The debacle in Pala was invited by the UDF leadership. After the unexpected, resounding victory in the last Lok Sabha polls, the leaders of the UDF have been guided by a false notion that they are politically invincible in the State. The overconfidence that politically neither the LDF nor the NDA can challenge them was felt by most UDF leaders. The inability of the LDF government to tackle the fundamental problems faced by the state and the growing arrogance of some of its leaders did add to this mistaken belief.
When the Pala elections were announced, it was crystal clear to all that the Kerala Congress (M) is suffering from a serious power struggle with old veteran P.J. Joseph and pretender to the throne, Jose K Mani, engaged in an all out struggle to take over the party. Had the UDF leaders stepped in at the very beginning perhaps the tussle could have been sorted. Matters could have been handled by giving the two equally important positions while respecting the seniority of the elders, and not just P.J. Joseph alone. But UDF leaders kept looking away from the problem as they felt that Pala was after all a pocket borough of the UDF, having elected K.M. Mani for over five decades. By the time leaders like IUML strong man Kunhali Kutty and Congress leaders like Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala and Mullappally Ramachandran stepped in, they found the power struggle in Kerala Congress (M) slipping to irredeemable levels and the two leaders – Joseph and Jose -- had taken up positions beyond any compromise. Even then the UDF leaders felt confident that in Pala no threat of an electoral debacle be pondered about.
None of them took it seriously that in the last 3-4 elections veteran K.M. Mani has been steadily losing popular base with the victory margin narrowing each time. Nor did they take into account old leaders of the Kerala Congress like P. C. George, P.C. Thomas and others who have moved over to the NDA and who have pockets of influence in the constituency, which can threaten the UDF nominee, as a shift of a few thousand votes can result in defeat of the UDF candidate.
So much so, by the time the nominations were to be filed, the fight between Joseph and Jose took an ugly turn and developed into a no holds barred one. The two leaders could not even agree on a candidate who is non-controversial, as a compromise candidate. On the other hand, Jose K. Mani announced a candidate, who was suspended from the party by P.J. Joseph for anti-party activities a few weeks earlier. In the race for the party symbol there was another nasty fight, the details of which were available within minutes in the electronic media and in the print media the next day, in greater detail. When a particular symbol was refused to the UDF candidate, the refrain was that “K. M. Mani is our symbol”. The importance of a time-tested symbol was ignored by the leaders. Even Ramesh Chennithala, a senior Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly, too shouted “K.M. Mani is our symbol”. Losing the symbol itself must have cost the Kerala Congress candidate a few thousand votes, for the two leaves symbol is the image of the party in the minds of party members after the demise of K.M. Mani. Finally the party which represented Pala for over 50 years had to forgo its symbol and settle for the “Pineapple”. Yet the UDF leaders were confident because they were suffering from an invincibility complex.
What is there in a symbol was the question confidently exchanged by the UDF leaders, some even cynically. Grand old leaders of the UDF too converged in Pala to present their faces for votes in the absence of a symbol. What their faces did became known once the results were announced. They had nothing new to say or offer. The leaders were grand old veterans of the political scene for decades and a sprinkling of young leaders speaking a new political idiom and the Octogenarians and Septuagenarians repeated the same words, phrases and ideas heard by the voters for decades in Pala elections, while the assembled men and women debated the consequences of sharp and deep divisions within the Kerala Congress (M) and the probability of parting of ways after the election. P. J. Joseph was humiliated in a public meeting by the supporters of Jose K. Mani. There was no apology for such a suicidal act during the campaign. The party candidate, Tom Jose Pulikunnel openly announced that he did not depend on P. J. Joseph’s support and the party symbol was not all that important.
None in UDF thought of getting a few leaders from outside who could have presented a different political thought process. Had the Congress brought in Rahul Gandhi for a day or two just before the campaign ended, there could have been a positive response as in Kerala for some unexplained reason he continues to be popular and the masses look up to him for a glimpse or to listen to his speeches, though predictable, against the Parivar and Narendra Modi, particularly in the central Travancore region. Even Priyanka could have made an impact as she also draws crowds in Kerala.
The expectation that sentiments about K. M. Mani, the loved one of Pala, was not proved right. On the other hand, Mani C. Kaappan evoked sympathy having repeatedly lost by slender margins in the last two elections. His simple demeanour and sober expressions did have an impact among the Pala electorate. Ultimately one saw the Kerala Congress candidate, Tom Jose Pulikunnel become a scapegoat some felt. At a time when even the popularity of the Nehru dynasty is declining it was too much to expect that Mani dynasty can bring in votes when the party is almost evenly split. After all out of sight is out of mind in politics. Public memory is also short. The good work of veterans is forgotten easily.
Perhaps the ignominious set back in Pala comes as a boon. This may help the UDF leaders, particularly the Congress veterans till recently with bloated egos after the LS elections, to appreciate the ground level reality and prepare better for the coming by-elections in the state. The party has a respectable presence in a few states. Kerala is one of the lucky ones in this small group. To retain the confidence of the people, the party has to stay united and take up problems faced by the people. Slowly the Kerala unit is reducing itself into an election phenomena wasting time on group feuds. To enjoy the confidence of the people it has to be an organization working with the people and attending to their problems as well the issues before the state. Most importantly its strength lies in a strong UDF. To keep the UDF united is its important task in Congress’s own interest. It has won in the last LS elections almost decimating the opposition. It is not easy to retain the confidence discussing matters in drawing rooms. The unpredictable Kerala electorate should not be ignored.
For the Kerala Congress (M) the situation is serious. The party is known for its splits thanks to the ambition and arrogance of its leaders. It has now four splinter units, each headed by former factional leaders of the original party and another split is staring at it. Its clout is steadily declining. Even to get one or two seats most of these parties depend on distribution of patronage by the Congress. Another split can make it five with considerably reduced political standing in the state. The state will have five one-leader parties from the original Kerala Congress!
Pala has also exposed the BJP and its factions pouncing on each other. Its performance was awful. One probable outcome would be a split in the NDA with the party headed by Tushar Vellappally moving out. In any case he could have done precious little when his father was openly supporting the CPIM and the Left periodically coming out against the state BJP leadership. It is no surprise a section of the central leadership is thinking of a total revamp of the party in Kerala fed up with its warring groups and leaders with negligible following.
To sum up, after the coming by-elections there could be realignment of political forces and the NDA, LDF and UDF may emerge with different looks and sizes. Pala has given a clear hint of that happening.