Kerala has a history of solid voting trends, with voters often preserving a composed posture, unmoved by emotive and momentary issues. Rabble-rousers were kept at bay.
But recent elections have shown a tendency of voters to become more hot-blooded and impulsive as the polling day draws closer. A slight shift in less than 5 percent of votes can make a significant impact on the outcome.
With the general elections 2024 just a few months away, two things are evident in Kerala's electoral landscape. This time too, the national ruling front, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA, is most likely to have a minor presence in the state. The primary battle will be between the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), both partners in the recently formed 'INDIA' coalition.
Further, the battlefield will surely be resounded by the memories of the late former chief minister Oommen Chandy, on what he did and was done unto him. The Congress-led local alliance United Democratic Front (UDF) is likely to concentrate its campaign on the theme of "Justice for Oommen Chandy."
The Oommen Chandy Factor
K Sudhakaran, the fervent president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), told The Quint:
"This new situation presents an opportunity for the people of Kerala to seek retribution against the CPI(M) and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for the humiliations they inflicted on someone of Oommen Chandy's stature. We will definitely pull this emotion during the campaign."
Three factors have converged to lead UDF allies to believe that the late leader's legacy will work in their favour.
First, multitudes of people thronged to the funeral procession of Oommen Chandy in the third week of July. The final journey of the former chief minister from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram took 36 hours to conclude in his hometown in Kottayam.
The fact that he had not been in power for the past seven years didn't dissuade people from coming in crowds. It became one of the biggest farewells bestowed on a public personality by the masses in Kerala's history.
Second, the striking victory of Chandy Oommen in the Puthuppally Assembly constituency – a seat his father held for 12 terms. When votes were counted on 9 September, the son surpassed the father by harvesting the largest-ever majority. Chandy himself termed his win as the thirteenth victory of his father.
Third and fatal, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has concluded – after a three-year-long investigation – that Oommen Chandy was innocent in the solar corruption-cum-sex scandal that shook his last government in its final years. The CBI further revealed that a malignant conspiracy was hatched to tarnish and frame up Oommen Chandy in the case.
It found that KB Ganesh Kumar, an MLA in the Left fold, had been involved in the conspiracy. Though the agency doesn't name Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the Opposition aims the blame at him too.
The sentiments at the father's funeral and the jubilation over the son's victory may die out soon. But the scathing revelations in the solar scam case by the CBI are surely to have a weighty impact on the upcoming elections.
"If the Congress succeeds in campaigning it properly, it will be the most crucial factor that influences the next elections in the state," says Sidharth Rajendran, a political scientist.
What Was the Solar Scam?
It was in June 2013, when the Oommen Chandy government was into its third year, that CPI(M)-owned Kairali TV came out with a heavy charge that a woman entrepreneur was used by Team Solar Company to garner political clout into various touch-points in the government, including the Chief Minister's Office (CMO).
Three officials in the CMO were sacked on being caught in late-night 'loose talks' with the woman over hundreds of phone calls.
Speaking to The Quint, John Brittas, CPI(M) nominee in the Rajya Sabha and the managing director of Kairali TV, said: "Our story was true and non-sensational. It exposed the nasty ways of governance at the time. It was about financial fraud and corruption involved in the proposed solar scheme. We didn't sex it up."
But the case was made titillating by many players, including different factions in the Congress. At one point, more than 10 public figures, including four Kerala ministers, one junior central minister, three MLAs, and a few government officials, were drawn into the unpleasant scene as the pestering television media in Malayalam exposed the communication trail of the woman.
The LDF conducted a 30-hour-long siege on the state secretariat in August 2013, compelling Oommen Chandy to appoint Justice G Sivarajan as a judicial commission to investigate the allegations.
Oommen Chandy stepped down as the UDF lost to the LDF in 2016, and Pinarayi Vijayan was in the Chief Minister's seat when the judicial commission wrote its final report in 2018. Its decision to include a letter deceptively written by the accused woman in the final report had sparked a controversy.
This letter alleged corruption and recounted explicit details of the sexual escapades of UDF leaders, including Oommen Chandy. Based on this report, the Vijayan government initiated a Crime Branch investigation against Oommen Chandy – and later referred the case to the CBI.
"It was a misguided act by the judicial commission, because multiple versions of the letter did exist, and the included version has more pages than the original one. The government used this flawed report to spike Oommen Chandy," said Congress MLA Shafi Parambil, who presented an adjournment motion in the Assembly on the CBI's final discharge report.
A Post-Truth Setting
The CBI report, submitted in December and accepted by the court last week, has it all: schemers and cronies, lovers and looters. The CBI concluded that KB Ganesh Kumar managed to obtain this letter rewritten by the accused woman to tarnish and scandalise Oommen Chandy.
The Congress now alleges that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan was the real player who wished to end the career of his political counterpart. They are in an ostensible effort to make Oommen Chandy their poster boy for the next election.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, while responding in the Assembly, vehemently denied the Opposition's charges.
"Personally or politically, we didn't have any ill intention to taint the late Chief Minister. Every action by my government was under the constitutional boundary. The judicial commission was appointed by Ommen Chandy himself. When the commission submitted its report to the LDF government, we sought the legal opinion of former Supreme Court Justice Arijith Pasayat, and acted accordingly. We were discharging our constitutional duties."
KB Ganesh Kumar, too, denied his involvement.
"The man named Manoj who gave a statement against me before the CBI is my blood relative. We have not been on good terms for many years. When the CBI approached me for a statement, I clarified that Oommen Chandy's name was nowhere in the original letter," he told The Quint over the phone.
Analysts, meanwhile, view that Kerala is losing its political composure in the post-truth age.
"A new political environment is forming where sentiments, personal beliefs, and appeals to emotion often take preference over objective facts and truth," says Sidharth. Voters may align with political tribes based on emotions and identity rather than objective analysis.
Speaking to The Quint, Sashi Kumar, media practitioner and chairman of the Asian College of Journalism, says: "Over-dependence on Malayalam news channels makes the voters ignorant and ill-informed. People are force-fed by media with trivialities and half-truths. Extreme subjectivity takes precedence over coherent thinking."
Political observer Damodar Prasad, however, discards the impression that Kerala's political magnanimity is eroding. "There was a strong and genuine emotional connection between Oommen Chandy and his supporters. Voters may be polarised around personalities rather than policy positions. It is not a new thing, even in Kerala," he says.
The evolution is obvious. A shift toward more emotional and subjective voting behavior is visible in the most literate and politically agile state. And even departed mortals will play their roles.
(MP Basheer is a writer and journalist based in Kerala, covering South Indian political affairs and societal issues. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)