While the LDF’s candidate selection itself has been marred by controversy, its tried-and-tested formula of social engineering has instead added to the organized polarization by the BJP and fringe Islamist groups.
The defeat of the Thrikkakara by-elections comes as a thunderclap for the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (LDF) in Kerala. Not only have the LDF’s hopes of attaining a “century” of Kerala Assembly seats crumbled into a catastrophic loss, it is also breathing new life into the opposition-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Congressman’s Uma Thomas, wife of late Congress leader and MP PT Thomas, won by a historic margin of 25,016 votes, beating left-wing candidate Jo Joseph, a noted cardiologist.
By deploying the entire state apparatus and personally leading the campaign from the front lines, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan unnecessarily raised the stakes, only to eat a humble pie.
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Thrikkakara, the most urban constituency in Kerala which was carved out after the 2009 demarcation, was always going to be a tough proposition for the DFL. Nevertheless, the CPI(M) believed it could win the polls by micro-managing the campaign, following its meteoric return to power in assembly elections last year. He also returned to the model he successfully tried in Chengennur’s partial survey in 2018, where he contacted different social groups and gave them confidence. Replicating such a strategy in an urban constituency was always fraught with pitfalls, and the huge margin of defeat should send the party back to the drawing board.
As far as the stalled Congress is concerned, the victory is a huge relief after back-to-back losses in 2016 and 2021. The result is also a setback for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose leader AN Radhakrishnan has garnered less than votes only in 2021. In fact, he lost his security deposit. The fact that Kerala politics will remain bipolar for the time being, regardless of whether the LDF opposes the four-decade-old trend of voting against incumbent governments, was underscored in the process.
The tactical blunder of the CPI(M)
The selection of the LDF candidates itself was marred by controversy as the CPI(M) district committee’s choice of KS Arun Kumar was rejected by the state leadership. The LDF repeated the same blunder it made in 2021, when the left also backed an independent Dr J Jacob, who is believed to be the candidate of Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the powerful Syro-Malabar Church of Kerala. But then the cardinal himself faced a rebellion from within, over factionalism within the Church and allegations of corruption against it.
Thus, the cardinal was reduced to an automatic buffer in the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archeparchy, with the majority of parish priests lining up against him, and the laity mostly casting their spell with their vicars.
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But the CPI(M) had regularly engaged the Cardinal’s faction, the official faction of the Syro-Malabar Church, and while working for them in the traditional Congress stronghold of Central Travancore comprising the districts of Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta during the Assembly of 2021 election, he came a cropper in Ernakulam district, the seat of the head of the church, where the rebel faction rules.
Orchestrating an introductory press conference for candidate Jo Joseph at Lissie Hospital in Ernakulam, run by the rebel church faction, State Cabinet Minister P Rajeeve offered a quick fix to pitch him as joint candidate of rival factions of the church – instead it turned against the CPI(M). The rival faction went to town to anoint Jo Joseph as the candidate for the Cardinal faction, which found traction among the electorate.
Despite weak protests from the official church faction initially, the cardinal faction “owned” the leftist candidate by gaining support through unofficial channels like the “World Christian Council” led by Kennedy Karimpinkala. In the 24 parishes of the Syro-Malabar Church of Thrikkkakara, 22 vicars adopted an anti-cardinal position and this undermined the hopes of the left-wing candidate.
Alternative option of CPI(M)
Instead of betting on ‘social engineering’, the CPI(M) could have resorted to the positive policy it adopted in the recent partial polls of Vattiyoorkkavu, Konni, Ernakulam and Aroor, where it fielded young comrades with mixed results. Even in the elections where he lost in Aroor and Ernakulam, the contest went to the wire.
In Thrikkakara, however, Marxists reverted to the model they adopted in Chengennur in 2018 and successfully replicated across the state in the 2021 assembly elections, resorting to social engineering, smear campaigns and concentrating all of their machinery in the constituency.
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“Social Engineering” by Pinarayi Vijayan
Lately, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had managed to deploy his cabinet colleagues Saji Cherian, VN Vasavan and P Rajeeve to central Kerala and former minister KT Jaleel to Malabar to reduce the UDF’s support base. While the strategy is openly framed in euphemisms such as “social engineering”, it has had the effect of adding to the polarization engineered by the BJP and fringe Islamist groups, pitting the traditional support base of Christians against Muslims at loggerheads.
The traditional Hindu base of the CPI(M) in Kerala has seen a slight erosion after the Sabarimala judgment and its aftermath and the CPI(M) calculates that it can not only make up for all losses but also be perpetually on the hustle by attracting a section of the Christian and Muslim vote banks of the UDF.
The CPI(M) attempted to pull off the same trick at Thrikkakara in several ways.
Reverse for SilverLine
The results of the Thrikkakara by-elections also came as a huge setback for the CPI(M) and Vijayan in pursuing the Silverline semi-high speed train project, which has been met with huge public protests. The cash-strapped government has touted the Silverline project as a silver bullet, cutting the travel time between Thiruvananthapuram in the south and Kasaragod in the north to four hours.
But there are concerns that the government is ignoring due process and also the damage to the environment. A win for the FDL would have doubled as an endorsement of the draft – a loss only complicates the situation.
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