D-day in Tamil Nadu, Kerala
Kerala faces a three-way contest between the Congress-led United Democratic Front, the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and relative newcomer the Bharatiya Janata Party for 140 seats. Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, the battle is between the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)-Congress combine, Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK), the Bharatiya Janata Party and a host of caste-based parties for 232 constituencies. Corruption is a common theme that runs across both states.
In Tamil Nadu, the Election Commission has been working overtime to root out corruption that runs deep in the electoral process. Polling in Thanjavur and Aravakurichi constituencies have been postponed until May 23 after the EC caught parties openly distributing cash among voters.
Last weekend, the EC chased down trucks in Aravakurichi containing saris, cash, and other items to bribe voters. Reports on the ground contend that such large-scale corruption has vitiated the atmosphere. Since the introduction of electoral reforms in the 1990s, the EC has shown greater intent in cleaning up the corruption that has distorted verdicts and introduced better logistics to ensure peace during voting. Despite attempts to weed out corruption and force parties into following the rules through its imposition of the Model Code of Conduct, it has been unable to change much. In Tamil Nadu, for example, where the two Dravidian parties have been battling it out for decades, corrupt practices have become central to the exercise of political power.
“The DMK has expanded its sphere of influence through massive business and media empires,” says an editorial in Scroll.in. “AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa has built up a grand political persona through very public opulence, which unfortunately drew the attention of the law and earned her a few disproportionate assets cases.” Both Dravidian parties have been complicit in lavishing cash and goods on the electorate during election time. But it is not as if voters are not complicit in the entire process. Voters in the state have come to expect money to flow freely in the build-up to polling day, according to ground reports. It is evident that the people’s expectations from the electoral process have been warped through the promise of outlandish freebies. Only last week, the EC asked both the AIADMK and DMK to explain how they would make good on their promises for freebies in their election manifestos. The state not only needs better policing and a vibrant EC, but also a fundamental shift in how the electoral process is perceived among voters.
Corruption is also a major poll issue in the state of Kerala, although it has slightly faded away recently. The Congress-led UDF was seemingly on the ropes like a fading boxer after getting caught in a slew of corruption scandals. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy has been accused of accepting bribes in the solar scam. The accusations against Chandy comes after the bar bribery case, which brought the resignation of two state ministers.
To the uninitiated, the solar scam came first came into prominence in June 2013 when the Kerala police arrested Saritha Nair and her partner Biju Radhakrishnan on charges of duping clients out of lakhs of rupees after promising to install solar panels for them or offering them shares in large solar farms. The focus on Chandy, however, came to the attention of the national media, when the main accused in the case, Saritha Nair deposed before a judicial panel.
Nair told the panel that she had bribed Chief Minister Chandy and Power Minister Aryadan Mohammed on the assurance that they would ensure government support for her solar projects. As stated earlier, two of Chandy’s senior colleagues, KM Mani, and K Babu, had resigned as Finance Minister and Excise Minister respectively, after adverse court orders in a bar bribery scam. To the uninitiated, both KM Mani and K Babu had been accused by bar owner Biju Ramesh of taking bribes to keep liquor license fees steady. The defense presented by both Chandy and the two tainted ministers is that these corruption allegations are part of a “conspiracy” by the liquor lobby against the UDF government’s decision to introduce prohibitory measures on the sale of alcohol.
Since then, however, the conversation has shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aggressive campaign in the state. Although the party is still a wild card in the larger scheme of things, recent events have stalled its momentum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to make an unfortunate comparison with Somalia has received a negative response from the electorate. Nonetheless, the state with the largest number of RSS shakhas and a prominent Hindu identity could still throw a surprise result in favor of the BJP. But without a full-fledged organisational set-up, the party may find it tough to make inroads.
Pre-poll surveys indicate a tight race between the CPI (M)-led LDF and UDF, with the former holding the edge. In the last elections, the UDF managed only four more seats than the LDF. Once again, VS Achuthanandan, a 92-year-old stalwart of the Left, and party veteran Pinarayi Vijayan are leading the charge for the LDF. Both are popular leaders with the people, especially VS. With the UDF mired in the corruption, the Left has seen an opening. However, the problem for the Left lies in its encouragement of violence as a means of exercising political power in the state. Both VS and Vijayan have encouraged such an outlook in the past.
The BJP has accused the Left parties of promoting violence against its party workers. In March, a BJP worker was waylaid and attacked, allegedly by six suspected CPM workers, in Kannur district in the presence of five schoolchildren. In the preceding month, a group of assailants, alleged to be CPI (M) workers, stormed into a RSS worker’s house and hacked him to death before his parents. Tension has often gripped north Kerala’s Kannur district, which has become notorious for RSS-CPM clashes over the years. It promises to be a tight race to the finish.