Kerala Polls: Three Crises That LDF Managed Well and Two It Didn’t
Pinarayi Vijayan’s government has turned several crises into opportunities to showcase their administrative skills.
It has been the tradition in Kerala politics, that a Congress-led United Democratic Front government is followed by a CPM-led Left Democratic Front government and vice versa. So, now that the LDF term is coming to a close with Assembly elections slated for the summer, will the alternation happen again?
The LDF government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has been lauded for its management of several disasters in the last five years, especially the coronavirus pandemic. Speculations are rife that the LDF could make history and return to power in Kerala.
However, it has had its fair share of controversies as well. Here are three crises that the LDF government managed well and two that it didn’t. These could make or break a second term for Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala.
1. Handling of the Coronavirus Pandemic
The Pinarayi Vijayan and Health Minister KK Shailaja ‘Teacher’ has been quite an effective combo. Truly, as medical and international circles have hailed the state for the way it is handling the pandemic. Given that the first case of COVID-19 was detected in Kerala as returnees from Wuhan and the Gulf were bringing the infection with themselves, Kerala could have been the worst-affected state. And that is what makes the achievement so remarkable.
Over the past months, Kerala has one of the lowest mortality rate of 8.4 deaths per million as compared to the national average of 48, while Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have recorded numbers 11 times higher.
This was achieved through relatively high number of testing, surveillance, quick identification of suspected and infected cases, efficient tracing of contact and travel history, quarantine measures, follow-up, mental health awareness and a strict discharge policy where the patient is discharged only after the antigen test is negative. Community kitchens were set up all over the state. Tailor-made food kits, that comprise of items such as atta, chilli powder, turmeric powder, coriander powder, fenugreek seeds, mustard seeds, pulses - green gram, urad dal, toor dal, sunflower and coconut oil, bathing soap, washing soap and everything essential for a family to survive, were distributed to all.
2. Kerala Floods 2018:
Kerala is a state familiar to heavy rains during monsoons and the urban planning is such that there is hardly any water logging and the storm-water drains are regularly cleaned and upgraded. But the massive floods of 2018 led to acute distress with lakhs of people moved to relief camps, many stranded, people being washed away, bridges breaking apart.
He personally attended to crisis calls, monitored the control room that was set up in his office, clarified doubts by media persons, and his press conferences were calming and reassuring.
Vijayan did not resort to any gimmicks such as going out to flood-affected areas and hugging the victims to create photo opportunities. Vijayan's decision not to hand over flood management to the central forces when Kerala was facing the worst-ever floods in a century had shocked many but was also seen as the right decision considering how well it was managed.
3. Nipah Virus, 2018
From the time health officials had indicated the onset of Nipah virus in Kerala, the state health-care machinery worked with a special team of entomologists and scouted locations, gathered samples, fogged the area and ensured state medical associations and government doctors were on high alert.
Even before the final confirmation reached the state government, KK Shailaja Teacher, the state’s health minister was already on the ground to handle the situation. The doctors were instructed to implement infection control measures like in the case of Ebola- isolating patients, using surgical masks and decontaminating surfaces.
All the possible measures were the very same day and more than 2,000 people who had come in contact with the 19 confirmed cases were being watched closely on a daily basis.
Two crucial lessons from the outbreak that was exceptionally implemented were detection and prevention.
At the time when the Nipah outbreak had been detected, the chief minister had announced an advanced Virology Institute in the state considering the absence of such an advanced institute in the state. Following that, the government on 9 February 2019, inaugurated the country’s first Institute of Advanced Virology, affiliated to the Global Virus Network, which has 45 centres of excellence in over 25 countries.
One major reason for their success is propagating accurate information concerning Nipah, COVID, or any other such crisis, in various forms that can reach all the communities of the state. This has largely helped quell fake news and avoid a panicked situation.
The success seen by the Left front recently when they swept seats at the local body polls in 514 grama panchayats, five corporations and 11 district panchayats, is another feather in Pinarayi Vijayan’s cap and many see this as the result of the government’s effective performance during crises like COVID-19, Nipah and the floods.
But political analysts believe it will not be an easy win for the Vijayan government and several factors could still go against it.
Secularism vs People’s Sentiments on Sabarimala Issue
While the state government was merely doing its duty of following the law, the Sabarimala issue could also be an problem for the LDF government.
Vijayan never shied away from holding the BJP accountable for the violence, he did not spare even the family of the chief priest and the royal family of Pandalam. Under his guidance, the police took stern action on the protesters by arresting scores of them and even registered cases against them.
While there is newfound popularity for Pinarayi Vijayan among the ‘hardline secularists,’ many have been critical of his ‘right-wing deviation,’ which in turn has strengthened his hold with the left block.
The BJP has been pushing hard to maintain the upper hand in this Sabarimala episode.
Amit Shah, during a speech in Kannur, Kerala had said, “A non-believer government is trying to do enough dirty jobs in the name of a verdict. Instead of giving relief to the flood-hit, this government is hell-bent on tackling peaceful devotees.”
He had warned that BJP workers won’t hesitate to pull the LDF government if the continues to suppress public sentiments.
Pinarayi Vijayan responded on his Facebook page, stating that the remarks of BJP President were an attack on Supreme Court, Indian Constitution and our judicial system.
“The BJP president’s assertion that courts must only pronounce verdicts which could be carried out conveys the message that fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution are not meant to be implemented. These statements of Shah also reveal the true colour of RSS and Sangh parivar,” he said.
However, the Sabarimala issue did work against the LDF in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in which it was reduced to just 1 seat. Even Vijayan admitted that the Sabarimala row could have contributed to this debacle.
The Mega Gold Scam
Amid all the laurels, the Left Front government in Kerala is facing its biggest crisis of credibility with the gold smuggling scam.
The gold smuggling scam involving the UAE consulate in Thiruvananthapuram has brought Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office at the centre of a raging storm.
The case has serious political implications for the ruling party as the accused have reported to have close links to his former Principal Secretary M Sivasankar (who has now been removed). While the chief minister has reiterated that he has no links to this and even wrote to the prime minister asking for a proper investigation to bring out the truth, his government does have to respond to several unanswered questions such as how the key accused Swapna Suresh managed to leave the state during a lockdown. It is important to note that she was part of a government-run IT project, and speculations are rife that she managed to get in through her close contacts with several higher officials in the government.
Since 1988, when Vijayan took over and served as CPM’s longest-serving secretary in Kerala to now as the head of state, he had acquired the image of a “stone-faced dictator” who almost always never smiles. The recent press conferences during the 2018 floods, cyclone Ockhi and the coronavirus pandemic has changed the public perception and made him much more accessible.
However, it remains to be seen if he has done enough to buck the trend of Kerala voting out incumbents or whether the scam and controversies have pulled him down.
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