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Kerala Assembly Elections 2016: Overview - Key issues, candidates, alliances and poll scenario

By Kamna Arora | By Ankita Bhandari | Last Updated: Tuesday, May 17, 2016 - 12:16

The stage is all set for a game changer election in Kerala. Voting for the new 140-member Kerala Assembly will take place on May 16 and counting will be done on May 19.

Kerala Assembly Election 2016 will not only witness the contest between the two traditional alliances -- the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) -- but also gauge the popularity of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the southern state.

Since the UDF and LDF have dominated the political landscape in Kerala since the 1970s, it will be interesting to see if the BJP-led NDA could begin its innings here.

The Kerala elections are crucial for Oommen Chandy as it would create history if the UDF manages to retain power. If it actually happens, it would be the first ever time that an incumbent party retains power in Kerala. Also, the victory will help Congress heal its wounds after its humiliating drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Whereas, the Left wants the history to repeat itself, so that it assumes office again in the God’s own country. Notably, the Left is leaving no stone unturned in grabbing victory in Kerala as well as in West Bengal, once a stronghold of the Communists.

However, the most interesting part of this election is to see if the lotus will bloom in Kerala and the BJP tastes victory. The BJP’s wonderful performance in recent civic elections in the state hints at the chunk, occupied by the two fronts, it could steal.

In the last Assembly Elections held in 2011, the Chandy government had assumed office with a razor-thin majority by grabbing 72 seats while the Left managed to secure 68 seats.

Key candidates:

Oommen Chandy, Congress: Oommen Chandy has a lot of burden on his shoulders. He can create history if he leads ruling Congress-led UDF to victory in the state which religiously dumps the ruling party in every election.

The elections are also a litmus test for the “people’s friendly” projects Chandy initiated. The Smart City Kochi project, Kochi Metro, work on the Kannur airport, the Vizhhinjam Port are examples of such projects. However, his government's image has been dented due to various corruption scandals.

If the UDF loses, the 72-year-old could retire and pave the way for next players.

VS Achuthanandan, CPI(M): He is 93 but for veteran former Kerala chief minister CPI-M leader Velikkakath Sankaran Achuthanandan, age is just a number. Eyeing the CM post again, Achuthanandan is said to be the most popular campaigner for the opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF). His rallies still attract huge crowd. Known as a shrewd strategist, VS Achuthanandan has played a key role along with other leaders such as late EMS Namboodiripad and K Nayanar in making the CPI(M) as the biggest Communist group in Kerala after the split in undivided CPI(M) in 1964.

The Leader of Opposition is not at all shying away from using social media, such as Facebook, to his advantage. He is contesting from LDF’s traditional stronghold Malampuzha.

O Rajagopal, BJP: It's a doe or die battle for the 83-year-old leader. The BJP is depending on Rajagopal, popularly called as 'Rajettan', to open its account in the state. Believed to be tallest leader of the BJP in the southern state, BJP’s Rajagopal had given tough competition to Congress leader Shashi Tharoor in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency during 2014 Lok Sabha Elections. He was defeated by a small margin. This time, he can turn the fortunes for the BJP. Unperturbed by his four consecutive electoral defeats in the last five years, the octogenarian is campaigning hard to defeat CPI(M)-LDF's V Sivankutty and JD(U)-UDF's V Surendran Pillai in Nemom.

Notably, Nemom constituency has substantial Nair community votes, which could help the BJP candidate considerably.

Here are some of the key issues that plague the 'God's Own Country'.

Liquor ban

In the run-up to 16 May-state assembly elections in Kerala, there is one particular question that many voters want answered: just where do the main parties stand on banning alcohol in this liquor-loving state? The liquor ban issue is important to the residents of Kerala who consume more alcohol that people in any other Indian state.

On 24 August 2014, CM Oommen Chandy announced that state will implement prohibition in a phased manner. The decision was supported by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress. Liquor bars in Kerala had to renew licenses every year; the state government did not license any bar on 31 March 2014, resulting in the closure of 418 bars.

The state government also declared its intention of not renewing licenses of the remaining 313 bars in the state next year. The state owned Kerala State Beverages Corporation (Bevco) has 338 shops, and Bevco will shut down 10% of them every year. Consumerfed, which has 46 shops, will also be closed.

While CM Chandy has definitely earned lot of applause from a section over 'liquor ban' in the state, he has also invited at the same time. Thousands of bar workers lost their jobs, thus leading to a rise in unemployment, which was there already.

Tourism has been hit really really bad in the past one-year. 90% of the tourists stay in non 5-Star hotels and them not serving alcohol have discouraged many not to visit Kerala again in future.

The revenues from BevCo contributes a substantial amount to the revenue of the Govt of Kerala. Other sources would have to be found to fund this loss. The state will also have to make up for the lost 40% revenues from alocohol taxes.

Now, if Congresss-led United Democratic Front comes to power again in the state, the ongoing alocohol ban in the state will continue to go. However, if Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front wins the majority, it will most likely curb the alcohol consumption in a phased manner, according to one of its party member.

Scams

Kerala was hit by a series of scams in 2015, one of which led to the ignominious exit of Finance Minister K M Mani, and among other headlines was one over the exclusion of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy from a function of Prime Minister Narendra Modi which also had its echo in Parliament.

The bar scam, in which Mani was allegedly involved, dominated the political scenario in Kerala throughout the year. Mani, against whom vigilance sleuths had registered an FIR in the bar scam, was forced to resign a day after Kerala High court made some stinging observations. A prominent bar hotelier, Biju Ramesh had made stunning revelations during a television debate that the Kerala Bar Hotel Owners Association had paid Rs one crore bribe to Mani and Rs 10 crore to Babu for favourable decisions.

His resignation came as a big blow to the Chandy government as he is the second minister who was forced to quit from the Cabinet. Earlier, K B Ganesh Kumar of Kerala Congress (B) had resigned after his estranged wife complained of domestic violence. Ganeshkumar and his party led by his father R Balakrishna Pillai, later left the UDF.

For Chandy, more trouble seems to be brewing in the bar scam, with a vigilance court now ordering a quick verification against another minister, K Babu, handling Excise and Ports. The development came as an embarrassment for Chandy as Babu is a Congress minister and close confidant of his.

The solar scam continued to haunt the UDF government with the main accused, Biju Radhakrishnan targeting Chandy claiming that he had video evidence of him and five other ministers in 'wrongful situations'. A search for the purported video at Coimbatore turned out to be a wild goose chase.

Tainted ministers

The ruling coalition, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), is not in the pink of its health. Not only has its governance has been accused on several occassion of being lacklustre, it's 'near' 5-year in office has been dogged by scams and scandals which involved names of some of the key leaders.

Two Cabinet ministers have been forced to resign following court strictures. Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy himself is under the scanner in the Solar scam, that dominated the political scenario in Kerala throughout the year. This government has earned the opprobrium of being ranked among the corrupt and inefficient governments in the history of the State.

One way of refurbishing the image of Congress was to keep away the tainted minister from election fray. However, the party chose to field them in the polls.

Black Money

With assembly polls in five states underway, the Election Commission (EC) has asked intelligence agencies, particularly in the domain of economic snooping, to crack down on instances of use of black money.

The Commission, as part of its measures to curb black money in the polls, has deployed 'expenditure observers' drawn from central revenue services like the Income Tax and Customs and Excise departments.

The poll panel, in order to keep a track of huge cash spent during the polls, has also asked the Income Tax department and the FIU, both agencies under the Union Finance Ministry, to keep a strict vigil on movement of unaccounted cash.

Strikes

Strikes, protests and marches are ubiquitous in Kerala because of the comparatively strong presence of labour unions. Scores of men and women taking to streets holding banners and shouting slogans against Centre government, state government or sometimes against the administration is a regular sight in Kerala.

Plantation workers' plight

Fall in rubber prices saw the state farmers reeling under financial crisis with price touching below Rs 100 per kg. Even though government announced various schemes to support growers, these did not have the desired result. Year 2015 saw apolitical agitation by a group of women workers of tea plantations of Kanan Devan hills at Munnar.

With over 10,000 women blocking the roads in the famous hill resort, government was forced to act by calling them for talks. Subsequently, the entire plantation workers went on a indefinite agitation following which the plantation management and workers reached an understanding on wages on government's intervention.

Alliances

There are two major political coalitions in Kerala. The United Democratic Front (UDF) is the coalition of parties led by the Indian National Congress. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) is the coalition of mainly the leftist parties, led by Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI-M).

For the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF), it is not only a battle for retaining power in the state but the poll victory would also bring an opportunity for the Congress to stage a sort of comeback at the national level after the party faced a humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

The two fronts, Congress-led UDF and CPI-led LDF, that have beeen ruling the state alternately since 1982, will have to factor in the challenge posed by BJP which had put up a better showing in recent civic elections in the state.

The BJP is also active in Kerala but does not have any elected Parliament or Legislative Assembly members in the state. It has however elected members in all the Corporations, several Municipal Councils and a large number of Local Panchayats, and won a record-high 10% of the total vote share in Kerala in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

However, what is to be noted here is that BJP, which has so far been unable to win a seat in Assembly or Lok Sabha elections, has this time found a political ally in the Bharath Dharam Jana Sena (BDJS). Besides BJP and BDJS, Kerala Congress led by former union minister P C Thomas is also part of the NDA in the state.

The BDJS is a new party formed by Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, a powerful organisation of backward Ezhava community, led by its General Secretary Vellappally Natesan.

The UDF, which came to power in 2011 on the slogan of ‘development and care’, wants to script a new history in the state with a verdict in its favour for ‘continuation’ of the government.

In a setback to UDF, two of its minor parters — Janathipathiya Samrakshana Samithi (JSS) led by veteran communist leader K R Gouri — and Communist Marxist Party (CMP) of late M V Raghavan — have joined the LDF fold.

Besides, the Kerala Congress (M), third largest partner of UDF, has suffered a split with a group of rebels walking out, accusing the party supremo and 'Bar bribery' accused KM Mani of functioning unilaterally and promoting his son.

On the other hand, RSP, a major constituent of LDF, has switched side and is now a partner of the ruling front LDF.

The resignation of a CPI(M) legislator R Selvaraj, who represented Neyyatinkara, from the party and switch over to UDF has come as a blow to CPI(M) in the state. Selvaraj became a Congress MLA after winning the by-elections.

Overview:

United Democratic Front is a coalition of Indian National Congress, Indian Union Muslim League, Kerala Congress (Mani), Revolutionary Socialist Party, Janata Dal (United), Kerala Congress (Jacob) and Communist Marxist Party (John). While Revolutionary Socialist Party of Kerala (Bolshevik) led by A.V. Thamarakshan will support the party in the 2016 Kerala Legislative Assembly elections.

Left Democratic Front is a coalition of Communist Party of India (Marxist), Communist Party of India, Janata Dal (Secular), Nationalist Congress Party, Kerala Congress (Skaria Thomas) and Congress (S). LDF is supported by Janadhipathya Kerala Congress, Indian National League, Kerala Congress (Balakrishnan Pillai), Communist Marxist Party, Revolutionary Socialist Party (Leninist), Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi.

National Democratic Alliance has an alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party, Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, Kerala Congress (Thomas), Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha, Kerala Congress (Nationalist), Janadhipathya Samrakshana Samithi (Rajan Babu), Lok Janshakti Party and Kerala Vikas Congress in the state.

Besides, Welfare Party of India, Social Democratic Party of India and Bahujan Samaj Party have not formed coalition with any party for the May 16 election to the 140-member Assembly. 

First Published: Sunday, May 15, 2016 - 10:16

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