As Kerala's two rival coalitions brace for assembly polls, the question is whether the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front will be able to continue its winning streak of the last Lok Sabha elections and how far the Congress-led United Democratic Front will succeed in projecting the government's achievements and exploiting the inner-strife in the Left camp.
The state's poll-eve scene is dominated by two major developments - the commotions in the CPI(M) and the possible return of former chief minister K Karunakaran to the UDF camp, an year after he broke ranks with the Congress.
If it was almost a 'lost battle' for the UDF a few months ago after it did quite badly in the civic polls and the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha by-election, the recent turn of events have come as a morale booster.
Fighting the battle under leadership of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, the UDF's main campaign theme is development, buttressed by positive indicators of the economy. After his takeover two years back, Chandy has changed the ruling front into a cohesive and compact combine putting behind the days of ceaseless feuds that led to the Congress drawing a blank in 2004 Parliamentary elections.
In an upbeat mood till recently, the power struggle in the CPI-M leading to the shocking removal of opposition leader V S Achuthanandan from the electoral fray has cast a shadow over the LDF with some sections in the front fearing that it might even dent the coalition's prospects.
Though it was not the practice of CPI-M to project any leader as chief minister, LDF convener Paloli Muhammadkutty is widely seen as the party's choice for the top slot. A clean, suave and soft-spoken leader, Muhammadkutty's entry into the fray as the most prominent CPI-M figure is expected to make the LDF's position stronger in the northern districts where the Muslim vote bank is decisive.
The party is expected to win a seat in his home district Malappuram, a Muslim League stronghold where the Marxists have made some inroads recently.
The CPI-M leaders believe that recent efforts to make the party acceptable to all communities, especially minorities, rather than relying solely on its traditional vote bank of workers and lower middle classes, would bring in additional gains this time.
The LDF also rejected the UDF's claim of having taken the state to the path of development in the last five years arguing that its 'lopsided policies' have brought benefit to only a minor section of the people while doing harm to the long-term interests of the state.
The UDF, on the other hand, has dubbed the CPI-M as 'an anti-development' force and wanted the coalition to return to power at any cost to carry out 'unfinished tasks'. UDF leaders believe that its last-minute implementation of pay revision for government employees and pensioners would bring it a good chunk 'non-political voters,' who work as a crucial factor in deciding the outcome in a state where the winning margin are very narrow in most assembly segments.
Talks with the DIC(K) have caused delay in finalising the seat-sharing in the UDF. Though even the staunch anti-Karunakaran elements in Congress have given up their resistance against adjustments with DIC (K), most Congress leaders have insisted that the DIC (K) candidates should contest on Congress symbol 'hand' in the event of a tie-up.
The troubles in the CPI-M and demands from partners like CPI and Revolutionary Socialist Party for a few additional seats has slowed down the seat-sharing exercise in the LDF. The front is expected to complete the process by March 20.
The CPI-M leaders would be resuming talks with partners after the crucial Politburo meeting slated for March 21 to discuss the developments in Kerala unit. In the firm control of the faction led by state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, the CPI-M has rejected the theory that the decision to keep Achuthanandan off the electoral fray could mar the LDF's prospects.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which was yet to taste success in Kerala, is in total disarray after its humiliating performance in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha by-poll. Going alone, the party would be fielding candidates in the 140 seats but would be concentrating on a few seats in a bid for a breakthrough.
It is for the first time that Kerala is having multi-phased elections with the Election Commission scheduling it for April 22, 29 and May 3.