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23 May 2016 Editorial


23 May 2016 

The turn of the strongman

The political drama that was expected after the LDF victory, as a result of the rivalry between the two stalwarts of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), former Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan and former State secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, did not materialise. The transition to power was a smooth affair with Mr. Vijayan chosen as the CPI(M)’s legislature party leader and Mr. Achuthanandan stepping aside graciously, albeit after some gentle persuasion from the national leadership of the party. Mr. Achuthanandan was the face of the Left Democratic Front’s campaign, drawing massive crowds to his meetings as he took on the Congress on issues such as poor governance and corruption. But old age and ill-health, as well as political exigencies, necessitated the relinquishing of his claim on the chief ministership. It is Mr. Vijayan, the quintessential organisation strongman, who enjoys the support in all tiers of the party. Having risen through the CPI(M) ranks in north Kerala’s Kannur district, a hotbed of political violence between the Communist and Sangh Parivar cadres, he lacks the geniality and mass appeal of Mr. Achuthanandan. But during his years as the State secretary, Mr. Vijayan was the backbone of the party, holding the organisation together within a disciplinary framework that gave no scope for either internal dissent or external threats. Other than his public spat with Mr. Achuthanandan, for which both were suspended from the Polit Bureau, Mr. Vijayan is not known for being out of step with the party line.

The LDF did not return to power on a wave of popularity. Its victory was facilitated, and in no small measure, by the ineptness of the United Democratic Front, the surge in the vote share of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its role as a keen watchdog during its years in opposition. Given his age, Mr. Achuthanandan could not be as active as the leader of the opposition over the last five years as he was in 2001-06. Given the rise of the BJP in Kerala’s politics, Mr. Vijayan, given his political acumen, may well be the right person at the helm for the CPI(M). But clearly, it is his skills as an administrator that will be under test in the next five years. In his earlier stint in government, as the Minister for Power and Cooperation in the E.K. Nayanar government for two years from 1996, Mr. Vijayan faced corruption charges, but was subsequently cleared by a special court. Despite being a hard-nosed communist, the new Chief Minister of Kerala is not averse to big ticket investment, something the State badly needs. Indeed, in this he is more forward-looking than Mr. Achuthanandan, who is schooled and set in the old ways as an administrator. Kerala needs a more dynamic Left-leaning government, one that harmoniously accommodates both industrial growth and social welfare. Retaining power in Kerala is more easy than regaining it. Mr. Vijayan would do well to remember this as he readies to govern this politically conscious State.

Inclusion plus development

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s conquest of Assam is momentous not only for its scale but also for the hopes that accompany it. Its first electoral win in the State was comprehensive: 86 out of 126 seats in Assembly, and a combined vote share of 41.5 per cent for the BJP-led alliance, numbers that suggest the verdict was more than a mere expression of anti-incumbency against 15 uninterrupted years of Congress rule. The win has bred an air of expectation perhaps not seen since 1985, when the Asom Gana Parishad, the BJP’s junior ally this time, also reduced the Congress to the mid-20s in terms of seats, primarily on a plank of safeguarding the rights of the State’s indigenous communities against illegal immigration from Bangladesh. It is indicative of the slow pace of progress in the frontier State that the BJP’s successful campaign, three decades on, was also mounted on a promise to solve the foreigners’ issue, and usher in all-round development. Its two leading faces at the poll stump, chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal and campaign committee convener Himanta Biswa Sarma, have the requisite credentials for this dual message. It was Mr. Sonowal’s dogged legal pursuit that resulted in the Supreme Court scrapping the Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act in 2005, an Act specially legislated for Assam in 1983, and which was perceived to be a hindrance in the actual detection and deportation of illegal residents. Mr. Sarma, 23 years a Congressman before switching to the BJP in August 2015, was regarded as one of the more enterprising ministers in the Tarun Gogoi cabinet, with notable achievements in teacher recruitments and medical facilities in government hospitals.

The BJP insists that Assam has voted “for change, for prosperity, for peace, for good governance” and that the secular identity of the State would be preserved. Mr. Sonowal has also promised to seal the border with Bangladesh. The fact is, Assam shares only 263 km — of which 44 km is riverine — of the 4,096-km boundary between India and Bangladesh, and the onus of fencing and barb-wiring the border and formulating processes for the return of proven illegal immigrants back to Bangladesh rests on the Centre. In any case, there are more pressing matters at hand in a State where roughly one-third of the population lives below the poverty line and whose human development indicators are among the worst in the country. Going forward, there are other political minefields to navigate if the new government seeks to implement some of its campaign promises, such as the one to grant Scheduled Tribe status to six indigenous communities that constitute 40 per cent of the State’s population. Assam is a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups of uncommon diversity, and the BJP-led alliance must temper its poll-winning rhetoric with ground reality. The anti-immigrant rhetoric during campaigning at times virtually conflated Muslims with illegal immigrants. The new government must expressly reassure the minorities. The State needs a development narrative in its social tapestry.

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