Monday, October 20, 2008

Rival fronts launch agitations with an eye to elections

The season of pre-poll agitations has begun in Kerala, which arguably has the most polarised polity in the whole of India.

Even as the Left Democratic Front staged a sit-in in New Delhi against the Centre's alleged neglect of the state and the United Democratic Front staged demonstrations in the state capital against the LDF government.

The Congress-led UDF and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led LDF, traditional rivals in state politics, have been alternating in power in the state for nearly three decades.

The Bharatiya Janata Party's emergence as a contender for power at the Centre, forced the Congress and the CPI-M to come close at the national level. While the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance wielded power in New Delhi, the Congress and the CPI-M were both in the opposition.

After the Lok Sabha elections of 2004, the CPI-M and other Left parties extended support to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance from outside to prevent the BJP's return to power.

The Left parties ended the marriage of convenience when the UPA government went ahead with the Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement, ignoring their objections. They reckoned that anti-US rhetoric would pay electoral dividends. Apart from being popular with their traditional supporters, it could attract support from the state's large Muslim community, which is resentful of the anti-Islamic character of America's war on terror.

The CPI-M coined the slogan of "neglect by the Centre" in the 1960s. The party used it with a good deal of success in many campaigns. The charge of neglect carried conviction with the public since Central investment in the state under successive five-year plans was negligible.

The party has revived the charge, hoping to rekindle old political animosities. Ironically, the new campaign comes at a time when the Centre has sanctioned a number of major projects in the state such as the container terminal near Kochi, the Naval Academy at Ezhimala and the Indian Space Research Institute near Thiruvananthapuram.

A feature of the new anti-Centre campaign is that it is not limited to the party level, as in the past, but has been extended to the governmental level. Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan personally led the protest march and sit-in in New Delhi. His cabinet colleagues followed him, holding aloft placards.

As soon as the LDF announced plans for the New Delhi protest, the UDF said it would stage demonstrations in the state capital and various other centres on the same day to expose the failures of the state government. Leader of the opposition Oommen Chandy led the UDF sit-in outside the state secretariat.

The CPI-M did not leave the State arena entirely to the UDF. As the UDF leaders staged the sit-in outside the Secretariat, state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan addressed a mass rally outside the Governor's residence.

The state government paid for the ministers' travel to New Delhi. A few of them also had official engagements there, which may justify the government bearing the expenses of their travel. The others did not even bother to provide such justification.

Oommen Chandy asked whether it was proper for the chief minister to go to New Delhi at the state government's expense to protest against the Central government, Achuthanandan countered with another question: who pays the bill when Oommen Chandy travels on political business? Oommen Chandy responded by saying his travel expenses were being met the same way as those of Achuthanandan were met when he was the leader of the opposition.

Like the members of the council of ministers, the leader of the opposition draws pay and allowances from the state government.

Political parties and political activities are a necessary part of democracy. The basic issue arising from the demonstration staged by the chief minister and his colleagues in New Delhi is one of constitutional propriety, not political or financial propriety.

All constitutional functionaries must act according to the provisions of the constitution. That, in fact, is what members of the council of ministers at the Centre and in the state promise to do when they enter upon their duties.

The CPI-M, as a political party, has every right to agitate against the Central government. But the government of Kerala, as a constitutional entity, has no right to agitate against the government of India. In deputing the chief minister and his colleagues to stage the sit-in, the CPI-M has set a bad precedent. --Gulf Today, October 20, 2008.

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