Editorials - 07-05-2021

Welfare measures, the Pinarayi factor and good governance helped the LDF overcome allegations of corruption

For almost four decades, power in Kerala has alternated between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). If this practice had continued, the UDF should have been voted to power in the just-concluded elections. But the voters gave a clear mandate for a second term to the LDF. For the LDF this was a key success in the wider context of national politics in general and the future of the Left parties in particular. For the UDF, this election has given it a second term in the Opposition and has proven to be a setback for the Congress, which was hoping to find a pathway for national recovery. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led was hoping to emerge as an important third force, but it was left without a representative in the newly elected Assembly.

The LDF won a decisive mandate, clinching 99 seats and surpassing its tally in the previous House. It also saw an increase in its vote share compared to five years ago. The UDF won only 41 seats (a decline of six seats) but managed to retain more or less the same vote share that it had secured in the last Assembly elections (Table 1). The BJP-led alliance lost the one seat it had and only saw a marginal increase in its vote share. While the BJP’s vote share rose marginally, the vote share of its alliance partner, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, fell by 2.8%.

A second chance

In the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, when asked whether the LDF should get another term, 51% of the respondents categorically stated that it should, 27% were of the view that it should not, and 22% did not respond to the question. Five years ago, the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey showed that 49% did not favour a second term for the incumbent UDF government and only 42% supported a second term for the sitting UDF.

The post-poll data clearly indicate that the second term for the LDF was a by-product of the public perception that the Chief Minister and the government had done a reasonably good job. Three-fourths of the respondents (73%) expressed satisfaction with the work done by the government. This was much higher than the satisfaction levels with the UDF government five years ago (59%). The net satisfaction (those fully satisfied minus those fully dissatisfied) with the LDF government was 23% as opposed to -6% in the case of the UDF government in 2016 (Table 2).

In a separate question, voters were asked to compare the present LDF government with the previous UDF government. Close to half the respondents (45%) rated the LDF government better, whereas only three of every 10 respondents (28%) rated the UDF government as better. Two of every 10 felt that both were equally good or bad (Table 3).

The data further reveal that the respondents rated the LDF government high on most parameters (Table 4).

Pinarayi’s popularity

In his five-year tenure, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had to face two floods as well as the Nipah outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. The welfare schemes launched by his government to give relief to the people during the national lockdown also appeared to bring the ruling alliance closer to the people. All but 6% of the respondents claimed to have benefited from the free food kits distributed by the government.

Due to his government’s work, Mr. Vijayan remained extremely popular and he was the preferred chief ministerial choice for 36% of the respondents. Former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy secured a distant second place with the support of 18%. No other leader in the State was able to secure even 5% of the total support for the chief ministerial candidate. State Health Minister K.K. Shailaja was placed third, with 3% supporting her. The Opposition leader, Ramesh Chennithala, was the choice for 3% of the respondents. The BJP’s move of roping in E. Sreedharan, the ‘Metro man’, did not work well; he was a choice for only 2% of the voters.

The Opposition parties had mounted an attack on the CPI(M)-led Left government for the various scams that had taken place during its time in power. However, there is little evidence of any negative impact of these scams on voting preferences. People’s awareness about these scams seemed to be low. Given the literacy rates in Kerala and the high level of public awareness in general, the fact that a huge proportion of voters had either not heard of the scams or did not know whether the accusations were correct or not (41%-51%) is indicative of the limited impact of these accusations (Table 5). The data show that the Left was the preferred vote choice for many of these voters as well. The scams failed to negatively impact the LDF and the people focused more on welfare schemes such as free food kits and other measures. Corruption and scams was an election issue for a mere 2% of the voters.

Party or candidate?

Given the traditional rivalry between the LDF and UDF and the entry of the BJP as a third force, it was interesting to observe whether the party or candidate was more critical in defining electoral choice. Six of every 10 respondents (61%) said that they voted on the basis of party, while three in every 10 (29%) said they voted on the basis of the candidate.

Mr. Vijayan was seen asking people to vote for the Left in the name of development. When people were asked what was the main voting issue in these elections, development emerged as the biggest issue. Development was also the biggest issue in 2016, with a much larger proportion of voters saying it was a issue for them back then (17%). Though the BJP tried hard, it failed to capitalise on the Sabarimala issue; this was a crucial factor for a mere 1% of the people. Surprisingly, close to seven of every 10 voters did not respond to the question on what constituted the biggest issue for them.

The Left also had an edge among first-time voters and the poor. In fact, the biggest issue reported by the first-time voters was not development but the government’s performance in the State. On the caste front, though the LDF lost some of its Nair votes (as compared to 2016), possibly due to how the government handled the Sabarimala issue, it gained votes in the Ezhava community (53% of their vote). The election saw an increase in support for the LDF among both Muslims and Christians.

In terms of reaching out to people during the election campaign, the data show that six in every 10 voters reported being approached by all the three alliances, which is a clear testimony that all the parties were making sure that no stone was left unturned in terms of campaigning and visibility. However, among those who were approached by all the three alliances, the LDF clearly had an advantage as 44% voted for the party, 37% voted for the UDF and 16% for the National Democratic Alliance.

The LDF’s victory is a strong endorsement of the performance of its government and leadership. The UDF was not able to present a chief ministerial face and the BJP failed to move beyond the margins in what continues to be an intense two alliance competition.

K.M. Sajad Ibrahim is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kerala; R. Girish Kumar is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Kerala; Vibha Attri is Research Associate, Lokniti-CSDS; and Sandeep Shastri is Vice Chancellor, Jagran Lakecity University Bhopal and the National Co-ordinator of the Lokniti network

All but 6% of the respondents claimed to have benefited from the free food kits distributed by the government

Effective COVID-19 management worked in favour of the LDF

In 2020, Kerala was appreciated across the world for the manner in which it dealt with the pandemic. The national lockdown that was imposed in March 2020 left the daily wage labourers most vulnerable. To tackle the food crisis, the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Front government in the State distributed food kits containing essential foodgrains and other items to all ration card holders in the State and also set up community kitchens across all panchayats. In the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, 94% of the respondents acknowledged that they had availed themselves of the facility of food kits at least once. Among them, most were satisfied with the kit with only 11% expressing some element of dissatisfaction (Table 1).

Even when the voters were asked to rate the overall steps taken by the State government to deal with COVID-19 over the last one year, 72% rated the steps as good. Another 21% rated the steps as average with only a small chunk (5%) according a bad rating.

These kits along with other initiatives earned tremendous goodwill for the government and also translated into votes for the Left alliance. Close to six of 10 voters who had rated the steps taken by the government as good voted for the party (57%). A similar pattern was also seen among those who had availed themselves of the kit and were satisfied with it (Table 2).

The data also show that two-thirds (67%) of the respondents acknowledged that at least one of their household members is working in the Gulf. Of them, 92% said that their family members send money back home. The pandemic caused a massive reverse migration of workers from the Gulf back to Kerala. The LDF government made various arrangements and provided financial assistance to those who could not go back abroad due to the lockdown. The data show that a majority of these Gulf households were tiltedtowards the UDF in their voting pattern as they are mostly Muslim households. However, four in every 10 of these households wanted to give the LDF another chance.

The work done by the Left government during the pandemic was remarkable not only on paper, but also in practice as a majority of the voters had availed themselves of the benefits of the government’s schemes. This work surely translated into the LDF gaining people’s trust.

Vibha Attri is Research Associate, Lokniti-CSDS

The defence that the government is not responsible for the present crisis has consequences for India’s democracy

When people are placed under conditions which appeal to the brute only, said Friedrich Engels, what remains to them but to rebel or to succumb to utter brutality?

The scenes that are being witnessed in India now are apocalyptic in tone. When a citizen attacks hospital personnel because a life was lost due to the absence of medical care, or a citizen struggles to breathe with an oxygen cylinder on the pavement, it is a crisis at multiple levels.

Appalling discourse

But what is concerning, more than the “collapse of the system” or the failure of the state, is the shocking discourse among the supporters of the government that it is not responsible for the present crisis, arguably, India’s gravest hour.

This defence has consequences for India’s democracy.

Engels had argued that the English ruling class and the state had created such horrendous working and living conditions for the workers, without the “necessaries of life”, that they suffer not only ill health but meet early deaths. Engels calls this social murder, the same as murder by an individual; the only difference is that this murder is “disguised”, for “no man sees the murderer” and the death appears to be a “natural one”.

What we are seeing around, in our inability to make the state accountable, is social murder. The only difference between Engels’ England in the 1840s, when it was the working class which was devastated by pandemics, and India now, is that the pandemic in this wave is not just preying on the most vulnerable populations. Therefore, it is also not invisible any longer.

The state’s actions

But in the first wave of the pandemic in India, the tragic plight of millions of inter-State migrant labour walking thousands of kilometres, remained invisible. That was a classic case of social murder. And it was justified then as well in narratives which argued that, after all, it was the responsibility of the workers themselves for “voluntarily” undertaking such a journey. Just as it is the responsibility of the people themselves for causing the second wave. Yet, ironically, when the successful defeat of COVID-19 was celebrated in February by an official resolution of the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi that was given credit, not the people.

When ordinary people, without access to expert advice, are asked to own up to their mistakes, powerful actors such as the Election Commission of India holding an eight-phase election in Bengal, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister justifying the Kumbh mela and the Prime Minister exulting about the size of an election rally crowd in West Bengal on a day when over 2,00,000 Indians were newly infected by the novel coronavirus, are all unassailable actions of the state.

By participating in the state’s abdication of responsibility, one is fostering conditions of social murder. The argument that cremations cannot be shown by the media because they are “sacred” to Hindus is a part of this act. Other than the obvious fallacy that Hindu cremations are not televised or recorded, here, the more critical questions such as how many deaths could have been prevented by a simple provision of oxygen, why people are forced to cremate their loved ones in parking lots or pavements, and if that is any less dignified than telling the story to the world remain unanswered.

As epidemiologists assert, obfuscating the real gravity of a pandemic is the dangerous path to a bigger disaster. If the Chinese state had not hidden the pandemic in its initial stages, the world probably would have not been at this juncture. That is why there has been such a sustained focus by the world media on hotspots where death tolls mounted: Italy, Iran, the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Peru, etc,. But the tragedy in India is sought to be portrayed as a cultural exceptionalism that cannot be televised.

A different patrimonialism

In the last seven years, the Indian state has acquired distinct tendencies of what sociologist Max Weber has called patrimonialism in which the ruler exercises a traditional form of authority which rests on the “sanctity of immemorial traditions”, in contrast to a rule based on a rational-legal bureaucracy or impersonal rules. But unlike in ideal typical patrimonialism, this highly personalised and centralised form of rule is not based on heredity, kinship ties or personal allegiances, rather on the ideology of religious majoritarianism as well as nationalism, and legitimised by election wins. Duty, patriotism, etc., become keywords here as was tellingly witnessed during the misery unleashed by demonetisation.

Ironically, this patrimonial government, which prided itself as a ‘mai-baap sarkar’, the dispenser of benevolence towards subjects, overnight transforms itself into one which asks citizens to fend for themselves, whether it is by procuring oxygen cylinders or arranging ambulances. This has resulted in a Social Darwinism in which only the most powerful have some chance of survival.

From the assertions of the Union Health Minister that there never was any shortage of oxygen, the Uttar Pradesh government charging people with First Information Reports (FIRs) for requesting oxygen, to the Haryana Chief Minister’s comment that the dead cannot return and, therefore, it was pointless to discuss many unaccounted deaths, all depict a state that has shed its professed benevolence during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As scholars identify, one of the fundamental problems in patrimonialism is ensuring accountability, something that becomes stark during a pandemic when the patrimonial state goes missing. On the one hand, we have the belated act of sanctioning oxygen plants by the Prime Minister, which, keeping in line with governance as benevolence, is met with cabinet Ministers expressing their gratitude in unison. On the other, the Prime Minister has not addressed a single press conference on COVID-19, quite a stunning fact globally for the head of a democracy.

Become citizens, not subjects

While the Swedish Prime Minister was recently subject to questioning by a constitutional committee on COVID-19 handling, the present Indian state has no means of ensuring a critical scrutiny of the chronology of government decisions that led to the current crisis. For the moment, we will have to be content with scathing observations like those of the Allahabad High Court that deaths due to lack of oxygen are no “less than a genocide”.

Engels had argued that the English ruling class’ “class prejudice and preconceived opinions” had enveloped it in a “mad blindness” about the social murder that was happening in its midst, which, in any case, did not affect it. India, under the pandemic, is seeing a different kind of prejudice, preconceived opinions and mad blindness in sanctioning social murder. Unless people become citizens and not subjects under a patrimonial rule, the calamitous clouds of the pandemic portend a bleak future for Indian democracy as well.

Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and tweets @nmannathukkaren

A functioning democracy must commit to addressing communal issues with vigilance, tolerance and compromise

The communal clashes of April in Northern Ireland caught the media attention of many countries, but not in India, though the events carry relevant lessons and warnings for this country. Those riots, that left 74 policemen injured, threaten to undermine the fragile peace between Protestant pro-British loyalist unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom forever, and Catholic pro-Irish nationalists who wish Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic of Ireland.

The riots are the culmination of a complex mix of change, resistance to change, and ingrained political and social inertia. Northern Ireland altered enormously for the better after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and for the accord to have received strong support across the divided island was a remarkable achievement. This Agreement began the process of dismantling border controls between the North and the Republic of Ireland, but subsequent developments showed that social issues remained unaddressed: both religious communities ‘experienced little or no peace dividend after the Agreement, and poverty and deprivation linked to educational under-achievement and high unemployment affects both nationalist and loyalist areas alike’ in Northern Ireland. There is an obvious lack of social and economic opportunities; 120,000 children are living in poverty, and more than 40,000 people remain on the social housing waiting list. Between 1998 and 2014, an abnormal number of suicides was registered, and that gloomy statistic keeps growing. The localities most deprived during the pre-Agreement communal riots remain the most deprived areas within Northern Ireland today.

Brexit, a stress test

Britain’s break from the European Union (Brexit) was always going to prove a major stress test for Northern Ireland because 56% of its electorate voted to remain in the European Union. Much of the present anger relates to the specific protocol concerning Northern Ireland, which ‘provided for the territory to remain in the customs union and single market of the European Union while protecting its status as part of the United Kingdom’. Nevertheless, the Irish Protestant loyalists argue that the deal puts the union at risk. The unionist party ‘campaigned for Brexit on the basis that a United Kingdom outside the European Union would make a future united Ireland much more difficult to achieve, but the opposite has actually turned out to be true, and a united Irish island is now being discussed in a way that scarcely seemed possible prior’ to the Brexit referendum of 2016.

Accordingly, as a recent opinion article says, the Irish Catholic nationalists are talking up the prospects of achieving an early united Ireland and demanding a vote on it, which instils acute anxiety among the union loyalists. In short, ‘Brexit has encouraged a strong revival of identity polarisation, and a possible Irish Language Act, that would give the Irish tongue equal status to English in Northern Ireland’, is feared by unionists as yet another nail in the United Kingdom’s coffin. Demography has changed since the Good Friday Agreement; no longer do unionist parties have the majority, but political inertia prefers a vacuum, so progress toward an equable and liveable peace has stalled. The article adds, ‘past traumas continue to weigh heavily on current politics in Northern Ireland and that is unlikely to change as the twin challenges of managing the Protocol and preventing communal violence occupy the attention in that territory, Dublin and London in the years to come’.

Scheduled events

Elections scheduled next year to the ‘Northern Ireland Assembly will be followed in 2024 by an important vote on the Northern Ireland Protocol because under the terms of the Brexit agreement, the Assembly will have to vote on whether or not to accept the continuing operation of the Protocol. Should unionists decide to boycott this vote, the legitimacy of the Protocol will be thrown open to question. The timing of any potential Scottish referendum on independence — also likely to be held around 2024 — may well further destabilise Northern Ireland’s fragile politics’, says the opinion article (https://bit.ly/3eVy5Oo).

All things considered, there is no person more like a Northern Irish Catholic than a Northern Irish Protestant and vice versa, although obscurantists are loath to accept that basic reality. The fact that the people are just one, with parity in mutual fear, esteem and consent, is never addressed and artificial differences are played up by political elements wishing to stoke communal sentiments and keep both communities at the mercy of irresponsible and divisive forces. While the British, Irish and American governments have condemned the violence, there is a lack of local political leadership to stabilise this volatile situation.

Peace is an extraordinarily brittle entity, and any functioning democracy must ensure a daily commitment to addressing communal issues with vigilance, tolerance and compromise. These are lessons to be drawn in India. The recent violence in Northern Ireland shows that every country needs leadership that takes responsibility for peoples’ social and economic problems and steers prejudices away from entrenched phobias. The ruling party in India needs to be aware that creating religious tensions between communities has incalculable deep-seated negative consequences that will severely damage every section of society and all our established political and national institutions.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

There seems to be little desire for an alternative to the LDF and UDF

Kerala, which has been dominated by two alliances, saw the Prime Minister call for a third alternative in the State while launching his party’s campaign. However, the BJP failed to save the lone seat of Nemom it won in 2016. Despite a campaign revolving around the Sabarimala temple row, ‘love jihad’ and corruption cases against the Left, it did not succeed in attracting voters. It saw only a marginal increase in its vote share.

On being asked whether there is a need for a third alternative in Kerala’s politics, more than half the respondents (56%) disagreed and one-third (33%) agreed. Even among those who agreed, the vote was split equally among the three alliances. Among those who did not respond to the question, LDF had a clear advantage with 46% of the votes in its favour (Table 1).

Furthermore, when people were asked whether the rise of the BJP in the State is good or bad for the social fabric, a majority said that it was bad (54%) and 17% responded in the affirmative. The remaining 29% either felt that it would make no difference or did not respond to the question. As one would expect, the NDA had a huge advantage among those who felt that the rise of the BJP is good for the social fabric of the State. The LDF was the favoured party among those who said that the BJP’s presence is bad or will make no difference (Table 2).

The presence of the BJP has changed the political equation to some extent in Kerala. Yet, the State does not seem to be fully ready to experiment with a third alternative and the election results reflect this fact.

Vibha Attri is Research Associate, Lokniti-CSDS

The LDF consolidated support among the social groups which generally vote for it

Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey data indicate that the LDF’s vote share saw a significant improvement among select social groups. When levels of access to education are taken into account, the LDF performed better than the UDF across all education levels, though the gap was much wider among the non-literate group and those who had access to higher education. The NDA got little support from the non-literate segments though its support among those with access to education was more or less consistent.

When it came to different age groups, support for the LDF was higher compared to the UDF. The difference was the sharpest in the 26-35 category. There seemed to be a sharp decline in support in the less-than-25 age group for the NDA as compared to the previous Assembly election.

There was not much of a gender variation when it came to support for the LDF, while the UDF’s voters had a much higher proportion of women. On the other hand, the NDA performed much better among male voters compared to female voters.

The LDF maintained its popularity among the poor — a little over half (53%) voted for the alliance. The NDA lost its traditional support from among the middle and rich classes compared to the last election. While support for the LDF declines as one moves from the poor to the rich, the reverse trend holds good for the UDF.

This election witnessed a considerable decline in popularity in the NDA’s core support group: young, educated, men, and those belonging to middle and upper economic classes. The LDF, on the other hand, consolidated its support among the social groups which generally voted for it.

Vibha Attri is Research Associate, Lokniti-CSDS

The onus is on Ms. Banerjee to end violence and triumphalism of her supporters

Mamata Banerjee was sworn in as Chief Minister of West Bengal for a third consecutive term on Wednesday, following the resounding victory of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the Assembly election. The TMC has won 213 seats, compared to 77 won by its principal challenger the BJP. The TMC’s 47.9% vote share is an all time high for any party, and nearly 10 percentage points more than that of the BJP. The Left-Congress alliance drew a blank, another first in the electoral history of the State. The sheen of the TMC’s astounding success has been somewhat dimmed by violence, attributed largely to its cadres, that has claimed at least 14 lives since the counting of votes on Sunday. True, TMC workers have also been killed, but as the ruling party, the onus is on it to end the violence. It is reassuring that Ms. Banerjee has promised after taking oath that ending the violence and controlling the pandemic were her priorities. She must not read this colossal mandate as a public endorsement or even tolerance of the grass-roots ferocity and authoritarianism that have become hallmarks of her party. Ms. Banerjee’s personal responsibility is high considering that people reposed their trust in her despite the high-handedness of local TMC leaders. The burden on her is heavy, and she has a tough act to do in reining in her own party.

As much as the Bengal verdict is in favour of the TMC, it is also against the BJP which did not want to take an organic route to emerge as a natural party of governance in Bengal. Without a party organisation and mass leaders, it engineered defections, tried brazen communal polarisation and misused central agencies, as it went for the jugular. Its bombast and hubris were out of touch with the sensibilities of Bengalis. Its growth from three seats in 2016 to its current tally is impressive. The BJP must now pause and rethink its strategy for the path ahead. Its attempts to give a communal colour to condemnable political violence indicates that the BJP is not open to that. If it wants to be a truly national party, the BJP must be respectful of India’s regional, religious and cultural diversities. The Congress and the CPI(M) that sought to overcome their failure to build a programmatic politics through opportunistic alliances, including with the communal Indian Secular Front, must also now learn that there are no short cuts in politics. With the TMC reigning supreme, and the BJP falling short in understanding the State, the Opposition space can still be fought for. To reclaim relevance, these parties need to replace their current leaders, do some honest soul searching, and build a new politics.

The RBI has signalled it is aware of the burden on health-care providers during this period

The Reserve Bank of India’s move on Wednesday to step in and join the fight against the second wave of the pandemic through the announcement of measures aimed at alleviating any financing constraint for those impacted, including the health-care sector, State governments and the public, is a welcome and timely intervention. The furious pace at which new COVID-19 infections and fatalities have been mounting in recent weeks has not only overwhelmed the nation’s health infrastructure but has begun to significantly impair economic activity, just as the economy appeared to have turned the corner from last year’s debilitating contraction. “The fresh crisis is still unfolding,” Governor Shaktikanta Das said in his unscheduled address, acknowledging the challenge ahead. Stressing that it is imperative to both save lives and restore livelihoods, Mr. Das proposed a calibrated response, mooting a Rs. 50,000 crore term liquidity facility to boost credit availability for ramping up COVID-related health-care infrastructure and services. Lenders have been urged to expedite lending under this ‘priority sector’ classified scheme to entities including vaccine manufacturers, hospitals, pathology labs, suppliers of oxygen and ventilators, importers of COVID-related drugs and logistics firms. And although Mr. Das said the scheme would also cover patients requiring treatment, he failed to spell out how those most in need of financial assistance to cover their surging medical bills could borrow the funds. In directing the flow of credit to the sector most in focus at the moment, the RBI has signalled it is cognisant of the burden on health-care and allied providers. However, how much lending capital-stressed banks would be willing to write into their ‘COVID loan books’ remains to be seen.

The central bank’s focus on small borrowers including unorganised businesses and MSM enterprises, both through enhanced provision of credit via small finance banks and a fresh resolution framework for existing borrowings, is also heartening as these economic participants were already among the worst-hit during last year’s contraction. However, the norms laid down for resolution including the proviso that only those borrowers who had not already availed of restructuring assistance and whose loans were ‘standard’ as on March 31, 2021, would be eligible for fresh resolution lays an onerous burden on those that the RBI itself admits are the ‘most vulnerable’. Mr. Das was also unreasonably sanguine about the economic impact of the second wave, even as he granted that “high frequency indicators are emitting mixed signals”. The RBI’s position that the dent to aggregate demand is likely to be only moderate is based on the fact that so far this year, the restrictions to contain the spread of the virus have been largely localised. With more and more voices from the Opposition to top industry groups urging a nationwide lockdown to break the chain of transmission, Mr. Das may need to very quickly revisit his assumptions.