Kerala Polls: What Worked For LDF and Didn’t For Congress & BJP?

What’s worked in favour of LDF is the kind of grassroots effort put in by cadre, and a strong party organisation.

5 min read
Image of Kerala map and LDF party symbol used for representation.

The local body polls in Kerala have thrown up a massive surprise with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) registering an impressive win, defying pre-poll predictions. The elections to 1,199 of the 1,200 local bodies in the state – being held six months ahead of the state assembly election – comes as a massive shot in the arm for the beleaguered Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The ruling CPI (M) and the chief minister have been battling public perception in the wake of the gold-smuggling scam and its aftermath. With Pinarayi Vijayan’s former Principal Secretary M Sivasankar behind bars, apart from the son of former CPI (M) State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the LDF had been up against the wall.

The opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), led by Congress, was pinning its hopes on the graft charges and the chief minister’s office itself coming under a cloud of suspicion to propel it to a massive win.

In the end, the LDF not only managed to retain most of its seats in gram panchayats, it also managed to wrest many more seats in the blocks and district panchayats from the UDF.

BJP’s Aim To Triple Its Seats Didn’t Work – But It’s Now The Main Opposition In The State Capital

The results are quite similar to the 2015 local body polls at a macro level, and that augurs well for Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF, working towards a second term to buck the 40-year-old trend in Kerala of voting out incumbent governments.

The UDF, expecting a repeat its 2010 performance, a near-reversal of the seat tally in 2015, performed under par. And for the BJP, who went to town claiming that it would ‘triple its number of seats’, the gains are incremental.

The BJP’s massive push towards winning the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation, similar to its effort recently in Hyderabad, didn’t work out although it managed to firmly establish itself as the main opposition party in the state capital.

The final tally at the time of publication had the LDF winning or leading in 515 gram panchayats against the 551 it held earlier; 108 block panchayats against 88 from 2015; 10 district panchayats against 7 earlier; 35 municipalities down from 45 in 2015 and 5 out of 6 corporations with a hung scenario looming in 2 of them.

The UDF was winning or leading in 376 gram panchayats marginally up from 362 in 2015; 44 block panchayats against 62 from 2015; 4 district panchayats down from 7; 45 municipalities against 40 earlier and a lone corporation in Kannur. The UDF can still theoretically cobble up majorities in Thrissur and Kochi corporations with the support of rebels and ‘others’, but the LDF is marginally ahead.


A Surprise Winner

As for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), it has won or leads in 22 gram panchayats against the 14 it won in 2015 and two municipalities including Pandalam – near the Sabarimala shrine – up from one.

A big winner from the ‘others’ category is the ‘Twenty20’ Front, propped up the Anna-Kitex group, which has managed to wrest 4 panchayats (contesting in 5) posing a challenge to the conventional political groupings in the state.

There have been allegations against the corporate entity’s inducements and doles to voters by providing discounted groceries from its shops in stark contravention of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) guidelines.

What Ultimately Worked For LDF?

Coming back to the results, what seems to have worked in favour of the LDF is the kind of grassroots work put in by cadre and a strong party organisation.

Unlike the UDF and the Congress, which was hoping to ride piggyback on the slew of corruption charges against the LDF without putting in the requisite effort, the LDF deployed its entire party machinery to good effect in places it was seen to be trailing.

Moreover, in local body elections, state-level issues don’t really decide the results, despite the UDF – in this case – trying to pitchfork these into their campaign. 

By fielding young candidates and managing better voter connectivity, the LDF managed to swing the election in its favour. The welfare measures undertaken by the Pinarayi Vijayan government are seen to have made an impact, including the post-COVID grocery kits.


Why Couldn’t UDF – Mainly Congress – Repeat Its 2010 Performance Despite Favourable Circumstances?

There have been a number of allegations against the state bureaucracy’s (led by the Left-leaning NGO Union) partisan interventions and how they got many people to vote for the LDF. The ballots of COVID patients, who only have access to the health officials, are a case in point. But since the LDF has managed to do well across the board, these allegations won’t matter.

The entry of Jose K Mani’s faction of the Kerala Congress (M) on election eve has also helped the LDF massively in Kottayam and other parts of central Kerala. Not only has the Jose faction emerged stronger, he also got a considerable number of Syrian Christian – a strong UDF constituency – votes to switch in favour of the LDF.

The UDF, primarily the Congress, will have to introspect why it couldn’t win the elections and emulate its 2010 performance in spite of the favourable circumstances.

Although the Kerala dailies and news channels had whipped up an anti-Left sentiment, the UDF was not able to convert it to its advantage.

The top leadership of the Congress is seen to be working at cross purposes. The lacklustre leadership of Kerala Pradesh Congress Chief (PCC) Mullappally Ramachandran, who seems to be stuck in a time warp, and the scrappy Ramesh Chennithala, who has raised many important issues in the recent past, will have a lot to explain.


What UDF Needs To Do – And What Congress Needs To Understand

Although this result cannot really be an indicator of which way the assembly election will swing, it will be a massive blow to the aspirations of Ramesh Chennithala to emerge as the undisputed chief ministerial candidate. K Muraleedharan, son of former chief minister K Karunakaran and a rival of Chennithala, has already raised pertinent questions. So has the Congress’s Kannur strongman K Sudhakaran.

Going forward, the UDF will have to beef up its organisation and work on the ground than merely hold daily press conferences.

What Congress doesn’t seem to understand is that a lot of common folk don’t really get swayed by the news cycle and are more concerned about bread-and-butter issues, and the LDF’s better connect with people at the grassroots came to the fore in making this election localised.

In the BJP’s case, it has once again failed to rise to the expectations of its central leadership – and questions will be asked of its president K Surendran, whose brother ended up losing.


What The BJP Is Really Up Against In Kerala

As Congress’s Shashi Tharoor won by a massive margin to the Lok Sabha, a large section of people of Thiruvananthapuram voted en masse for the candidate most likely to pip the BJP. And that is what the BJP is really up against in Kerala.

Just one instance from this election will go on to demonstrate the cadre strength of the LDF and specifically, the CPI (M). In the Chundappuram ward of Koduvally, gold-smuggling accused Karat Razzak – who was first announced as the Left-backed Independent only to be replaced by an official LDF candidate – not only won his segment but the official LDF candidate returned zero votes, probably a first for any official candidate in the state.

(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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