ONE A.K. Antony does not a United Democratic Front (UDF) victory make—that seems to be the moral of the story. Bitter infighting in the Congress-led front, a wrong choice of candidates, friendly parties turning against it at the last minute and unenthusiastic campaigning sums up the defeat of the UDF and the victory of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in Kerala.
The latter is all set to form the government in the state, having won 80 of the 140 assembly seats. As for the 20 Lok Sabha seats from the state, the two fronts got an equal share of 10 seats each. But for the UDF it was a poor showing compared to the 17 seats it had won in the 1991 elections.
Congress leaders were optimistic about riding an Antony wave, but the magic just failed to work. Neither did the much-touted arrack ban and the promise of total prohibition reap the expected rewards. Women did not vote en masse for the ban as the Congress campaign managers thought they would. Points out Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) vice-president G. Karthikeyan: "The arrack ban was a very revolutionary step taken by the government, but unfortunately it does not seem to have got us votes."
At the core of the UDF defeat is the rivalry between A.K. Antony and former Union Industries minister K. Karunakaran. The Congress, as partymen admit, was a divided house with two distinct groups working against each other. It certainly did not help when Karunakaran persisted with his tirade against Antony right through his election campaign. Neither did the Antony camp, or the 'A' team as it is referred to, do any good by working against Karunakaran's men.
The result has been the surprise rout of Karunakaran in Thrissoor. His son K. Muralidharan too lost out in Kozhikode, as did his partymen in a sizeable number of assembly segments. Karunakaran is very vocal about being "stabbed by his partymen". However, his rival camp also accuses him of working against the interests of the Congress. Says a senior office-bearer of the KPCC: "We had advised Karunakaran to stop attacking Antony. The Church took strong exception to some of his remarks. The Christians voted against him in Thrissoor."
The UDF was also badly hit by the National Democratic Party (NDP), a Nair political outfit, pulling out from the Front. In Kollam, S. Krishna Kumar was routed by his RSP rival and his defeat was made easy by Nina Pillai, widow of biscuit tycoon Rajan Pillai, who managed to win 54,514 votes. Nairs spread throughout the state seemed to have voted against the UDF.
The NDP has always been close to Karunakaran and it is believed that its pre-election distancing from the UDF had the tacit support of the senior Congressman. Karunakaran himself spared no efforts in pointed out what a loss the NDP would be to the UDF. The NDP factor, computed with the LDF's last-minute deal with the Indian National League—a party which enjoys considerable support among the Muslim community in Malabar—gave the LDF the edge.
Once it became clear that the UDF would not be in the government, NDP leaders were quick to point out that they had 'achieved' their 'objective'. But the NDP is not part of the Left Front, neither did it field candidates. Therefore, it will have no part in the next government. The NDP took an anti-Antony stand even though the move has further marginalised it as a political force.
The LDF made full capital out of all this. Some Congressmen even accuse the Front of having played the communal card to win. However, LDF campaign manager and former chief minister E.K. Nayanar denies these allegations: "We sought the support of everyone. We did not seek the support of any one particular group. They have come forward with support and we have accepted it. This does not mean they are part of the LDF."
It was an emotional Antony who admitted defeat but did not want to spell out the reasons. His was a personal triumph in Cherthalla, a CPI(M) stronghold. He also worked hard in Alappuzha district to wrest it from the Left. There are those who believe that had he put in the same effort in other parts of the state the UDF may have put up a better showing.