A landslide victory in last month's local elections has heightened the United Democratic Front's (UDF) hopes of returning to power in Kerala in next year's assembly elections but the Congress, which heads the alliance, may be exulting too soon. Its position is not as rosy as it imagines.
The credit for the UDF victory belongs not so much to the Congress as to its allies who helped consolidate minority support behind the UDF after the Communist Party of India- Marxist (CPI-M), which heads the rival Left Democratic Front (LDF), antagonised Muslims and Christians.
Kerala had created history in 1957 by voting the undivided Communist Party to office. It created history again in 1959 by staging a 'liberation struggle', which provided the centre with the excuse to dismiss the Communist government while it enjoyed majority support in the assembly.
The local election vote was 'liberation' by other means. All the forces which had joined hands in 1959 to oust the Communists from power came together again to end their reign over local bodies. The only exception was the Nair Service Society, the forward Hindu community's organization, which now officially follows a policy of equidistance from the two fronts.
In the local elections of 2004, the LDF had secured control of all five city corporations, 12 of the 14 district panchayats, a large majority of the municipalities and block panchayats and two-thirds of the village panchayats. This year, for the first time, the UDF seized control of a majority of local bodies at all levels with the exception of city corporations, where the LDF was able to retain a slender 3-2 lead.
The LDF victory in the 2006 assembly poll came as a hat-trick after successive wins in the Lok Sabha and local elections. In the past three decades, people have voted the LDF and the UDF to power in the state alternately. After successive drubbings in Lok Sabha and local elections, the LDF now faces the possibility of a reverse hat-trick.
The local elections victory has boosted the image of the state Congress leadership, now firmly in the hands of Leader of Opposition Oommen Chandy and Pradesh Congress Committee president Ramesh Chennithala.
For decades, the party had witnessed continuous infighting between an 'I' faction, named for Indira Gandhi, and an 'A' faction, named for A.K. Antony. Oommen Chandy inherited the 'A' faction when Antony moved to the centre. Ramesh Chennithala, a former protege of K. Karunakaran, gathered around him the remnants of the 'I' faction when the veteran walked out of the party, peeved with his neglect by the high command. With Sonia Gandhi backing them to the hilt, the Chandy-Chennithala 'jodi' established a condominium.
Karunakaran, 92, is back in the party but too old and weak to challenge the duo, whose clout is evident from the way they have delayed the return of his son and former state Congress president K. Muraleedharan. He had left the party with Karunakaran but did not return with him. When he finally expressed readiness to return Chandy and Chennithala reacted coolly and the high command did not want to go against their wishes.
While the Chandy-Chennithala combine is in an unassailable position within the Congress, the party's position in the UDF has weakened. The party's electoral performance under them pales into insignificance beside the strides made by its partners, the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani).
The League is in a position to wield power on its own in many local bodies in its stronghold, the Muslim-majority Malappuram district, which happens to be the most populous one in the state. Unable to agree on the division of seats, the Congress and the League had opposed each other in some parts of the district. The League trounced the Congress in those areas. That puts the League in a commanding position.
In areas with a concentration of Christians, the Kerala Congress similarly outperformed the Congress. Its leader, K.M. Mani, had once described the party as one that "splits as it grows, and grows as it splits". He recently strengthened it by wooing back the breakaway factions led by P.J. Joseph and P.C. George, which were in the LDF during the last assembly elections and had helped it attract Christian votes.
Across the state, the UDF polled 15.65 lakh votes more than the LDF. Malappuram alone contributed a lead of more than four lakhs. Kottayam and Ernakulam districts, which have significant Christian populations, provided a lead of more than three lakhs.
The Church, which runs many schools and colleges, was annoyed with the LDF government's education policy. It reportedly played a role in the merger of the Kerala Congress factions. The CPI-M distanced itself from its former Muslim supporters since the Lok Sabha results showed that the association with some of them had cost it many votes. The bid to make up the loss of minority votes by appealing to majority sentiments did not succeed.
The change of government in the state every five years has been made possible by a swing of the pendulum in the southern districts of Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and Alappuzha. As the minority parties command little influence in the region, elections there are a direct trial of strength between the CPI-M and the Congress. The LDF's lead of about 80,000 votes over the UDF in these districts is something the Congress has to worry about.