Besides the long-established political parties, a host of smaller entities, many of them with no political affiliation, are preparing to contest the local self-government institutions (LSGIs) in Kerala, which is likely to be held towards the end of September.
LSGIs constitute the lowest levels of administration. They are bodies elected to exercise authority at the district, block and town and village levels.
As in the elections to Parliament and the State Assembly, the main contenders for power in LSGIs are the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front. Traditionally, the LDF has had an edge over the UDF, thanks to the well-oiled election machinery of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, which heads the alliance.
In the last elections, held in 2005, the CPI-M got control of all five city corporations, all but one of 14 district panchayats, a majority of the municipal councils and block panchayats and nearly 700 out of about 1,000 village panchayats.
A series of reverses suffered by the CPI-M in by-elections to local bodies held during the past year point to erosion of its mass base. With a disastrous Lok Sabha poll behind it and new Assembly elections less than a year away, it has much at stake in the LSGI elections.
This is one reason why the CPI-M, which limited the role of small LDF constituents four years ago, is now willing to placate even the smallest splinter group. It recently decided to retain the breakaway P C Thomas faction of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) in the alliance and welcomed back the National Congress Party which had been shown the door earlier.
Originally, the panchayat system did not envisage division along party lines. However, lately local bodies too have become an arena of partisan warfare.
The last LDF government had initiated a programme of democratic decentralisation and people’s participation in the planning process. It generated a lot of enthusiasm, which evaporated fast. People’s interest in local bodies waned as parties which controlled them resorted to favouritism.
The coming elections are the first since women’s reservation in LSGIs was raised from 33 per cent to 50 per cent. When women’s reservation was introduced, the political parties drafted wives and daughters of their leaders as candidates. The CPI-M picked candidates from the ranks of its student and women’s affiliates too.
When elected, these candidates generally acted as proxies for male party functionaries. Those who refused to do so were reined in. As a result, women’s empowerment, the proclaimed objective of reservation, remains unrealised.
The Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Democratic Party of Abdul Naser Mahdani, which fought LSGI elections in the past and are holding the balance between the LDF and the UDF in some local bodies, are hoping to improve their position this time.
Several new players are also preparing to enter the arena. They include the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Social Democratic Party of India, the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Dalit Human Rights Movement.
The BSP, a recognised national party which is in power in Uttar Pradesh, has only a small presence in Kerala. The SDPI is the political wing of the Popular Front of India, which is under a cloud following the arrest of several of its members in connection with the chopping of the hand of a college teacher at Muvattupuzha, allegedly as punishment for denigration of the Prophet (PBUH).
The Jamaat and the SDPI have done considerable groundwork in areas where they have influence. Both the groups are planning to field Muslim women in constituencies where the community has substantial presence.
A large number of civic groups involved in agitations over environmental and developmental issues are also likely to contest the elections. They want to challenge the stranglehold of the LDF and the UDF on state politics. CPI-M dissidents may also enter the fray.
All this invests the LSGI elections with unusual significance. The outcome of the election may well decide whether the present two-front system can survive for survive.
With many forces vying with one another, multi-cornered contests are inevitable. The resulting splintering of votes will work to the advantage of the two fronts. Realising this, the small entities are exploring the possibility of coming together on a common platform. All of them agree on the need to eliminate corruption and favouritism which are rampant in LSGIs today.