Kerala

One-seat dream

Print edition : May 16, 2014

BJP leader L.K. Advani along with the party's candidates O. Rajagopal and S. Girijakumari from Thiruvananthapuram and Attingal at a campaign meeting at Gandhi Park in Thiruvananthapuram on April 8. Photo: S. Gopakumar

UDF candidate Shashi Tharoor campaigning in Thiruvananthapuram on March 26. Photo: S. Gopakumar

THE Congress party has pinned great hopes on Kerala, a State with 20 seats in the Lok Sabha and which saw intense campaigning and a high voter turnout of 74.04 per cent in the single-phase election held on April 10. And for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), surely, it is once again a question of whether it will win its first ever seat against the combined strength of the two coalitions, the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), that have dominated the State’s politics so far.

While the ruling UDF is unlikely to equal its performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, when the Congress won 13 seats and its allies three, it hopes desperately to get more than half the seats this time.

The BJP State leadership’s hope is that the party will win at least the keen triangular contest in Thiruvananthapuram, where its candidate, former Union Minister of State for Railways O. Rajagopal, fought Union Minister Shashi Tharoor (the winner in 2009), and the Communist Party of India’s controversial independent candidate, Bennet Abraham, among others.

Allegations of vote transfer in favour of the BJP by disgruntled Congressmen on the one hand and by sections of CPI(M) and CPI workers on the other are typically in the air, and the controversy over the death of his wife, Sunanda Pushkar, had been a silent, effective campaign theme of both the LDF and the BJP against Shashi Tharoor.

Moreover, with the CPI putting its bets on the consolidation of a sizeable Nadar community votes for Bennet Abraham (a nominee also of the Church of South India), even at the cost of a section of traditional LDF votes, the BJP hopes that all the votes against both the UDF and LDF candidates will work in favour of its “clean, seasoned and proven politician”, Rajagopal.

Despite the divisions within the State party unit, the BJP campaigned intensely for a rival consolidation of votes over and above party affiliations for Rajagopal, the individual, and for Kerala “to have a representative in a new NDA government”.

In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Rajagopal won 29.86 per cent of the total votes polled in the constituency to come a close third, after the candidates of the LDF and the UDF. This was the best performance by any BJP candidate so far in a Lok Sabha election in the State.

Communal equations

But Kerala has sizeable minority populations in many constituencies and its political ethos has been traditionally extremely secular, thanks to the early domination of Left forces in the State, among other reasons.

According to a recent estimate, nearly 57 per cent of the voters in Kerala are Hindus, with about 24 per cent belonging to the Ezhava community, about 16 per cent to the Nair community, about 10 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and others forming the rest.

There are, however, sharp divisions within this group. Each community has its own politically influential organisation, which often switches loyalty between the two dominant coalitions according to what it perceives as the community’s shifting needs. Moreover, the majority of voters in these groups have been known to take independent political positions, mainly in favour of the LDF or the UDF irrespective of community affiliations.

Christians account for nearly 18 per cent of the voters in the State but form 14 to 37 per cent of the voters in 10 out of the 20 constituencies (especially the eight central constituencies from Pathanamthitta to Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram in the far south).

Muslims are roughly 25 per cent of the total voters in the State and have between 15 to 63 per cent representation in 10 other constituencies. These include the seven northern constituencies from Palakkad to Kasargod, which have between 30 per cent and 63 per cent of voters belonging to the community.

This peculiar communal equation, where the minorities also form a significant number of voters (from 15 to over 60 per cent) in any constituency and the Hindu votes are not one accessible chunk ready for the plucking, is another facet that puts severe restrictions on parties like the BJP from going full ahead with any kind of communally divisive agenda in Kerala.

In Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod, the two constituencies in the south and north of the State where the BJP has proved that it has significant electoral strength, also, nearly 40 per cent of the voters belong to the two minority communities (nearly 29 per cent Christians and 10 per cent Muslims in Thiruvananthapuram; over 30 per cent Muslims and 8 per cent Christians in Kasargod).

It is therefore to be seen whether, in place of divisive issues, the promise of “Gujarat model of development” will work as a more appealing alternative vote mobilisation strategy for the BJP this time in the State.

Kerala has so far benefited immensely in key areas of human development from its own “model” of development—but at the cost of fast economic development. But critics of the Left development agenda in Kerala have for long been under the Congress umbrella, and the BJP’s campaign in the State had nothing tangible in it to woo them towards Modi’s model of development as seen separately from the party’s other agendas for India.

Significantly, it was L.K. Advani who campaigned for Rajagopal in Thiruvananthapuram—a rather docile appeal and a prediction of a National Democratic Alliance (rather than a BJP) government soon at the Centre. Simultaneously, on the last day of campaigning, Narendra Modi, already on his third pre-election visit to Kerala, was at Kasargod, speaking vehemently against both the LDF and the UDF for their “consensual politics” that forced Kerala’s youth “to leave the State in search of employment” and made the State once known for tourism into “a nursery for terrorism”. In the communally sensitive Kasargod district, indeed, the BJP has often been the victim of such a consensual politics, especially in State elections, where both the LDF and the UDF have always ensured that, despite that party’s strength in two or three Assembly constituencies, the BJP never opened its account in Kerala from there.

But, according to the BJP’s State leadership, the party, which has won between 6.22 and 10.39 per cent of the votes in the past five Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, will increase its vote share this time and win over a lakh votes in three or four other constituencies.

However, the contest was extremely close this time in many key constituencies (“Evenly poised”, Frontline, April 18). This in a way may be a reason for the BJP’s optimism that it will at long last be able to utilise the weaknesses of the two fronts, prevent a last-minute consolidation of all anti-BJP votes, and make a breakthrough in Thiruvananthapuram.

The party knows that though winning a seat in Kerala had always remained a recurring, unfulfilled hope, if it turns true ever, it can make a long-lasting impact in the State’s coalition politics.

Political undercurrents

But, as a general rule, in the past, whenever the BJP had done well in the State, the votes that it took away had benefited the LDF rather than the UDF. For instance, in the 2004 elections, the BJP obtained its highest share of 12.11 per cent of the votes, and the LDF triumphed with 46.18 per cent of the votes and 18 seats, while the UDF got 38.46 per cent of the votes and a single seat. (The remaining one went to an NDA-backed Kerala Congress faction led by P.C. Thomas.)

Kerala’s political landscape has changed since then and there are a lot of undercurrents in this election that could disprove such readings. There are also at least one lakh new voters in every constituency in Kerala, where elections are often decided on very thin margins and depend on the verdict of a small section of uncommitted voters.

The ruling Congress, which won 13 seats in 2009, had a lot of factors running against it in 2014, including, importantly, the concern of the settler farmer lobby (its traditional, Church-backed vote bank) regarding the moves of the United Progressive Alliance and UDF governments to implement the expert committee recommendations for the protection of the Western Ghats.

One of the key issues that had put the Congress on the defensive was the financial and land scams in which close aides of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, who had otherwise an impeccable record in the State, were found to be deeply involved (“Losing sheen”, Frontline, August 7, 2013). Along with it were related scandals involving some Congress and UDF Ministers and MPs.

But it was clear during the campaign that the opposition had failed to fully utilise the political potential in these allegations, busy as it was trying to fudge its own troubles, for example, over the rebellion of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), its choice of independents (including two Congress rebels) as candidates in five constituencies, and the way it dealt with the aftermath of the T.P. Chandrasekharan murder case verdict.

Strangely, the Congress party’s biggest advantage in this election eventually turned out to be the fragile unity that prevailed within the party throughout the period of the election, though there were a lot of undercurrents whose effect will only be known when the results come out.

As Frontline had reported earlier, thus, the April 10 election was such a difficult and close one for the two major Fronts in Kerala that their fervent hope may be that the minority vote against the Modi factor would after all fall in their pool and turn the verdict in their favour.

It is a long wait now until May 16 to know Kerala’s views on whether the Congress or the Left is the better alternative to Narendra Modi’s BJP at the Centre.

R. Krishnakumar

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