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Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan
Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan|Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Kerala

2019: Despite Sabarimala, Pinarayi Vijayan Emerged Unscathed

From floods to Maoist “encounters” to scams, the Kerala CM has taken all brickbats on the chin & remained steadfast

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

A year in the political life of a state is nothing but a fleeting moment in its history. But 2019 has been a year when time stood still in Kerala’s political landscape on at least one occasion.

If the Sabarimala issue had been the one overriding factor that even in the last week of December sees no end in sight, the impact it has had on political parties and their fortunes produced many a seesaw moment in 2019.

If it was the CPI(M) led LDF (Left Democratic Front) that started on a sticky wicket in the first few months of the year, because of the Sabarimala deadlock, that baton soon passed over to the BJP which by the end of 2019 once again proved that it is a party incapable of reading the political pulse of Kerala’s electorate.

2019 saw the continuation of the BJP’s dismal run at the ballot box in Kerala. Even when Prime Minister Narendra Modi received a thumping mandate for a second term in office, the BJP in Kerala was a distant third and with 2019 meandering to an end, the party is still unable to find even a suitable candidate as its state president.

On the other hand, the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front) perhaps had the best year in quite some time, sweeping the general elections in 2019 against a national trend. The Left with one of their worst performances ever, paid the price for a few unwise political decisions.

But the year certainly ended with the ruling Left and the state’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan recovering lost political ground considerably as both the Congress and the BJP failed to capitalise on a number of issues that hit the government, the assembly by-election results standing testimony to it.

Sabarimala, Maoists attacks, higher education scam and a number of other issues remained on paper as a disillusioned opposition failed to make the government pay, post the 2019 general election.

The Left no doubt remained on a slippery slope for much of the year. But they did hang in there to recover much of the lost political ground later.

“There was a time when the Left was under the hammer due to Sabarimala. Though the issue at Sabarimala was at its heights in 2018 its impacts were on the 2019 elections. No doubt in 2019 general elections, the Left did pay a heavy price because of Sabarimala. But from then on, every political party changed its stand on Sabarimala. Even for the BJP it became a non issue. This gave the Left enough room to recover lost ground,’’ noted activist and AAP Admi Party State convener C R Neelakandan told The Lede.

The Sabarimala Stalemate

When this report was being filed, the Supreme Court had set a date to hear the review petitions against the September 2018 verdict that revoked the ban on allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala shrine.

Not just that, the Left government in Kerala too had also made a considerable climb down from its early 2019 stand.

If there was one enduring picture that had the potential to hurt the Left among its predominantly majority Hindu vote bank, it was that of two women in police riot gear trying to enter the shrine with scores of other policemen giving them security. But this happened in late December 2018.

But even before that the government had been using the issue as a rally point for pro-women, pro-renaissance activism in the state and had even gone to extent of providing not just security to any woman who wants to climb up to the hill shrine but also facilitate it in some cases as alleged by the protestors. But by the latter half of 2019 it took a complete u-turn.

In the wee hours of January 02, Bindu Ammini, 40, and Kanaka Durga, 39, claimed they entered the temple and had darshan, leading to widespread protests and even violence across the state by Hindu groups. Many even believed that the state was complicit in helping the women enter the shrine giving the protestors the slip. This hurt the CPM and the ruling Left front really hard leading up to the 2019 election debacle.

The state committee of the CPM and members of the Left front had to openly admit that the near white wash the party received at the 2019 general elections losing 19 out of 20 seats was due to the pro-women entry stand it had taken in the months preceding the elections.

“There is no doubt that a section of the society including the Hindu right wing groups has created an atmosphere to alienate the Left on the Sabarimala issue. They have very successfully misguided a large section of the believers,’’ CPM State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had said at a press briefing at the CPM State Secretariat.

But since then, the picture has changed dramatically. While the Congress can take credit for having won the general elections hands down, the assembly by-elections, which were more an indication of where the ruling party stood, saw the LDF’s revival phase kicking in.

While most exit polls predicted a near rout for the Left, the party managed to win three out of six, not a bad performance given the poor show in the general elections a few months ago.

With the BJP drawing a blank again, losing even their previous vote share, it once again reiterated that the party’s seeming double standards on Sabarimala had little takers among the voters as time passed by.

That the Left could wrest the assembly seat of Konni in Pathanamthitta district which is right in the heart of Sabarimala also proved that the Sabarimala agitation had lost most of its steam by the latter half of 2019.

“See when Sabarimala agitation started most people had a strong animosity towards the Left because of obvious reasons of supporting the women activists. But things started changing once they realised that the BJP which was the torch bearer of the issue is taking double standards on it. Also, the violence BJP unleashed justified the Left’s stand on the issue and as months passed Sabarimala failed to hurt the Left,” NM Pearson told The Lede.

It is here that many feel the Left in Kerala would have managed to bring back atleast a part of the majority vote bank that they had lost in 2019 general elections.

“One of the major reasons why the CPM lost heavily in 2019 elections was because a large chunk of the Hindu vote bank had moved away from it to the BJP. But that seems to have now returned which is indicative of the outcomes at bypolls in Konni and Vattiyoorkavu constituencies,” reiterated CR Neelakandan.

Many analysts conclude that the Congress-led UDF which had been hoping to take Sabarimala issue to the next assembly election in 2021 will find it doubly tough to garner votes in the name of Lord Ayyappa again.

Hence if it was the Rahul Gandhi factor, with him contesting from Wayanad, clubbed with Sabarimala that saw the Congress beat the Left hands-down in the general elections; those two factors are unlikely to have any impact in Kerala’s political landscape come 2020.

Rather, Pinarayi Vijayan who had taken a severe beating to his image as an ‘anti devotee’ Chief Minister has recovered much political ground towards the latter half of 2019.

“The Vijayan in the early part of 2019 was mostly perceived as a very arrogant leader who took brash decisions. Not that Vijayan has changed. But the political situation in Kerala has given him a second chance. BJP’s mostly violent stand on the Sabarimala issue and the inability of the Congress, the primary opposition to nail Vijayan on crucial issues has made it easy for the Chief Minister to revive his image among the people as a strong leader who walks the talk,’’ reiterated Pearson.

The Maoist Divide

Most other issues pale in comparison to Sabarimala as the principal influencer in Kerala politics in 2019. But the issue of how a Left government dealt with the Maoists problem including an encounter that killed three Maoists in the forests adjoining Kerala had sparked off a debate even in the party’s central leadership.

While the police action sent fissures down the Left front with the principle ally, the CPI, even going to the extent of calling it a fake encounter, the CPM and the major chunk of the Left forces had no option but to back a determined Chief Minister in his decision to liquidate the Maoists even though dissenting voices were prominent.

But in 2019, the Left government did not stop with that. It went on to file cases against two students turned Maoists Alan Suhaib and Taha Fazal under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a law that is considered draconian by the same ruling party.

“This government seems to have forgotten the innumerable strikes and protests that the Left forces have undertaken against the use of UAPA against many activists. May be Pinarayi Vijayan wants to make the Modi government happy by taking a line closer to them,’’ added noted political activist MN Kariserry.

It not only created a section of the Left front to go up in arms along with the opposition Congress but also questioned the new policies of this Left government which political commentators say is fast becoming completely against the declared polices of the Left parties itself. 2019 is only a continuation in that sense say analysts.

“If you look at all the polices that this government led by Pinarayi Vijayan has put forward on different issues right from the u-turn in Sabarimala to the Maoist encounter and use of UAPA, there seems to be an outright erosion or diversion from the declared polices of the party. In fact most of us believe that contrary to earlier Left governments in Kerala, here the party has lost its grip over the government and its decision. It only got worse in 2019,’’ well known political commentator & Left ideologue Joseph C Mathew told The Lede.

Other Issues That Rocked The Boat

It was also the year that saw the higher education sector in the state facing an unprecedented crisis as the Minister of Higher Education KT Jaleel was found over-stepping his duties and interfering in the autonomous structure of at least two Universities by granting grace marks to make candidates pass examinations.

With a whistle blower exposing the scam, the state Governor was forced to intervene calling for a report from the Universities. Further action is expected from the Governor in the beginning of 2020. But the big take away is the inability of the party to correct the government and those in power when a mistake is made.

“In earlier times Pinarayi Vijayan was using the party to justify all his autocratic decisions. Now he is using the party as well as the government for the same purpose. The CPM line is always that the government exists to implement the polices of the party. But now the party is used as a tool to justify the programmes of the government. So party policies have no value here,’’ added Joseph C Mathew.

2018 brought with it one of the worst floods Kerala has ever seen which left close to 500 people dead and 140 still missing. The economic impact of the destruction of property was also huge. 2019 was declared to be a year of rehabilitation. But many say that apart from a few houses being rebuilt hardly anything much has really happened.

Whatever happens in 2020 will shape the outcome of the 2021 assembly elections. Though it is doubtful that Sabarimala could still be an election issue in 2021, a lot will depend on what happens at the apex court once the hearing on the review petition starts.

It also remains to be seen whether the BJP that surely looked like a growing force in Kerala a few years ago till infighting took it apart, could come together as an electoral challenge for the other two fronts.

Rahul Gandhi’s honeymoon period in Kerala vis-a-vis his Wayanad win as MP might very well be over and the Congress going into 2020 will have to find inspiration elsewhere to take on Pinarayi Vijayan and Company.

Vijayan continues to be the numero uno in the CPM and the government and his autocratic style of functioning is likely to continue well into the next year emboldened by the fact that even a highly emotive issue like Sabarimala could not unsettle him.