The Chengannur Experiment
The Chengannur Experiment

The Chengannur Experiment

Hari S Kartha

Kerala is discussing the Chengannur by-election result. Although much has been discussed, much more remains to be debated yet. Prima facie and going by the numbers, it is no doubt a victory for the ruling LDF. It is more a personal victory for the ruling front's helmsman Pinarayi Vijayan. But it will be knave to conclude that it is the LDF's political victory. The result is not the people's vote for the policies and programme of the two-year-old Pinarayi regime. This is not to belittle the ruling front's spectacular performance against heavy odds or to ignore the added significance of the writing on the wall at Chengannur. There is no denying either that an official CPM candidate with the party symbol hammer and sickle in a constituency in Central Travancore has political significance.

It is no secret that even the LDF leaders who were spearheading Saji Cheriyan's poll campaign, let alone leaders of UDF and NDA were surprised by the voting pattern and the CPM candidate's huge margin. Right since the first vote was counted, Saji Cheriyan was galloping and till the end, he could maintain the lead. In every panchayat, including the once strongholds of Congress or BJP, he had the upper hand. This is what is yet puzzling to the student of politics, even twenty-four hours after the formal announcement of result. The big question is how and why.

Political pundits and observers have their own different conclusions about the curious electoral phenomenon. Much of these views have been put in black and white or aired by channels. Some of the analysis is as simple as the old joke that the candidate or the front that bagged maximum votes have won. Some attribute the dismal performance by Congress to faction feud in the party while others explain it away by the lethargic and lack-lustre electioneering by the party leadership. Also for the BJP being pushed to the third position with a loss of over ten thousand votes, explanations and excuses are diverse. Even the eleventh-hour removal of its state president who was heading the election campaign is projected as a reason for the erosion of the party's votes. The ready-reason by BJP circles is that the back out by one among the NDA partners had cost them dearly at the hustings.

Having pointed out all the above, the crucial feature of Chengannur bypoll still remains camouflaged. Glaringly, right from the beginning, the CPM election strategy and campaign style was different. The party's target voters were identified far in advance and upon them was focused the whole campaign from day one. Even the selection of candidate was with the target voters in mind. The party extended an olive branch to the Church. Going by the poll result, whether one accepts it or not, the Church seems to have responded positively. The CPM going out of the way to placate the Church could be dubbed as an ideological compromise. But it could also be interpreted as realpolitik where ideology always takes the back seat.

Therefore from the communal point of view, Chengannur witnessed a new polarisation. While votes of the religious minorities consolidated to the benefit of CPM, the majority community's votes got split with one chunk going to Congress and the other to BJP. If this trend continues in the elections to come, CPM and LDF may find the sailing smooth in the parliament and assembly elections. CPM has very successfully used the RSS-BJP bogey to rally minority communities under the red flag. Much ahead of the announcement of the election, CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan significantly commented that Congress chose a candidate convenient enough to woo the Hindu vote bank. Even on the eve of polling, the election plank of CPM was that Congress was pursuing soft-Hindutwa at Chengannur. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan even went to the extent of dubbing Ayyappa Seva Sanghom as an RSS outfit of which, he alleged the Congress candidate was a leader. Although he was Ommen Chandy's own choice for candidature, the former Congress chief minister's close rapport with the Orthodox church did not bring electoral dividends. and the Congress lost to CPM who was smarter in befriending the church leaders. BJP had to contend with the hardcore Sangh Parivar votes.

Now if this latest experiment in the country's political crucible is to stay, then both Congress and BJP will have to redraft their respective strategy. For BJP, it may be easy to opt hard Hindutwa in Kerala. But Congress will be in a dilemma.

They can neither afford to ignore their traditional votes from among minority communities nor take for granted the majority community's votes. That means the final fight in the days to come will have to be between CPM and BJP. Already Saji Cheriyan had been saying time and again during the final phase of the election campaign that in Chengannur it was a straight fight between CPM and BJP thereby hinting that to defeat BJP, all minority community members should vote for him rather than wasting votes for the Congress candidate. Also the CPM leaders, unlike during past election campaigns, never dared allege that BJP would swap votes with Congress. The CPM strategy is therefore clear. Their obvious message was "members of all minority communities unite, you have nothing to lose but keep BJP at bay".