In battle of perception, Kerala UDF seems to fritter away initial edge

As poll surveys give the LDF the thumbs up, the UDF appears to be struggling to keep its house in order

The UDF has already suffered a blow with the Kerala Congress going to the CPI(M) camp | Photo: The Federal

Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front started off in the Assembly polls with a distinct disadvantage: in a state where opposing parties have taken turns to rule, it was supposed to be the United Democratic Front led by the Congress to take the lead. Another disadvantage that the LDF had was a string of corruption charges that crept up to the Chief Minister’s office, throwing the ruling combine on the back foot. But, days before the polling, the emerging story is something of a revelation: all poll surveys have given the LDF the thumbs up as the UDF struggles to keep its house in order. Poll observers say it is only the second time in the history of Kerala that the ruling front is perceived to be confident of returning to power for a second consecutive term, junking the anti-incumbency factor.

But what has led to UDF’s predicament? Here are some observations by seasoned political commentators and former Congress leaders:

Lack of visionary leadership

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As an opposition leader, Ramesh Chennithala worked his part well. “He forced the government to withdraw and correct some important decisions, but the party could not reap the benefits,” says Dr Premkumar, a CPI-M loyalist who often appears in TV debates defending the Left. The government-backed out of the Sprinkler deal when the opposition brought out the data privacy issues.

The deal involved an agreement signed with a US-based firm, Sprinkler, for the collection and management of the Covid positives data and those who were under quarantine.

In a second such somersault, the government recently cancelled the MoU signed with the US-based EMCC International for the research and development of deep-sea fishing followed by the stiff resistance raised by the opposition.

Advocate Suresh Babu, a former KPCC general secretary who quit the party a few days ago, also acknowledges Chennithala’s role. He says the party is too weak to achieve worthwhile results. “The party doesn’t have a visionary leadership, coordination and collective thinking,” says Suresh Babu.

Kerala witnessed a massive protest in December 2019 against the Citizenship Amendment Act jointly addressed by LDF and UDF in which both the Chief Minister and the opposition leader participated. “It was a good strategy. Had the Congress continued with the strategy of joining with the Left on such larger issues, the party could have retained its credibility,” says Suresh Babu. He held KPCC chief Mullappilly Ramachandran responsible for pulling Ramesh Chennithala back from such actions.

He says collective thinking and decision-making is something of a distant story for the party. This was evident, he says, when Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, the former revenue minister and a senior leader of the party, announced a draft law for ‘protecting Sabarimala’. Former UDF minister MM Hassan told The Federal that the draft that stipulates imprisonment for women violating the custom was not discussed within the party.

Also read: Political parties field actors, TV stars in Kerala, adding glamour to poll arena

John Samuel, the policy division head of the party, too, said that it was only an individual’s idea that was not formally approved by the party. However, Congress is using Sabarimala in its campaign and promises that a law will be enacted to protect devotees.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the Chief Minister and the Opposition leader together held an online conference with the entire local body members in the state in a gesture of unity. Suresh Babu thinks that the party should have continued engaging in such collective actions. “It seems that the party leadership did not understand the value of it. Instead of taking the credit of Covid management by cooperating with the government, they went to the other extreme of creating hurdles for the government”.

Lethargy of the youth wing

The organizational structure of the party has become weak, says Dr J Prabhash, retired professor of Political Science from Kerala University. “The youth wing is loosely tied. During the COVID peak, the DYFI (the youth wing of the CPI-M) proved its strong presence on the ground. On the other hand, the people hardly saw Congress volunteers,” says Prabhash.

Whatever confidence the Congress had was shattered after the local body elections in which it had to face an embarrassing debacle. P C Chacko, who recently left Congress and joined NCP, believes that the party would not be able to outshine CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s performance as an administrator. “The people are the best judge. The Congress has not been able to win the trust of the people either by voluntary work in disaster times or by strengthening its presence by keeping of infighting,”, says Chacko.

“The reasons for the weakening of Congress are not Kerala-specific only”, says Zakaria, a prominent Malayalam writer. “The Congress has lost its credibility across the country. People of Kerala are watching the happenings in other states as well,” says Zakaria.

Refusal to say sorry

In highly educated Kerala, political etiquette counts. “The Congress is not able to follow the language of the present generation. In the era of social media, political correctness matters” says Dr Premkumar, a political analyst. He says the CPI-M and other Left parties keep in mind the sensitivity of the public. “They don’t hesitate to apologize in case of a mistake. There are several instances. Joyce George, former LDF MP who invited criticism over a derogatory reference to Rahul Gandhi during his campaign in Idukki district, had to quickly apologize. The Chief Minister in the next day’s press conference denounced him by saying that the LDF had only political differences with Rahul Gandhi and that it did not support slandering.

The Left handles in social media also expressed outrage and demanded George’s public apology. In another instance, Jose K Mani, chairman of the Kerala Congress (M) — the new ally of the LDF — had to retract his statement about ‘love jihad’ and apologized.

In yet another instance, a TV anchor was abused and trolled for her alleged soft stance towards Congress. The CPI-M formally made a statement against it and extended support to her. A case was registered and one person working with Deshabhimani, the newspaper run by the party, was arrested.

On the contrary, the Congress has lacked the practice of extending an apology. “Mullappilly Ramachandran has never apologized for calling KK Shailaja as ‘Covid Rani’, ‘Nipah princess’ and ‘rock dancer’. VT Balram, a Congress MLA, has not expressed regret over his derogatory statements against AKG and writer K R Meera” says Premkumar.

V T Balram in a war of words with K R Meera on Facebook used objectionable remarks against her and on another occasion, referred to A K Gopalan, the legendary communist leader, as a paedophile. Another Congress MLA Eldos Kunnapilly has made sexually coloured remarks against Veena, the daughter of Pinarayi Vijayan.

The senior leader K Sudhakaran has made a racial remark against the Chief Minister as ‘the son of a toddy tapper’. He recently made another statement that “women are not capable of performing election duties as it is easy to threaten them”. None of the Congress leaders has expressed an apology over these remarks. Many analysts, including Premkumar, refer to these instances to show how Congress has failed to cope with matters of political correctness. “The result is Congress has lost its face before the literate and educated Malayali society,” says Premkumar.

Also read: Troubled waters: Church, State, and the fight over Kerala’s fishing communities

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