A close finish beckons in Kerala again. In 2011, Congress-led UDF had wrested a narrow two-seat victory against the incumbent CPM-led LDF government. Cut to 2021 and LDF is on better footing unlike its UDF predecessor, decimated in 2016 by bribery allegations. CPM has its share of financial taint now with central agencies in hot pursuit, but has successfully kept the focus on its welfare schemes. To complicate the picture Kerala also witnesses seat-by-seat fights trumping the state narrative, owing to many hardworking MLAs and imaginative challengers creating their own local narratives.
CM Vijayan now boasts a different persona from 2016 when he neatly sidelined the wildly popular nonagenarian VS Achuthanandan. Seen as a hard-nosed party commissar then, Vijayan has cultivated the women’s vote. No communist CM enjoyed Vijayan’s luxury of firm control over both government and party, leading to derisive Congress chants of “Kerala Modi”. Meanwhile, opposition attempts to belittle his reassuring stewardship during five major crises – Covid pandemic, two annual floods, Cyclone Ockhi and Nipah outbreak – find little appreciation.
LDF is also projecting the “PDS+” universal monthly kit comprising pulses, oils, spices and other essential items, which cushioned household expenditure during the pandemic. But mounting economic woes are just as starkly prominent. Unemployment rate among youth was highest nationally even before the pandemic struck. Since then, reverse migration from Gulf countries has accelerated, causing a double whammy. Congress may just have tapped into this wellspring of discontent by awarding over 50% of tickets to newcomers, something Rahul Gandhi can take credit for, after fruitlessly pursuing such a course since 2008.
Youth Congress last enjoyed a similar upsurge in the 1970s, propelling AK Antony, Oommen Chandy and all of today’s national veteran cohort. Amid BJP’s upswing, the youthful turn, the slow eclipse of Chandy – popular among people but a factionalist in equal measure – and the impending rise of his rivals Ramesh Chennithala and K Muraleedharan may help Congress regain the Nair vote. However, Christians in central Kerala have shown signs of veering to LDF. Sitaram Yechury’s support for Sabarimala women entry, which the Kerala CPM was tactfully downplaying, has brought a divided BJP roaring back. With many triangular contests looming and communal loyalties in flux, Kerala elections are becoming tougher to call. But whichever side wins has a tough task: Putting the wrecked economy and state finances back on the rails.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.