Red tide shakes main parties in India’s Kerala State A victory for secularism by Muhammad Shafeeque

Illuminated mosque in Kerala – Photograph 2009 by Challiyan at ml.wikipedia, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Illuminated mosque in Kerala – Photograph 2009 by Challiyan at ml.wikipedia, Via Wikimedia Commons.

CIP June 21, 2016

A political storm caused by public anger against the incumbent Oommen Chandy state administration has swept the United Democratic Front (UDF), led by the secularist and modernist Congress party, out of power in the southwest Indian state of Kerala. Kerala has the country’s highest literacy rate, 93.91 percent in the 2011 census, and the highest life expectancy at 77 years.

A sweeping victory for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), in the assembly elections held on 16 May 2016, showed that the appeal by the Congress party for “continuity for development” was rejected by the people of the state in the aftermath of corruption scandals involving the governing party.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) it controls campaigned with the slogan “Kerala lost its way and the BJP will show the way.” But the BJP made little impact in the electorate.

In a spectacular performance, the Marxist Communists and LDF secured 91 seats in the 140 member assembly, reducing the Congress-backed UDF delegation to 47. More importantly, the anti-incumbency wave took a heavy toll with cabinet ministers, the assembly speaker, the deputy speaker, and the chief whip losing their posts, and the finance minister quitting after a scandal relating to opening bars. Besides lowering the margin of votes secured by Oommen Chandy as chief minister, the seats won by Congress were reduced to an all-time low of 25. The total for the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), which participates with Congress in the UDF, fell from 20 to 18.

All tickets included film stars with the intention of capturing votes and the LDF succeeded in getting two of them elected.

Malappuram, a city with a Muslim majority and Hindu and Christian minorities, was the only district where the LDF made gains on its own strength. The BJP was not a factor in the district, and votes that the UDF lost exceeded the votes gained by the BJP.

A sharp division in the Muslim vote is visible. It was monopolised by the IUML until recently, while the UDF survives by counting on minorities as its major support base. The IUML failed to gain a minimum of votes from the Muslim minority, especially from the Muslim Jam’aats who stood against the ruling party because of activities inimical to the ethical concepts of Islam, regarding the Hajj committees and Waqf (religious endowments) boards. Here the stand of Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmed, general secretary of the All India Muslim Scholars Association (All India Sunni Jamiyyathul Ulama) affected Malappuram as the votes of the IUML declined.

Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmed of Kerala.

Sheikh Aboobacker Ahmed of Kerala.

The CPI-M, which directs the LDF, emerged in 1964 as a Maoist splinter from the Communist Party of India. Kerala produced the first freely-elected Communist government in the world in 1957. It witnessed a major victory for the LDF only thanks to support from religious minorities. The anti-Communist sentiments that grow in the Muslims are changing as the Muslims understand the secular approach of the Communists. Minority votes, especially those of the Muslims (who comprise more than 26 percent of the state’s population), went in favor of secular alternatives.

The UDF government had made exaggerated claims regarding projects such as the Kochi metro rail, the Vizhinjam port, the Kochi SmartCity software zone, and the Kannur international airport. But corruption scandals involving bars selling alcohol in hotels, and other affairs contributed to the debacle of the Congress-led UDF.

The LDF carried out a statewide campaign projecting its secular-democratic alternative to the Hindu radical politics of communal mobilization. The nationalism debate, the killing of writers and intellectuals across India, and the controversy over consumption of beef were all subjects that came up in the state.

The new LDF government led by the CPI(M) faces several challenges. The most crucial ones relate to corruption. Policies on education, health, industry, agriculture, and the welfare of Dalits (castes subjected to discrimination) and Adivasis (indigenous pre-Hindu communities) must ensure transparency, accountability and equity.

The success of the new government depends on handling these issues and challenges without losing control over the social matrix of the state.

[Muhammad Shafeeque is a leading CIP correspondent in Kozhikode, Kerala, India.]