Kerala Assembly elections: Welfare thrust helps left rewrite history

This is the first time in history that an incumbent chief minister came back to power after completing a full term.
Effective implementation of welfare schemes has helped chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan lead the left democratic front (LDF), rewrite history, and return to power in Kerala. This is the first time in history that an incumbent chief minister came back to power after completing a full term. Kerala alternates between UDF and LDF even when governments perform reasonably well. Except in 1977, no ruling front has been re-elected.

The LDF, a coalition, is likely to win 99 out of the 140 seats in the Kerala assembly. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is leading in the remaining 41 seats.

In the 2016 elections, the LDF had won 91 seats, and UDF had won 47 seats.

The left wave smashed the hopes of the BJP to strengthen its position as the third pole in Kerala's politics. The party lost its stronghold Nemom where it had opened account in the previous assembly elections. Senior CPI (M) leader V.Sivankutty wrested the constituency back in a strong triangular fight. Even the BJP's star candidate, metro man E.Sreedharan, lost in Palakkad. The BJP led NDA did not win any seat in the elections. The metro man was trailing behind Congress party legislator Shafi Paramabil.

"BJP had high hopes. They were riding on the Sabarimala issue, and they had surprise star candidates like Sreedharan. If they cannot win despite all these factors, it raises questions about what kind of leadership they have. And what kind of narrative they can sell in Kerala and how big they can grow,' said Nidheesh MK, journalist and political analyst based in Kerala.
Why LDF won

Political analysts said the left front's win resulted from a massive pro incumbency wave and is an endorsement of Vijayan's leadership style. The state was plagued by one crisis after the other after Vijayan came to power. This included two successive floods, the Nipah outbreak and the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a way, these crises helped Vijayan shed his image as a party strongman and rebrand himself as a decisive administrator. During the floods and after the onslaught of the COVID19 pandemic, his daily press briefings endeared him to the common man even as his critics dismissed them as a publicity stunt. Even his controversial stance on Sabarimala earned him admirers, even though it antagonized many.

The thrust on welfare measures, including the distribution of essential grocery items during the pandemic and increasing the welfare pension, helped the left combine to override the impact of scams and the investigations by various central agencies.
"The results make us suspect whether the narrative build against the government, including the gold smuggling scam and Sabarimala issue, mattered to people. Or it may have mattered, but the goodwill from welfare schemes overrode these issues,' said Nidheesh.
"I took a road trip across the state before elections, and there was praise from all quarters for the government's welfare schemes. In some way or the other, everybody was touched by the gesture, whether pensions or food kits. It raised Vijayan's goodwill even amongst those who were not direct beneficiaries."

A rejig in the coalition by roping in Kerala Congress (Mani) led by Jose K Mani has also rewarded the left front, especially in capturing the Christian votes. The Kerala Congress (Mani)  is leading five seats though Jose K Mani was defeated in the Pala constituency.
In the 2016 elections, the LDF did not declare a chief ministerial candidate. The former chief minister, V S Achuthanandan, actively campaigned. This time Pinarayi Vijayan was the face of the left front. Vijayan turned the election into a referendum on his record as an administrator. He decided not to field members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) who have completed two consecutive terms. This decision kept 33 sitting MLAs, including finance minister Thomas Isaac.

"This is a mandate for what Vijayan did; people might have different opinions about his personality. But the fact that his government ensured that no one went hungry in a time of distress struck a chord," said Nidheesh.

The main opposition Congress had to endure morale crushing defeat. And has raised questions about its future in Kerala.

"Congress put up a good fight with good candidates, but the wave was pro-government. The party is in deep trouble as it is not in power, both centre and the state. It will be difficult to keep their flock together," said A. Jayashankar, political analyst.
With a decisive mandate, Vijayan's iron-like grip on the administration and the party will be complete. And his critics say that the party and the administration could end up revolving around one individual.

"Vijayan had an iron grip on the party, and he will emerge stronger after this verdict. And we might see a one-man rule like in centre,' said Jayashankar.

Table: Kerala Chief Ministers and their tenure
Chief Minister
E M S Namboodiripad
April 5, 1957-July 31, 1959
Pattom A Thanu Pillai
February 22, 1960-September 26, 1962
R Sankar September 26, 1962-September 10, 1964
E M S Namboodiripad March 6, 1967-November 1, 1969
C Achutha Menon
November 1, 1969-August 1, 1970
C Achutha Menon October 4, 1970-March 25, 1977
K Karunakaran
March 25, 1977-April 25, 1977
A K Antony April 27, 1977-October 27, 1978
P K Vasudevan Nair
October 29, 1978-October 7, 1979
C H Mohammed Koya October 12, 1979-December 1, 1979
E K Nayanar
January 25, 1980-October 20, 1981
K Karunakaran December 28, 1981-March 17, 1982
K Karunakaran
May 24, 1982-March 25, 1987
E K Nayanar March 26, 1987-June 17, 1991
K Karunakaran June 24, 1991-March 16, 1995
A K Antony
March 22, 1995-May 9, 1996
E K Nayanar May 20, 1996-May 13, 2001
A K Antony May 17, 2001-August 29, 2004
Oommen Chandy
August 31, 2004 AN-May 12, 2006
V S Achuthanandan
May 18, 2006-May 14, 2011
Oommen Chandy
May 18, 2011 AN- May 20, 2016
Pinarayi Vijayan May 25, 2016 -

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