Indo-Asian News Service
One question nags political parties and pundits alike after the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala: Will the Communist Party of India-Marxist's gamble pay off or will the communal chickens come home to roost?
All 20 constituencies of the state went to the polls on April 16. Since counting of votes will take place only on May 16, there is an agonizing wait of a month before the voting machines yield their secret.
Elections in the state are essentially trials of strength between the CPI-M-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. In the assembly elections, the people vote the two fronts to power alternately.
While in the panchayat polls, the LDF has an edge over the UDF, in the Lok Sabha elections, the UDF generally fared better than the LDF until 2004, when the LDF bagged 18 of the 20 seats. The Indian Federal Democratic Party, a partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, got one seat. The lone UDF seat went to the Indian Union Muslim League. For the first time, the Congress drew a blank.
The popular explanation for the LDF landslide of 2004 is that the people turned away from the UDF, disgusted by the prolonged group war in the Congress and the cynical poll-eve patch-up. The pendulum swung so widely that the UDF was almost wiped out.
Several Muslim groups, unhappy over the League's soft response to the demolition of Babri Masjid, backed the LDF in 2004 and in the assembly elections of 2006. The lesson the CPI-M drew from these elections was that Muslim support can make a difference to its fortune.
The Kerala party, which has to alternate in power with the Congress-led alliance, envies the record of the West Bengal party, which has been in office continuously for three decades. For some years, it has been looking out for new partners who can help it achieve the dream of unbroken run of power.
When former chief minister K. Karunakaran walked out of the Congress with his followers, state party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan was ready to welcome him into the LDF. Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan set his face against it. As the national leadership sided with him, Vijayan's plan fell through.
Before the Lok Sabha elections, Pinarayi Vijayan identified People's Democratic Party (PDP) chairman Abdul Naser Mahdani as a partner who can help boost the LDF's prospects. A fiery orator, Mahdani shot into prominence in the 1990s with a virulent campaign on the Babri Masjid issue. He was arrested in connection with a series of bomb blasts in Coimbatore shortly before a visit by BJP leader L.K. Advani in 1998, and remained in jail without bail or parole for more than nine years. On acquittal in 2007, he emerged with a martyr's halo.
Vijayan struck a deal with Mahdani under which the PDP extended support to the LDF in 19 constituencies in exchange for its adopting a candidate of his choice in Ponnani. Achuthanandan set his face against this deal, too, but this time the national leadership sided with Vijayan.
General secretary Prakash Karat apparently endorsed Pinarayi Vijayan's electoral scheme with a view to maximizing the number of seats the party can win in Kerala.
Of the party's 43 seats in the outgoing Lok Sabha, 40 came from its strongholds of West Bengal (26 out of a total of 42), Kerala (12 out of 20) and Tripura (2 out of 2). Local tie-ups brought in three seats -- two from Tamil Nadu and one from Andhra Pradesh.
Since Singur and Nandigram were sure to hurt the party's prospects in West Bengal, it wanted to retain the gains of 2004 in Kerala at all costs. Playing on Muslim sentiments a la Abdul Naser Mahdani appeared to offer the best chance in this regard. To maintain secular balance, the party brought on to its platform Janapaksham, a BJP splinter group, also.
The PDP deal ran counter to the CPI-M's proclaimed policy of not having any truck with communal parties, which was never pursued strictly anyway. A breakaway faction of the predominantly Christian outfit, the Kerala Congress, is a constituent of the LDF. The Indian National League, a splinter of the Muslim League, enjoys the benefits of LDF membership without being a constituent.
Muslims constitute 25 percent of Kerala's population and Christians 19 percent. The common perception that Communists are anti-religion has limited the party's appeal among both groups. The piggy-back ride may have helped the LDF to gain Muslim votes but it may have come with a high price tag.
The CPI-M took away two seats of its alliance partners to put through its electoral strategy. The CPI, which resented the gifting of its Ponnani seat to Mahdani's nominee, was pacified by offering it Wayanad instead. The Janata Dal-Secular, which was left with no seat after the CPI-M set up its own candidate in Kozhikode, vent its anger by working against the LDF.
Analysts are certain to scrutinize the poll results closely to see how the Hindu majority, from which the CPI-M draws the bulk of its support, has responded to the party's pampering of the PDP.