Two factors are attributed to the Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) debacle in Kerala in this Lok Sabha election: zealousness for a secular government at the Centre and Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan hurting Hindu sentiments by opening Sabarimala temple to women of all ages as ordered by the Supreme Court. For the Congress led United Democratic Front a key element in its victory was its president Rahul Gandhi contesting from Wayanad. Traditional political theories governing the state didn’t play out this time. It was generally believed that when BJP gathers momentum, UDF is the loser. The BJP’s role in leading the agitation against the government over Sabarimala did lead to minority consolidation and polarization of upper caste votes but the casualty turned out to be Vijayan.
The UDF gathered 47.25 per cent of votes, sweeping 19 out of 20 seats, a 5.13 per cent rise compared to 2014. The Left Democratic Front’s (LDF) vote share dipped to 35.2 per cent, a decline of 5.2 per cent from 2014. In many Left bastions, leaders who were thought unbeatable— M B Rajesh, Dr P K Biju and A Sampath, sitting MPs from Palakkadu, Alathur and Attingal—lost. There was not a single photo finish with UDF candidates winning with huge majorities. Dr Ashraf Kadakkal, the Director of West Asian Studies, Kerala University, says, the results were due to voters deciding to strategically keeping the BJP out. “The voter turnout was quite high this time and they did the job with precision to not let BJP win by dividing votes between LDF and UDF.” BJP was third place everywhere except Thiruvananthapuram. The National Democratic Alliance’s tally remained zero, as in 2016. Their vote share was only 0.31 per cent despite making Sabarimala a centerstage issue. “Kerala’s voters obviously cast their votes keeping in mind that they were choosing a government at the Centre. An overwhelming majority were clear they did not want Modi to continue. They preferred UDF to LDF as they saw it as part of the UPA, the only one which appeared capable of forming an alternative government if Modi failed to get a majority,” says BRP Bhaskar, senior journalist and political commentator.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) is yet to come to terms with the shock. The chief minister said that the result was ‘Unexpected’. ‘The LDF was successful in convincing people that Modi should go, but the UDF benefitted from it. People believed that Congress should get maximum seats to keep BJP away from coming back to power,’ he said in an statement. It said the setback was temporary and voters would return to them. There were no direct statement on Sabarimala, but it noted that erosion of votes was also because ‘believers were misguided by the right wing forces’.
Whatever the official press release says, the left leaders are confused and divided over the reasons for the defeat. “Government’s decision to implement the Supreme Court verdict in Sabarimala proved fatal. The upper caste votes being polarized was anticipated, but I think a huge chunk of Ezhava voters turned against the Government on this issue. We cannot ignore it”, says a prominent leader of CPM. He also thinks that Modi fear factor is not the only reason for minorities to turn their back on the left, but a Government upholding the ideology of gender justice might also have provoked the Semitic religions. Dr J Reghu, a political thinker who authored books on the growth of Hinduthwa in Kerala, argues that this is the price that a political party. “There would be resistance in any conservative society that relies on religion and rituals rather than science and rationality. Placing gender justice over conservative religious values could provoke the public. No reformation comes without resistance,” says Reghu who thinks that CPI (M) should not back out from implementing the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala issue based on the poll debacle.
“I do not see the LS election outcome as a verdict against the state government or against Pinarayi Vijayan. It is not a vote in favor of Oommen Chandy-Ramesh Chennithala duo either” says senior journalist and columnist BRP Bhaskar. He does not count Sabarimala row to have played any major role. “I view the party state committee’s reference to Sabarimala and talk of minority consolidation as part of an attempt to evade genuine, meaningful introspection. Remember the CPI (M) collapsed not only in Kerala but in West Bengal and Tripura as well”. He assumes that the reason for the massive erosion of votes from the left pockets is because of lack of trust in the CPI (M) to play a major role at the centre.
It is apparently clear that BJP’s game of flaring up communal interests and religiosity proved fatal to them. The party ended up in the third place even in Pathanamthitta, the constituency where Sabarimala is located, with a vote share of 29 per cent. K Surendran, the general secretary of BJP who was on the forefront of the battle to preserve the tradition could not even put up a fight. The sitting MP Anto Antony of UDF received a landslide victory with a vote share of 37.1 per cent. The CPI(M)’s Veena George gathered 32 per cent votes pushing Surendran far behind to the third place with a margin of 39,000 votes. The NDA managed to gather a sizeable share of votes (20 per cent or more) only in four constituencies. There is a massive shift of votes to the UDF even in the constituencies where BJP showed an impressive performance in 2014. The Sabarimala factor worked, but not in favor of the BJP. The Hindu voters who were hurt by Pinarayi Vijayan’s stand on Sabarimala voted for the UDF.
Though BJP suffered a setback this time, there is no reason to assume it as a sign of the decline of the party in Kerala. The toughest challenge that the party faces in Kerala is lack of a visionary leadership that can tap the potential of soft Hinduthwa that is well rooted in the state. The Kerala pride of keeping the BJP out of the picture does not have substance. A close look at the poll data of the recent past shows otherwise. The BJP has gained consistent growth in the state since 1999. In the past 18 years, the vote share of the BJP/NDA in Kerala has climbed from 5.1 to 15.32 per cent. An interesting pattern in this progression graph is that the growth of the BJP/NDA is minimal when the LDF is in power.
In the 2001 Assembly elections, the BJP garnered only 5.1 per cent of votes. The Congress-led UDF almost swept the state with 49.05 per cent of votes leaving behind the CPI(M)-led LDF with 43.7 per cent of votes. The NDA/BJP's vote share went up to 10.2 per cent in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, thanks to a surprise victory of P C Thomas from Muvattupuzha, whose party IFDP was the only coalition partner of the BJP then. The LDF which won 18 seats out of 20 had a vote share of 46.2 per cent and the UDF managed only 38.4 per cent of votes. In 2006 Assembly elections, the vote share of the NDA dropped to 4.83 per cent. This time the LDF wrested power with 48.63 per cent and UDF was left with 42.98 per cent. In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections they could only manage 6.3 per cent of votes. The UDF polled 47.73 per cent votes and the LDF had to settle with 37.92 per cent. In 2011 assembly elections when UDF came back to power securing 45.83 per cent of vote share in a closely fought battle, with the LDF which received 44.94 per cent of votes, the NDA's share was only 6.06 per cent.
It was in the 2014 elections that the NDA stabilized its base across the state by bagging 10.6 per cent votes. Its veteran leader O Rajagopal almost pulled off a victory in Thiruvananthapuram. In the next two years, they stitched up an alliance with the newly formed political outfit BDJS. The coalition got 15.01 per cent votes and a seat in the state Assembly when O Rajagopal won at Nemom, Thiruvananthapuram. This time even though they doubled their vote share in a few constituencies, the NDA could not get any seats.
Minority communities constitute 43 per cent of Kerala’s population. The history of consolidation of their votes against the Communists dates back to 1959, when the church and the Muslim League joined hands with the Nair Service Society in a joint movement to topple the then EMS Namboodiripad-led government. From the 1950s onwards, Christian and Muslim communities usually remained a vote bank of the Congress-led coalition. There have been some exception, the first of which was in 1976 when a faction of the Muslim League split to form the Opposition League. Even though this faction went back to the parent party after a decade, a split happened again after the Babri Masjid demolition with the breakaway unit now a constituent of the LDF. The post Babri period witnessed a consolidation of Muslim votes in favor of the LDF for the first time with its candidates for two by-elections winning traditional UDF seats. Even before, 1990, with the Gulf war and the Ayodhya movement in the back drop, LDF had managed to win the support of minorities to sweep district council elections. But in the next Assembly election UDF got the state riding on a sympathy wave after Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.
In 2004 general elections the minority votes once again favored the LDF, presenting them their biggest victory in Kerala with 18 out of 20 seats. They followed it up with a massive victory in the 2006 Assembly elections also, in which many Indian Union Muslim League leaders lost their bastions in Malappuram district. In the 2016 Assembly elections too, the LDF won many seats in minority dominated areas. This time, both Muslim and Christian communities along with a chunk of upper caste Hindus deserted the LDF.
All political parties in Kerala are now gearing up for byelections to six Assembly constituencies, four of which got vacant because of sitting MLAs being elected to Parliament. Besides these Pala in Kottayam district and Manjeshwaram in Kasargod will have elections. In the Lok Sabha election, the BJP candidate Ravisha Tantri came third trailing by 11,000 votes. He finished second in the Assembly segment of Mancheswaram that lies in the Kasargod Loksabha constituency. The by poll is to take place to Mancheswaram constituency. Vattiyoorkkavu in Thiruvananthapuram, the sitting seat of K Muralidharan of INC who won the Lok Sabha poll from Vadakara, is another seat that BJP has an eye on. All other vacant Assembly segments, barring Aroor, had sitting UDF legislators and they expect to easily win them again. For the UDF and NDA, any victory will be a bonus. For the Left front, it is time to seriously introspect about its future in an era where they only have as strong presence in Kerala.