US embassy cable - 05CHENNAI2480

CONGRESS SLIDES; COMMUNIST PARTY SET TO RECLAIM KERALA

Identifier: 05CHENNAI2480
Wikileaks: View 05CHENNAI2480 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Consulate Chennai
Created: 2005-10-24 04:05:00
Classification: UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY
Tags: PGOV PINR IN Indian Domestic Politics
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 CHENNAI 002480 
 
SIPDIS 
 
SENSITIVE 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: PGOV, PINR, IN, Indian Domestic Politics 
SUBJECT: CONGRESS SLIDES; COMMUNIST PARTY SET TO 
RECLAIM KERALA 
 
Ref: (A) CHENNAI 01265 (B) 04 CHENNAI 01008 
 
1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The ruling Congress-led coalition's 
slide continues in Kerala and will likely end in its 
defeat in the 2006 state assembly elections.  In a 
state where anti-incumbent voting is the norm, the 
Opposition Left Front, led by the Communist Party of 
India (Marxist), is directly benefiting from the 
growing unpopularity of the state government.  Shocked 
by the series of recent local electoral debacles, Chief 
Minister Chandy is expected to make an all-out effort 
to reverse the trend.  He hopes to win the November 18 
Lok-Sabha by-election in Thiruvananthapuram and to 
change policies in the remaining six months to project 
a pro-poor image.  That, however, is unlikely to undo 
the damage done by four years of internal dissent in 
the Congress party and the May 2005 party split. END 
SUMMARY 
 
------------------------------------------- 
OPPOSITION SWEEPS KERALA VILLAGES AND TOWNS 
------------------------------------------- 
 
2. (SBU) Kerala's September 24-26 elections to village 
and municipal councils confirmed the growing 
unpopularity of the current Congress-led state 
government.  Out of 999 village "panchayats", the 
Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the 
Communist Party of India (Marxist) won 659, giving away 
only 221 to the Congress-led United Democratic Front. 
CPI(M) alone won 598.  The BJP could win only four.  In 
the state's 51 Municipalities, the LDF captured 32 
chairman positions, while the UDF won only 18.  The BJP 
captured a majority in one Municipality (Palakkad).  In 
the cities, the LDF lead was stunning; they bagged all 
five of the City Corporations in Kerala. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ----- 
PARLIAMENT TO PANCHAYAT  DOWNWARD SLIDE CONTINUES 
--------------------------------------------- ----- 
 
3. (SBU) The leftist landslide victory was a repeat of 
the 2004 Lok Sabha elections when it won 19 of the 
state's 20 seats.  At that time, beleaguered Congress 
leader Antony was the Chief Minister, facing relentless 
feuding with octogenarian Congressman Karunakaran and 
his son Muraleedharan.  The upshot of that election was 
two-fold: Antony resigned from his Chief Ministership 
giving way to Oommen Chandy (Reftel B), and Karunakaran 
split the party (Reftel A) forming the Democratic 
Indira Congress - Karunakaran (DIC-K).  In the recent 
local government elections, the DIC-K had formed a 
tactical understanding with the LDF in many districts 
to defeat the Congress. 
 
--------------------------------------------- 
KARUNAKARAN'S PARTY SMALL, BUT CAN BE CRUCIAL 
--------------------------------------------- 
 
4. (SBU) Knowledgeable sources acknowledge 
Karunakaran's contribution to the Leftist victory, but 
point out that he can at best influence only 5-10 
percent of the votes in most places.  "In panchayat 
elections, where small margins are enough to tilt the 
balance, even a 5 percent vote shift becomes critical", said 
Madhavan Nair, a senior journalist with The Hindu at 
Kozhikode in North Kerala. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ------- 
CHANDY'S DEVELOPMENT AGENDA DOESN'T APPEAL TO VOTERS 
--------------------------------------------- ------- 
 
5. (SBU) Chandy's focus on initiating a few big 
infrastructure projects is not appealing to the masses, 
according to M.J. John, the Bureau Chief of Kerala's 
biggest daily, the Malayala Manorama.  The Dubai 
Internet City project for Cochin (expected to create 
33,000 jobs), metro rail projects for Cochin and 
Thiruvananthapuram, facilitating Cochin Port's 
expansion and privatization plans, and the expansion of 
the Cochin International Airport, are some of the 
projects on which the Chief Minister has focused over 
the past year.  "The voting population in general does 
not consider these huge projects as directly benefiting 
them.  On the contrary, they provide opportunity for 
the Opposition to raise allegations of corruption", 
says John. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ------ 
CHANDY WILL CHANGE COURSE; PROJECT A PRO-POOR IMAGE 
--------------------------------------------- ------ 
 
6. (SBU) Advisors to the Chief Minister and member of 
the Kerala Planning Board, G. Vijayaraghavan (former 
CEO of Kerala Technopark) (protect) told Post that in 
an informal survey conducted at the Thiruvananthapuram 
Technopark where over 5000 young people work, he found 
that only 3-4 percent of them voted.  "These are the people 
who should naturally support pro-investment 
initiatives, but they don't care", said Vijayaraghavan. 
He told Post that over the next six months leading up 
to the May 2006 elections, Chief Minister Chandy would 
make necessary policy changes to project a "pro-poor 
image." 
 
----------------------------------- 
ALL EYES ON A LOK SABHA BY-ELECTION 
----------------------------------- 
 
7. (SBU) With the Panchayat elections behind them, all 
eyes are now on an upcoming Lok Sabha by-election in 
Thiruvananthapuram, slated for November 18. A three- 
cornered contest is in the cards, between the UDF, LDF 
and BJP.  The UDF candidate, a local Congress youth 
leader, is an upper-caste (Nair) Hindu while the LDF 
candidate belongs to the backward (Ezhava) caste. "It 
will be a tough fight", said Gouridasan Nair, 
Thiruvananthapuram Correspondent of the Hindu, 
"although the LDF has a head-start due to the wide 
margins of victory in the 2004 elections."  The BJP is 
also strong in this constituency, and was a close third 
in 2004.  Although the BJP has grown in pockets of 
Kerala, overall the party commands only about 6 percent 
of the vote and has little hope of coming to power in 
the foreseeable future.  "Chief Minister Chandy will 
make an all-out effort to capture the constituency", 
said Vijayaraghavan, "because that will create a huge 
impact in the 2006 elections." 
 
-------------------------------------- 
COMMUNAL PREJUDICES TOO STRONG TO BEAT 
-------------------------------------- 
 
8. (SBU) None of our sources believe that Chandy can 
turn the Congress around before the 2006 elections. 
"One can only hope for an honorable defeat in 2006", 
said John, "even if the UDF retakes the 
Thiruvananthapuram seat in November."  He attributes 
many of Chandy's problems to issues of perception. 
Chandy is a Christian, belonging to one of the many 
branches of the Orthodox Church that exist in Kerala. 
It is hard for him to beat the strong communal 
prejudices that come to the fore in elections.  Some 
detractors effectively insult the government as a 
coalition of Muslims and Christians, particularly after 
Karunakaran, an upper caste Hindu, left the Congress. 
Chandy's initiative to appoint Ramesh Chennithala, an 
upper-caste Hindu, as state party leader has not fully helped to reco 
lost ground. 
 
--------------------------------------------- --- 
COMMUNIST INFIGHTING DOESN'T SPILL OVER TO POLLS 
--------------------------------------------- --- 
 
9. (SBU) It is widely known that the Communist Party of 
India (Marxist) also has internal problems in Kerala, 
particularly between the camps of two Chief Ministerial 
aspirants, Pinarayi Vijayan and V.S. Achuthanandan. 
Although Kerala media has exposed the internecine feud, 
the leftist rank and file has shown remarkable 
restraint in recent elections and has not let the feud 
affect the electoral prospects of party candidates. 
 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
AGGRESSIVE MEDIA PROMOTES ANTI-INCUMBENT VOTING 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
10. (SBU) COMMENT: Kerala politics continue to be 
marked by the traditional rivalry between the UDF and 
the LDF, who, since the 1980s, have regularly 
alternated in power.  An inexorable tide of anti- 
incumbency sentiment always begins to flow immediately 
after an election.  A highly aggressive media, both 
print and TV, in the highly literate state, plays a 
major role in exposing the parties in power.  The media 
had feasted on the internal dissentions in Congress, 
ending in the formal split in 2005; now it is too late 
to undo the damage. 
 
11. (SBU) A fallback to populism, particularly in the 
run up to the elections, is the natural option for 
state governments, particularly as they view the 
electoral defeats of former Chief Ministers of Andhra 
Pradesh and Karnataka, Chandrababu Naidu, and S.M. 
Krishna, as resulting from their "excessive reformist 
zeal."  However, Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy's 
problem is that, even if he decides to play pro-poor, 
he can never hope to match his Opposition, the 
Leftists, in that game.  At this point, he can only 
hope for the cracks within the CPI(M) leadership to 
widen.  His chances are slim.  END COMMENT. 
 
12. (U) This message was coordinated with Embassy New 
Delhi. 
 
HOPPER 

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