time of pandemic. Therefore, Kerala Hindu’s political decision is closely linked to what they experience in life. Along with this, the current perception in Kerala, that the left saves Kerala from various crises, also continues to be a boon for the LDF. Similarly, in Kerala, the BJP has consistently failed to intervene in popular issues and keep the ordinary people together. BJP leaders lead the party from pit to pit, believing that their speechifying in television channels is politics and encroaching on communist martyrdom hall is service to the people.

Why Leftists? : Kerala’s answers

The left government in Kerala has made it clear that coming to power is not a license to do anything for five years but a brief to work hard and to move forward with the people. This victory shows that the leftists have not lost their relevance in Kerala, where various castes and religions are equally strong in political assertions. Kerala’s recent electoral surge also indicates that politicians should be open to local realities and grass-root sentiments.  While the Congress-led UDF in Kerala and the BJP-led NDA were building anti-communist programmes and anti-government allegations, the government and the LDF went out to the people. In the last five years, the opposition has had the opportunity to build anti-leftist politics and has been able to raise them all strongly, but such strategies seemed to have failed before the welfare model approach. The huge drop in the BJP’s vote share and the defeat of even the young faces of the Congress are signs that the soil under their feet is slipping away, even though they do not take it that seriously!

At the national level, the Kerala model of governance may be copied by all the ruling parties and power-hungry politicians. There is no doubt that the experience of LDF in Kerala will further motivate other politicians to formulate more welfare schemes. Earlier, in Kerala, the strategy to come back to power was to accuse the ruling party of corruption and lack of development to build reserves of anti-incumbency. However, the new mantra is the image of a welfare state and reminding the people that the government is always with them and working for them.

Conclusions

The LDF government has returned to power after overthrowing anti-left forces at the national and state levels. Although the welfare activities and projects of the Covid-19 era have created the image of a people’s welfare government, it is a matter of great challenge to the government how long it can go on. Long term progress of the Kerala model also depends on how Pinarayi’s assurance on CAA, Covid-19 vaccination, welfare schemes, pensions, and food kits is kept. In short, the success story of the leftists in Kerala deserves serious scrutiny. The victory of the left is not only that they returned to power in 2021. On the contrary, it is noteworthy that the anti-left climate that existed until 2019 has been eliminated and the precarious conditions, including Covid-19, have been positively used by the left brigade. In India, we believe that democracy ultimately chooses the right leaders. In the next five years, Kerala society will have another opportunity to examine the realities of such a belief.    

Vineeth Mathoor
Vineeth Mathoor
Vineeth Mathoor teaches at the Research Department of History, N.S.S. Hindu College, Kerala, India. He is an Assistant Editor of South Asia Research published by Sage International.