Goutham K A & Rebecca Varghese
The most intriguing development in the elections to Local Self Government (LSG) bodies in the state of Kerala in 2020 was the political mileage gained by Twenty20; a corporate-backed organisation that emerged in Kizhakkambalam Grama Panchayat. Twenty20 had its inception in 2013 as the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) venture of the Anna-Kitex group. The organization which was registered as not -for profit under the Travancore-Cochin Literary, Scientific and Charitable Societies Registration Act garnered public attention in a short span of time with their effective interventions in the socio-political sphere of Kizhakkambalam Grama Panchayat of Ernakulam District. It also came to power in the 2015 LSG elections as 17 out of the 19 candidates placed by the party came out victorious defeating the traditional political powers. In 2020, along with retaining power in Kizhakkambalam, they were able to spread their wings further by winning in three more neighbouring panchayats of Aikkaranadu, Kunnathunad and Mazhuvannur and also became a major power in the Vengola panchayat. Twenty20’s consecutive victories, that too against the joint opposition of two of Kerala’s strongest and established political alliances; LDF and UDF, turns the page to a new chapter in the democratic history of the state. The emergence and growth of this particular organization in a state like Kerala, where the population in general is said to be politically aware and the society being largely politically polarised, throws out many intriguing questions in various social, political and economical dimensions.
The reports from locals in Kizhakkambalam revealed that the popularity gained by the Anna-Kitex group and its political outfit is mostly because of the presence of a food security supermarket run by the organisation where the members of Twenty20 get essential commodities for a far lesser price than that in the market. Along with this, the better condition of the roads, the promptness in acknowledging the complaints raised by people together with the ‘God’s villa project’ where they have modified the yesteryear ‘LakshamVeedu’ settlements have also increased their acceptance among the locals. This particular political development can also be correlated to the people’s manifestation of displeasure towards the traditional political fronts and their search for an alternative. Meanwhile, the critics were most vocal about the authoritarian shades of the party and its administrators. Field research reported instances of social exclusion where people who disagree with decisions made by the party leadership are not provided with any of the privileges the members of Twenty20 receive(example : Subsidised essential materials from the food security market).
Twenty20’s decision to contest in the State Assembly Elections from eight constituencies in Ernakulam district has suddenly raised its stake in the political spectrum and is now a cause of worry for the major political players of the state. By rising into power in four of the Panchayats in Kunnathunad Legislative Assembly Constituency (LAC), they were able to garner around 44% of the total votes in these panchayats. They could also establish their presence in Perumbavoor LAC with around 20.8% vote share in Vengola Panchayat and becoming the principal opposition. If Twenty20 can replicate the spillover effect of the development and the anti-corruption narrative which was evident during the local body elections to the other areas of Kunnathunad LAC, they definitely stand a chance of being part of the 15th legislative assembly. Further,the impact of their presence on the electorate of Kochi, Vypin, Kothamangalam, Perumbavoor, Thrikkakara, Muvattupuzha and Ernakulam constituencies is yet to be seen. The UDF leadership’s apprehension towards Twenty20 can be speculated as an outcome of the fear of a possible division of the anti-incumbent votes. Certain opinions from the locals of Kizhakkambalam should be taken into consideration in this situation as they said “ the victory in the local body elections may not be replicated in Assembly elections due to the general trend of changing voting patterns depending on the type of elections” and as per Duverger’s law, ( the simple majority, single ballot system favours the two‐party system) the situation favours either of the two traditional political fronts.
A comparison can be drawn between the welfare measures adopted by the ruling LDF government in the state and Twenty20 in Kizhakkambalam, where the supply of free/subsidised essential materials played a major role in their victories at the local body level. Thus it is almost a proven fact that such populistic welfare measures or tangible benefits are something that political parties can bank on during the elections. According to the many locals, kitchen budgeting and easier domestic finances due to the subsidized rates in essential commodities has led to an increased acceptance of Twenty20 among the women voters
While Twenty20 stands a chance of creating history by being the first corporate backed political party to send their representative to the State Legislative Assembly and may impact the election results of other constituencies, the increasing number of voices critical of the outfit have to be acknowledged and taken into consideration. The question of democratic process being hijacked by a corporate entity and its political implications should be discussed. The question of why people are looking for an alternative and the scope of a third front needed to be thought about. The dependency that is being created towards the party and its socio-economic impacts have to be accounted for. This political development can also be considered as a warning bell for the traditional political outfits as the people’s desire for a viable alternative is pretty much visible.
Goutham K A is Associate (Projects) & Rebecca Varghese is Election Studies Intern at CPPR. Views expressed by the authors are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.