UDF sweep and BJP’s historic gains compound CPI(M)‘s troubles in Kerala

Actor Suresh Gopi’s victory in Thrissur and NDA’s impressive performance point towards a significant shift in Kerala’s traditional bipolar politics.

Published : Jun 11, 2024 23:44 IST - 9 MINS READ

Suresh Gopi with State BJP president K. Surendran and other leaders after his win, at the party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on June 4.

Suresh Gopi with State BJP president K. Surendran and other leaders after his win, at the party headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram on June 4. | Photo Credit: MAHINSHA S

When the golden crown that actor-politician Suresh Gopi placed on the statue of the Virgin Mary at Our Lady Of Lourdes Cathedral in Thrissur in January fell down and broke, it was widely seen as a bad omen for his electoral chances. Though his offering was ostensibly to seek blessings for his daughter ahead of her wedding, it was also perceived as a strategy to woo Christians to benefit his candidature from the Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency. Subsequently, a controversy broke out over the charge that the crown was not golden as claimed, but a copper-plated one, and the Congress even asked the church authorities to test the metal’s purity. However, Gopi’s historic win from Thrissur—the BJP’s first from Kerala—has proven doomsayers wrong.

His efforts have paid off, as seen from the large number of votes he secured in Christian-dominated areas. Gopi also benefited from his consistent humanitarian efforts in Thrissur since his defeat in 2019. After the win, Gopi thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the special interest shown to him and Kerala by making multiple visits for the campaign. “Modiji and Amit Shahji are my superheroes,” he said.

The biggest headline of Kerala’s results is not just Gopi’s but the National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) impressive overall performance, ending its jinx in the State where the BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat and only one in the Assembly in 2016. Only once has an NDA constituent—the now defunct Indian Federal Democratic Party—won a seat in the State, in 2004.

Also Read | Kerala’s crucial Lok Sabha battle draws unprecedented national attention

Despite not winning more than one seat, its popular vote share spiked in almost every seat this time, registering a total increase of 3.5 percentage points from 15.64 per cent in 2019 to 19.14 per cent, an all-time high. This has come at the cost of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) and the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), both of which saw their vote shares drop.

Scintillating performance

Although the UDF repeated its scintillating performance in the Lok Sabha election by grabbing 18 of the 20 seats, its vote share fell to 45.21 per cent from 47.48 per cent. The LDF suffered a significant blow again, winning just one seat and a further erosion in vote share from 36.29 per cent to 33.36 per cent. “We will examine the results in depth and make the necessary corrections to the government’s functioning. The BJP’s victory in Thrissur is a serious development,” admitted Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on social media.

Breaching the “last secular bastion”, the BJP polled 16.83 per cent against 13.81 per cent five years ago. For the first time, the NDA’s vote share crossed 20 per cent in six seats and 30 per cent in two. It came first in 11 Assembly segments across the State, up from one in 2019, and finished second in seven. Kerala’s traditional political duopoly appears to have ended.

Equally astounding was Gopi’s impressive margin (74,686 votes) against his CPI and Congress rivals as his vote share rose by over 10 percentage points than last time, when he was pushed to the third place, to touch 37.8 per cent. No less shocking was former Chief Minister K. Karunakaran’s son and Congress strongman K. Muraleedharan’s relegation to the third position in his family fortress, Thrissur, despite the UDF’s spectacular win in the State.

The UDF’s votes fell by 9.92 percentage points from last time while the LDF’s share remained the same, indicating a shift of Christian votes and prompting Muraleedharan to suspect internal sabotage. Muraleedharan’s sister, Padmaja Venugopal, who joined the BJP before the election, had warned about such a possibility.

The BJP gave the rival fronts a scare in Thiruvananthapuram, the only seat where it finished second in 2019. Congress’ author-politician Shashi Tharoor had to sweat it out until the final round to romp home for the fourth time against the BJP’s debutant entrepreneur-politician Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who led by as many as 25,000 votes at one stage. Tharoor’s final margin fell from 99,989 votes in 2019 to 16,077, similar to that in 2014. As it was then, this time too Tharoor owed it to the wave of votes from the coastal fishing villages dominated by Latin Christians and Muslims for the rearguard action. “The final super over helped me win,” said the cricket-loving Tharoor.

Other notable defeats of the BJP were of Union Ministers V. Muraleedharan in Attingal and Congress veteran A.K. Antony’s son Anil K. Antony in Pathanamthitta, where they were pushed to third place despite a rise in its vote share.

Debacle for LDF

The next big headline of the election was the repeated debacle of the CPI(M)-led LDF, with just one seat as in 2019. In the last election it faced a backlash over the Sabarimala controversy and a pro-UDF wave created by Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad. Even without such factors, the current drubbing clearly indicates a strong anti-incumbency wave. But the CPI(M) rubbished this by pointing out its unprecedented consecutive second victory in the Assembly in 2021, two years after its rout in the Lok Sabha election.

The three-year-old State government has been in a financial mess. It has no funds for developmental expenditures or even welfare pensions, and is faced with mounting public debt. The government puts the blame on the Centre’s apathy, which is partially right, although the State’s financial management also leaves much to be desired. The government and Chief Minister Vijayan are seen as authoritarian and intolerant of opposition. It is also embroiled in a slew of allegations involving the Chief Minister’s daughter, for which no convincing explanations have been provided.

Congress’ Hibi Eden celebrating his victory in Ernakulam constituency on June 4. The UDF swept the State with 18 seats.

Congress’ Hibi Eden celebrating his victory in Ernakulam constituency on June 4. The UDF swept the State with 18 seats. | Photo Credit: H VIBHU

The LDF lost heavily in many “red” segments in north Kerala. The CPI(M)’s most stunning defeats occurred in Palakkad, Pathanamthitta, and Vadakara, where the losers were Polit Bureau member K. Vijayaraghavan, Central Secretariat member and former Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, and former Health Minister and “COVID slayer” K.K. Shailaja, respectively.

A.M. Ariff, the CPI(M)’s lone winner in 2019, lost in Alappuzha by 63,513 votes to Rahul’s confidant K.C. Venugopal. However, the CPI(M)’s charismatic Minister for Temple Affairs, K. Radhakrishnan, kept the lone red flag flying in Alathur, defeating sitting Congress MP Remya Haridas.

CPI(M) fails to win Muslim votes

Significantly, the CPI(M) also failed to translate its recent inroads into the Muslim community into votes. The Chief Minister’s consistent campaign projecting issues affecting Muslims, such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and his criticism of the Congress for its alleged soft Hindutva line, did not win Muslim votes.

  • The BJP made historic gains in Kerala by winning the Thrissur Lok Sabha seat through Suresh Gopi’s victory, marking the party’s first-ever Lok Sabha win in the State. The NDA’s overall vote share also increased significantly to 19.14 per cent, indicating a shift in Kerala’s bipolar politics.
  • The ruling LDF led by the CPI(M) faced a severe drubbing, winning only one seat despite being the incumbent. This was seen as an anti-incumbency wave against the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s alleged authoritarian style and mishandling of state finances.
  • The Opposition UDF led by the Congress retained its dominance by winning 18 out of 20 seats. However, its vote share dipped compared to the previous election, indicating some erosion of support, likely due to the shift of Christian voters towards the BJP.

Equally fruitless was the emergence of a pro-CPI(M) faction in the powerful Samastha Kerala Jamiyyathul Ulama, a clerics’ organisation traditionally aligned with the Muslim League of the UDF. According to critics, the CPI(M)’s overstating of the Muslim cause by backing even the “terrorist” Hamas in the Palestine issue alienated many of its Hindu and Christian supporters.

UDF leaders accused the CPI(M) of openly appeasing Muslim communalism while secretly dealing with the BJP. The BJP’s Kerala prabhari Prakash Javadekar’s visit to LDF convenor E.P. Jayarajan and the latter’s alleged links with Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s business group were hot topics during the campaign.

According to the UDF, Vijayan’s relentless attack on the Congress and Rahul helped the BJP. “Pinarayi even called Rahul Gandhi a ‘pappu’. He endorsed a CPI(M) MLA’s preposterous demand to test Rahul’s paternity,” said K.C. Venugopal after the results. He was referring to Vijayan’s angry retort to Rahul’s question about why he was not imprisoned like Chief Ministers Arvind Kejriwal and Hemant Soren despite being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate. Rahul hinted at this as proof of the clandestine CPI(M)-BJP deal.

Vijayan hit back saying that he should not be made to remind Rahul of his old nickname. Recalling his imprisonment during the Emergency, Vijayan said, “Don’t try to threaten me with imprisonment. Even your grandmother couldn’t do it.” The BJP leaders used the spat to ridicule the gusti and dosti between the two INDIA bloc allies in the State.

The third highlight of the election was the UDF’s astounding performance that surpassed its own expectations. Without any wave, most UDF candidates expected a stiff challenge this time, even when they were the favourites. Yet, in as many as 10 seats, UDF candidates’ margins crossed one lakh, though Rahul’s margin (3,64,422) and vote share fell from 2019 in Wayanad.

Besides Tharoor and Venugopal, UDF’s notable victors include Kerala Pradesh Congress president K. Sudhakaran (Kannur), Shafi Parambil (Vadakara), Hibi Eden (Ernakulam), V.K. Sreekantan (Palakkad), Kodikkunnil Suresh (Mavelikkara), Rajmohan Unnithan (Kasargod), Revolutionary Socialist Party’s N.K. Premachandran (Kollam), and Indian Union Muslim League’s E.T. Muhammed Basheer (Malappuram) and Abdusamad Samadani (Ponnani).

Wide political implications

The results are expected to have wide political implications in the State, which will have elections to the local bodies next year and to the Assembly in 2026. The BJP and its allies are invigorated by their performance, which apparently ends the State’s bipolar politics and some success in its long-time efforts to woo Christians.

Also Read | No Modi magic: BJP’s bold claims clash with Kerala’s political realities

However, it is to be seen whether the LDF will try to improve its tarnished image before the next election though sceptics think it is unlikely given the concentration of powers in Vijayan. Troubles have already emerged in the LDF, with a prominent CPI leader openly calling for a change in the front’s leadership and the Kerala Congress staking a claim for a Rajya Sabha seat, which will fall vacant soon.

On a recent visit to Kerala, the historian Ramachandra Guha said the fight against Modi has been weakened by the many similarly dictatorial “Modi clones” in the opposition leadership. “If Pinarayi is a Modi in mundu, Mamata is a Modi in sari and Naveen Patnaik is a Modi in dhoti.” This election seems to send a tough message to all Modis, with the exception of probably the one in a sari.

M.G. Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, has worked with various print and electronic media organisations.

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