Monday, September 20, 2010

A poll that can spell a change in course

BRP Bhaskar

Gulf Today

The elections to the local self-government institutions, scheduled for late October, are seen by the ruling Left Democratic Party and the opposition United Democratic Front as a dress rehearsal for the State Assembly poll due next year.

The LDF, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist, had approached the 2005 elections with great confidence, having bagged 18 of Kerala’s 20 Lok Sabha seats the previous year. The CPI-M’s own tally was a record 12 seats. The Congress, which usually fared better than the CPI-M in the national elections, did not get a single seat.

The CPI-M buttressed the LDF position by entering into a tactical alliance with others including the Democratic Indira Congress of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran and his son and former state Congress chief K Muraleedharan. In the event, the LDF won all the five city corporations, 34 of the 52 municipal councils and a large majority of the district, block and village panchayats.

The LDF also won the Assembly elections comfortably. With three wins in a row, the party was entitled to a grin. That grin was visible on Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan’s face in the advertisements the LDF government placed in newspapers to publicise its achievements before the announcement of the local elections schedule.

Public perception of the government’s performance appears to be at variance with the claims made by the government and the party. Last year’s Lok Sabha elections revealed erosion in the CPI-M’s base. The departure of two constituents, Janata Dal (S) and Kerala Congress (J), and an informal ally, the Indian National League, has weakened the LDF. Their rumps left in the LDF are of doubtful value.

The UDF thinks it is now its turn to grin. But it may be grinning too soon.

With no one to challenge its hegemony, the CPI-M could complete seat allocation in the LDF in most places without a hitch by last week. The Congress was yet to pacify the restive Kerala Congress leader KM Mani, Communist Marxist Party leader MV Raghavan and Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi leader KR Gowri Amma.

A close look at voting trends suggests that the popular belief the LDF’s loss is the UDF’s gain may be too simplistic.

In the parliamentary elections of 2004 the LDF’s vote share was eight percentage points above the UDF’s. Since the CPI-M and some other parties made tactical alliances cutting across the dividing line, it is not easy to determine the vote share of the two fronts in the local elections of 2005. In the 2006 Assembly elections, which the LDF won, its lead over the UDF was less than six percentage points.

In last year’s Lok Sabha poll, the UDF’s vote share was only three percentage points above the LDF’s. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, which undertook a detailed study of the voting behaviour of different social and economic groups, reported a significant drop in LDF support among the Christians (15 percentage points), forward Nairs (14 percentage points) and Dalits (five percentage points).

The UDF’s gains among Christians (13 percentage points) and Nairs (four percentage points) fell short of the LDF’s losses. Both fronts lost Muslim votes: the LDF loss was three percentage points and the UDF loss two percentage points.

Neither front has understood the significance of this phenomenon. It points to the emergence of new players on the political arena besides the two state-level fronts and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

It also indicates that the conventional wisdom that one front’s loss is the other’s gain is no longer valid. Just as there are voters who switch sides from election to election, there are also voters who reject the theory propagated by the two fronts that there is no alternative before them except to rally behind one of them.

The collapse of the TINA (there is no alternative) theory has opened up the possibility of a change in the direction of electoral politics in the state. Small groups which attract voters who are disillusioned with the big parties and the fronts they lead may not be able to make a difference to the outcome of the elections at the national and state levels, but they may be able to do so in the local elections.

Yet another factor to be taken into account is the reservation of half the seats at all levels of local self-government for women. If the new forces are able to challenge the LDF and the UDF effectively in these seats the pace of change will quicken.

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