Is development taking a back seat in Kerala campaign?

Opposition UDF, BJP trying to cash in on by attacking CPI(M), triggering sentiments over Sabarimala issue

Braving the sultry weather of early summer, Rasagi, 46, is at her tarpaulin-covered shanty on the mini bypass at Thripunithura in suburban Ernakulam selling fresh juice. Her son, a class 9 student, helps her at work while her husband is a salesman at a shop in Thripunithura town.

The family had seen better days when Ms. Rasagi worked as collection agent for a chit fund, which shut shop after being accused of duping investors.

“The biggest problem now is the absence of employment guarantee which was exacerbated by COVID-19,” says Ms. Rasagi, the sandalwood paste smeared on her forehead damp in the scorching heat.

The family stays in a rented dwelling near Sree Poornathrayeesa temple and remains hopeful of a solution to their life’s issues. “The municipality had asked all wayside vendors to vacate, but then party workers extended us support to stay on. I’ve been doing this for about three years now. My son fell ill when we were asked to go to the Akshaya service centre to complete the application formalities for a house under the LIFE [Livelihood Inclusion and Financial Empowerment] Mission. That should be done at the earliest opportunity now,” she says.

For Ms. Rasagi, the biggest poll issues are those concerning livelihood and employment. “Sabarimala is an issue for believers, but has a final verdict been pronounced on it?” she asks.

But that has not deterred the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from using it as a poll plank. Misogynistic videos, songs and massive wayside hoardings seeking to stir up sentiments over Sabarimala have marked their election campaign besides recurrent references made by senior leaders.

Charges against CPI(M)

This part, the focus remained firmly on a string of allegations against the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government, the latest being a now-withdrawn contract with a U.S.-based firm for the construction of deep-sea fishing vessels which the LDF contended was signed by an officer without government concurrence.

“We are in the last leg of election campaigning. Kerala wants to know if the Opposition is willing to discuss development and welfare, if they would dare to compare their performance in 2011-16 with that of ours over the last five years. Are you ready LoP [Leader of the Opposition]?” Chief Minister and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Pinarayi Vijayan threw down the gauntlet at Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala on Thursday night.

“They have no answers or alternatives to offer,” says Finance Minister and CPI(M) leader Thomas Isaac, the architect of the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), a body corporate created to fund and fast-track development and welfare schemes. “Infrastructure that would have taken 25 years for creation could be built in five years, thanks to the KIIFB’s market-sensitive annuity model. The borrowing, with a clear repayment road map, is essentially for capital expenditure which lays the foundation for future growth,” he maintains.

Job generation

The vision is to create a modern knowledge society, says S. Ramachandran Pillai, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member. “Take K-FON [Kerala Fibre Optic Network] for instance, which connects every household. Since work-from-home is an accepted global practice now, this is going to generate employment for lakhs of people especially housewives.”

“KIIFB is a brilliant model for the medium term to meet the State’s finances,” says writer and commentator N.S. Madhavan, a former IAS officer. But the focus has remained largely on welfare measures, without any clear cut policy initiative on taking forward the Kerala Model. Mr. Madhavan doesn’t see the campaign around Sabarimala cutting ice with the electorate, as all fronts are almost on the same page on the issue. “That apart, Kerala’s demography doesn’t allow the kind of polarisation that happens in the north.”

Annulling of contract

K.V. Thomas, working president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC), thinks that the Opposition responded positively to the government when the State faced a string of crises, but is duty-bound to call the government’s bluff when it falters. “Wasn’t the government forced to annul the deep-sea fishing vessel building contract after we cried foul?” he asks. The UDF took pains to collect public opinion before putting together its manifesto which is its road map for development, he says. “Our opposition to the government started with the Sprinklr health data deal and weren’t we proved right in all these issues?” he asks.

Mr. Vijayan, on his part, highlights Kerala’s ranking as the least corrupt Indian State. “Still, why do you want to shut down KIIFB and LIFE, something that the Centre is attempting using its agencies?” he asks.

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