THE mood of the comrades in Kerala is summed up by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet's open admission of Sonia Gandhi's rejuvenating effect on the Congress. The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) is fastening its seat belt in anticipation of rough weather in the upcoming poll.
Sonia's whirlwind visit to Kochi has left the CPI(M) and its allies a trifle insecure. There is speculation in the Left, that she could trigger a minorities consolidation in favour of the United Democratic Front (UDF).
In the Congress-led UDF the mood is upbeat. Sonia's election-eve visit to the state—Kerala goes to the polls on February 28—is expected to be the final push which will give the UDF an edge over its rivals. The LDF is hamstrung by the incumbency factor. Its tenure in office has earned it the stigma of a non-performing government—it has failed to check spiralling prices or create jobs to offset the swelling ranks of educated unemployed. Near-total industrial stagnation has been made worse by severe power cuts.
Then there is the discontent in the rural sector. The slump in rubber prices has brought tapping operations to a standstill, threatening the livelihood of the state's eight lakh rubber growers, mostly medium and small-scale farmers who constitute a critical mass in any election. The price slump could hurt the electoral prospects of the LDF since farmers attribute the decline to the UF government's policy of allowing rubber imports under the open general license scheme. Market intervention by the state government fell short of providing relief to growers. They look to a Congress government at the Centre to impose a ban on rubber imports.
The state's rubber belt runs through the parliamentary constituencies of Kottayam, Idukki, Mavelikkara, Kozhikode, Chirya-nkil, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram.Rubber farmers traditionally repose their faith in the Kerala Congress groups, which have a substantial following in the Christian-majority districts of central Kerala.
The LDF may also face a backlash to the CPI(M)-sponsored land reclamation drive launched in protest against the conversion of paddylands into cash crop and real estate expanses. Worst hit by the militant movement were marginal farmers in Alapuzha and Mavelikkara. However, the Left leadership is secures in the conviction that it acted in the best interests of rural labourers.
If Christian voters hold the key in central Kerala, the Muslim electorate decides the outcome in several northern constituencies. In the last election, the Muslim vote tilted in favour of the LDF, an obvious fallout of the Babri Masjid demolition and the consequent erosion of minority faith in the Congress. This time, Muslim sentiment appears to be torn between an unstable United Front and a penitent Congress under Sonia.
The CPI(M), which is a force in the region, has been steadily penetrating the mass base of the Muslim League, a UDF partner. But the hardline stance adopted by CPI(M) leader V.S. Achutha-nandan on the issue of a Marxist tie-up with Muslim groups may have bruised minority sentiment.
Elections in Kerala are won or lost by narrow margins. Lack of unity can prove critical, as a divided Congress discovered in the last poll. This time, A.K. Antony and K. Karunakaran have agreed to a cessation of hostilities. The big question is whether this will be a vote on CPI(M)rule in the state, or a vote to keep the BJP—which has yet to throw up a winning candidate—from ruling at the Centre.