With little effort on its part, by choosing its candidates with care, avoiding infighting within its ranks and through the smart political move of fielding Rahul Gandhi as a candidate from the State, the Congress-led opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) won a historic victory in Kerala merely by posing itself as a better alternative to the BJP at the Centre. There was no ambiguity in Kerala, which elected UDF candidates in 19 of the State’s 20 Lok Sabha seats, a stark contrast to the trend favouring Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in most other States.
The result indicated a rejection of the divisive political agenda of the BJP and its attempts to mask its not-so-robust track record in office with an emotional appeal as an eager, self-appointed custodian of Hindu voters. The result revealed a preference for the Congress and its allies as an alternative at the Centre, to try and soothe minority apprehensions about yet another term for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre.
Kerala, where Muslim and Christian minority communities account for over 45 per cent of the population, clearly saw through the BJP’s game plan to somehow manage a breakthrough in the State even at the cost of a dangerous polarisation of voters on religious lines.
The result also showed that voters frowned upon the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) for the methods its State government adopted to checkmate the BJP’s bid to utilise the Sabarimala issue as a mobilisation strategy. Although the State government’s tough response won it praise from quarters elsewhere, it soon proved to be out of sync with the beliefs and wishes of a large majority of Hindu devotees, a lot of them women voters.
Kerala’s vote was also emphatically against the politics of violence and serial murders that has become the hallmark of political activity involving cadres of the CPI(M) and mainly their BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) rivals in many northern districts.
The LDF was the most forceful campaigner against the BJP and its divisive agenda all through but found itself with an almost empty cup in the end. The CPI(M) managed to win one seat: Alappuzha in central Kerala where party MLA A.M. Ariff defeated the Congress candidate, Shanimol Usman, by 9,213 votes, the lowest victory margin in this election.
The CPI(M) failed to retain the seven seats it won in 2014, including its north Kerala strongholds such as Vadakara, Kannur, Kasargod, Palakkad and Alathur; Attingal in the south; and Chalakkudy and Idukki, where it fielded the same independent candidates who won it the last time.
The CPI lost Thrissur, the only seat it got in 2014. The CPI’s other three candidates, too, failed to make it. Prominent among them was MLA (and former Minister) C. Divakaran, who came third after the BJP candidate (former Mizoram Governor) Kummanam Rajasekharan in perhaps the most prestigious fight in the State, for Thiruvananthapuram constituency. The two-time Congress MP Shashi Tharoor retained the seat with a manifold increase in his victory margin.
CPI(M) loses crucial fights
Despite pulling out all its tricks, including personal attacks against UDF candidates, the CPI(M) lost several crucial fights.
In Kollam in south Kerala, for instance, the LDF ran a hostile campaign against the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) leader and sitting MP N.K. Premachandran, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan himself addressing several campaign meetings for the CPI(M) candidate, K.N. Balagopal. But Premachandran retained the seat with the much bigger margin of 1,48,856 votes. In the 2014 election, Premachandran, a former LDF Minister whose party joined the UDF over differences on seat sharing with the CPI(M), defeated the CPI(M) Politburo member M.A. Baby.
In Kozhikode, a northern constituency with a sizeable minority population, the Congress MP M.K. Raghavan won a third term over a popular local MLA of the CPI(M), A. Pradeep Kumar, despite facing a vicious campaign with allegations of corruption brought up reportedly through a sting operation by a private news channel. Raghavan got nearly 46 per cent of the votes polled and won by 85,225 votes.
In Vadakara, one of the CPI(M)’s most prominent candidates, the former Kannur district secretary and MLA P. Jayarajan, courted defeat at the hands of a last-minute candidate of the Congress, former Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president and MLA K. Muraleedharan, in an election fought mainly on the issue of political violence and serial murders (see Frontline May 10, 2019).
In Kannur, often the most talked about CPI(M) stronghold that is notorious for such violence, the party’s bete noir , Congress leader K. Sudhakaran, known for his strong views and tit-for-tat tactics against his CPI(M) rivals, won easily over sitting MP P.K. Sreemathy with a margin of 94,559 votes.
In the northernmost Kasargod constituency, where the Congress, the Muslim League and the BJP too are strong, the CPI(M) replaced three-time MP P. Karunakaran with a fresh candidate, district secretary K.P. Satheesh Chandran. But the Congress candidate, Rajmohan Unnithan, chosen at the last minute, wrested the seat from the CPI(M) after a gap of 35 years with a margin of 40,438 votes.
Many other Left bastions, including Palakkad and Alathur in north Kerala and Attingal in the south, saw shocking defeats of popular MPs, M.B. Rajesh, P.K. Biju and A. Sampath respectively.
Lone woman winner
In Alathur (Scheduled Caste) constituency, a previously little-known woman youth leader, Ramya Haridas, braved a hostile campaign to score an unequivocal win over P.K. Biju with a record margin of 1,58,968 votes. Hers was the most exciting story of victory of a Congress candidate, against all odds, and she will be the only woman representative from Kerala in Parliament.
M.B. Rajesh, considered the CPI(M)’s invincible candidate in Palakkad, lost to District Congress Committee (DCC) president V.K. Sreekandan by 11,637 votes. In Attingal, three-time party MP A. Sampath lost to Congress MLA (former State Minister) Adoor Prakash by 38,247 votes.
The importance the LDF and the UDF attached to winning every seat possible was clear from the fact that they both fielded sitting MLAs in nine constituencies, with the CPI(M) fielding six of them. The CPI(M) fielded all its sitting MPs except Karunakaran in Kasargod. The Congress, too, fielded all its MPs, except PCC(I) president Mullappally Ramachandran, who represented it from Vadakara, and K.V. Thomas, the veteran MP from Ernakulam.
A reluctant Thomas was replaced by the young Congress MLA Hibi Eden, who won against former CPI(M) MP P. Rajeev by over 1,37,749 votes. Union Minister of State Alphons Kannanthanam, the NDA candidate, came third with 1,37,749 votes, or 14.24 per cent of the total votes polled.
Although the Congress took its time to finalise its candidates list, with leaders initially fighting among themselves over it, the arrival of Rahul Gandhi put things in order, and the party eventually fielded its best candidates. The Congress contested in 16 seats and won 15. Among other the UDF partners, the Muslim League won both the seats it contested, and the Kerala Congress (Mani) and the RSP retained the seats they held in the outgoing Lok Sabha.
The CPI(M) contested in 16 seats and won only in Alappuzha; the CPI lost all the four seats it contested.
Within the NDA, the BJP fielded 17 candidates, and the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena three, including NDA State convener and BDJS leader Tushar Vellappally, who contested in Wayanad and barely managed to get about 7 per cent of the votes polled. The CPI candidate P.P. Suneer, Rahul Gandhi’s main opponent, got 2,74,457 votes (just over 25 per cent of the votes polled).
Minority surge hits LDF
Despite choosing its candidates well and conducting a well-oiled campaign on the back of a fairly good record of governance in the State, the LDF found itself helpless against the determined stream of minority voters who thronged the polling booths in all 20 Lok Sabha constituencies on April 23, in what was clearly an anti-Modi surge encouraged by Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad. The LDF’s aim of wooing exactly the same minority voters to its fold, by initiating tough action against the BJP’s politically charged campaign interests using the Sabarimala issue, ultimately proved futile, if not counterproductive, with disaffection spreading among Hindu devotees. Kerala rejected both the BJP and the LDF, and in many booths the long queues of voters extended late into the night and gave UDF candidates emphatic victories. In at least nine of the 20 constituencies, UDF candidates managed victory margins of over a lakh votes, with Rahul Gandhi recording the highest victory margin so far, 4,31,772 votes, by any candidate in Kerala. In eight of these nine constituencies, the winning UDF candidate gained more than 50 per cent of the total votes polled.
The second big-time winner was the Muslim League leader P.K. Kunhalikkutty in Malappuram, where his victory margin was over 2.6 lakh votes. In Ponnani, the other Muslim League stronghold, the CPI(M)-supported independent candidate, the MLA and businessman P.V. Anvar, was supposed to give former Minister E.T. Muhammed Basheer a run for his money, but Basheer won by over 1.9 lakh votes.
Similar were the UDF victories in many Christian strongholds: for instance, Kerala Congress (Mani) candidate Thomas Chazhikkadan won against the CPI(M)’s popular district secretary V.N. Vasavan in Kottayam with a margin of 1,06,259 votes; Congress youth leader Dean Kuriakose won against the controversial CPI(M) independent candidate and sitting MP Joyce George in Idukki with a margin of 1,71,053 votes; the Congress candidate Hibi Eden won against the CPI(M)’s P.Rajeev in Ernakulam with a margin of 1,69153 votes; UDF convener Benny Behanan won against the film actor and sitting MP Innocent in Chalakkudy with a margin of 1,32,274 votes; and T.N. Prathapan won against the CPI’s candidate Rajaji Mathew Thomas in Thrissur with a margin of 93,633 votes.
In the last general election, Thrissur elected the CPI’s only MP in the country, C.N. Jayadevan. This time, the CPI fielded four candidates in addition to Wayanad—Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur and Mavelikkara—but failed to get a single seat. In Mavelikkara, the sitting MP Kodikkunnil Suresh, who has represented the seat ever since it became an S.C. reserved constituency in 2008, defeated the CPI’s Chittayam Gopakumar by 61,500 votes.
The Left failed to gauge the scale of disaffection even among its core Hindu voter base caused by the way it went ahead to checkmate any advantage the BJP may obtain on the issue of entry of young women into the Sabarimala temple. Although the BJP failed to win a single seat, it managed to gain a big share of votes in many constituencies where it would now look to utilise the disaffection among Hindu voters to its advantage. But the ultimate gain in all such places went to the UDF, which snatched away any advantage the LDF or the BJP hoped to obtain from the Sabarimala issue.
Both Palakkad and Attingal witnessed tough three-cornered fights in which the BJP candidates obtained 2.18 lakh votes and 2.48 lakh votes respectively, quite high scores for the party in Kerala. In Thrissur, where the CPI inexplicably chose not to field C.N. Jayadevan once again, the Congress candidate and former DCC president T.N. Prathapan won against the CPI’s Rajaji Mathew Thomas by 93,633 votes, or 38.84 per cent of the votes polled. But the star of the battle was the film actor-turned-BJP Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi, whose last-minute entry into the fray with a bold focus on the Sabarimala issue fetched the BJP an easy 2,93,822 votes, or 28. 2 per cent of the votes.
In Pathanamthitta, the constituency that includes Sabarimala temple and its hinterland, the delayed candidature of K. Surendran, who played a prominent role in the BJP’s struggle against the Pinarayi government on the Sabarimala issue, too, raised hopes of the party winning that seat. But the BJP could manage only the third place there, including in the Assembly segment where the temple itself is situated. The Congress party’s sitting MP Anto Antony won Pathanamthitta, where minority votes are crucial, gaining 44,613 votes more than the CPI(M) MLA from the region, Veena George. Surendran got 2,95,627 votes, or 28.97 per cent of the votes polled.
With the BJP trying for sometime now to spread its influence in Kerala, triangular fights are increasingly becoming the norm in elections in the State. This time, the BJP’s best hope of victory was in Thiruvananthapuram, where the party’s candidate, O. Rajagopal, came second in the 2014 election, gaining a lead in four of the seven Assembly segments of the constituency.
But again, the BJP’s candidate this time, Kummanam Rajasekharan, could only gain the second position. Tharoor raised his victory margin from around 15,000 votes in 2014 to 99,989 votes in one of the toughest three-cornered fights of this election. Rajasekharan won 3,16,142 votes. Pushed again to the third place was the CPI’s MLA, C. Divakaran. Tharoor won 41.19 per cent of the votes, up from 34.09 per cent in 2014.
In all constituencies, the choice of the right candidates proved to be a key element in the victory of the UDF candidates. In the north Kerala constituencies, the UDF also used well the issue of the penchant of the ruling CPI(M)’s party machinery in the region to engage in violence against rivals as a matter of routine political activity, conducted with the alleged blessings of the party leadership. Even though BJP/RSS cadres were equally at fault for the culture of violence in the region, the attacks involving CPI(M) cadres continued with impunity even after the elections were announced. The twin murders of Youth Congress workers in Kasargod just as the election campaign was being launched in the State helped the UDF pin voter attention on the issue and sway public opinion in its favour.
Even after the day of voting, the calculated attacks continued in Vadakara, where a former CPI(M) member who had enlisted himself as an independent candidate was ambushed by people. It revived memories of several infamous murders in past years that had been the focus of the UDF campaign in the region.
Only once before, in 1977 immediately after the Emergency, has the Congress done better than its tally this time in the State. It won all 20 seats then, bucking the national trend and voting for Indira Gandhi’s Congress when the rest of India went against it.
The UDF’s share of votes has risen from 42.21 per cent in 2014 to 47.34 per cent in 2019. The LDF share fell from 40.18 per cent to 35.15 per cent this time. The BJP’s share, on the other hand, rose from 10.9 per cent in 2014 to 15.56 per cent in 2019.
In the Assembly election held in 2016, the LDF won 43.33 per cent of the votes polled against the UDF’s 38.84 per cent and the BJP-led alliance’s 15.01 per cent. The LDF came to power by winning 91 of the total 140 seats in the State Assembly but now finds that it retains a lead position only in 16 Assembly segments out of the 140. The UDF, on the other hand, has the upper hand in 123 Assembly segments this time, while the BJP retained its lead in one Assembly segment (Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram, which is the party’s first and only seat in the State Assembly). The opposition coalition led by the Congress has emerged on top in all Assembly segments of 11 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala.
As for individual parties, the Congress emerged with a vote share of 37.27 per cent. The CPI(M) got 27.83 per cent and the CPI 6.05 per cent. The Congress allies—the Muslim League, the RSP and the Kerala Congress (Mani)—won 5.45 per cent, 2.45 per cent and 2.07 per cent respectively.
MLAs from four Assembly constituencies—K. Muraleedharan from Vattiyoorkkavu in Thiruvananthapuram, Ariff from Aroor in Alappuzha, Hibi Eden from Ernakulam and Adoor Prakash from Konni in Pathanamthitta—have been elected to the Lok Sabha. Therefore, within six months, byelections will have to be held in these four and two other Assembly seats lying vacant following the death of MLAs in Pala (K.M. Mani) and Manjeswaram (P.B. Abdul Razak of the Muslim League). In those six Assembly segments, it is the UDF that gained the upper hand in this election.
Kerala, whose affections waver between the two coalitions led by the Congress and the CPI(M), so far had a tradition of favouring the UDF in elections to Parliament and the LDF in elections to the State Assembly.
With a BJP-led alliance too in the fray now, the near-total domination of the UDF in this Lok Sabha election should be a warning for the LDF, which has completed three years in office, to make amends quickly for its costly mistakes and set its house in order with a focus on good governance and caution while dealing with sensitive political issues.