Small swing, big sweep

Published : May 26, 2001 00:00 IST

An unpopular government costs the Left Democratic Front this round of Assembly elections.

THE extent of the Congress(I)-led United Democratic Front's (UDF) sweep in Kerala was so great that it is hard to believe that it was caused by a small swing in voter preference in percentage terms. A shift of a little over 3 per cent of the votes from the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) resulted in the biggest victory for any Front in Kerala in the last two decades. In any other State, such a tiny loss of vote for the ruling party would have been considered something of an achievement for it. But Kerala is different. The votes are highly polarised and the two alliances evenly matched. More than 10 seats changed hands with the swing of a mere 1 per cent of the votes. In the 1996 Assembly elections, the LDF won with a lead of just 1 per cent of the vote-share over the UDF. This time the UDF has a lead of a little over 5 per cent. Thus a change of 6 per cent, or a 'swing' of 3 per cent, caused a big wave.

This swing had a staggering effect, giving the UDF 99 seats (actually 100, if one adds the lone independent winner, a Congress(I) rebel, who is sure to return 'home') in a 140-member House. The UDF retained all but five of the 59 seats it had won last time. But the LDF lost 35 of its 80 seats to the UDF.

The vote swing was evenly spread across the State, and the LDF lost seats in all districts except Kasaragod. It was in this northernmost district that the Bharatiya Janata Party had hoped to open its account. The party finished second in the Manjeshwaram constituency in this district in the last three Assembly elections. Its candidate, State president C.K. Padmanabhan, lost this time too. The BJP secured 5 per cent of the votes in the State, about half a percentage point less than what it got last time.

The UDF emerged a clear winner in all the three regions of the State. Malabar in the north, with a substantial population of Muslims, is the only region where the Left managed to retain its traditional strongholds (in Kannur and Kozhikode districts). The UDF once again swept Malappuram district, which has a numerically dominant Muslim population.

In the central region, the Left suffered heavy losses, including in Palakkad district, where it was traditionally strong, and Idukki district, which was emerging as its pocket of influence. Thrissur district swung completely in favour of the UDF. Similar was the case of Ernakulam district, considered a fortress of the UDF. In all, the UDF snatched 15 seats from the LDF in this region.

In the southern region of Travancore, where the Left usually performs well and offsets its losses elsewhere, the LDF suffered its worst defeat. The UDF retained Kottayam district, its bastion, once again captured the traditional Left bastion of Allappuzha district and made inroads into the Left fortresses in Kollam and Thiruvanan-thapuram districts.

WHAT caused the swing against the LDF? Attributing its defeat to the "anti-incumbency" factor will not be correct. As the Assembly election results from West Bengal demonstrate, people voting against the incumbent government is not a reflex action. The anti-incumbency factor comes into play only when there is a popular perception of poor governance. It is true that Kerala's current economic difficulties, some of which have little to do with the performance of the LDF government, have contributed to the swing in the public mood. But that does not seem to be the decisive factor. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Muslim fundamentalist groups may have transferred some votes at the local level with a view to defeating the LDF. But the decline in the votes of the BJP and the People's Democratic Party of Abdul Nasser Mahdani is too little (in all less than one percentage point) to explain this swing. The post-poll survey conducted by the CSDS and sponsored by NDTV and Frontline reveals that theexplanation lies in the popular perception of the LDF government's record. The verdict against the E.K. Nayanar government was loud and clear: It was unpopular not only among traditional Left-haters but also among voters who are not attached to any party and even among a section of traditional supporters of the Left. It was principally an unpopular government that cost the LDF this election.

The electorate in Kerala can be divided into four segments: traditional UDF supporters, traditional LDF supporters, BJP supporters and voters unattached to any party. The first two segments account for about 40 per cent each and the last for about 15 per cent of the vote. The electoral outcome depends on the unattached voters. Sometimes a wholesale transfer of votes by BJP supporters can make a decisive difference in a few seats. The survey shows that this time only 80 per cent of the traditional supporters of the LDF voted for it whereas the UDF got the votes of 90 per cent of its traditional supporters. Among the unattached voters, the LDF lost heavily to the UDF - 33 per cent to 60 per cent. Since unattached voters themselves account for about 15 per cent of the electorate, a lead of 27 percentage points in this section translates into a lead of 3.9 per cent among the entire electorate. Statistically, therefore, the UDF's lead among unattached voters accounts for 3.9 percentage points of the total lead of 5.4 percentage points that it had over the LDF. It is true that the UDF did get a larger chunk of the votes of traditional BJP supporters - 33 per cent as against 5 per cent for the LDF. But it might well be owing to the general pro-UDF sentiment in the State rather than a conspiracy to transfer votes en bloc. In any case, the extent of this transfer is too small to explain the large swing against the LDF.

A look at how votes changed hands since the Lok Sabha elections of 1999 confirms this reading. The LDF retained 82 per cent of its votes and the UDF 87 per cent. By Kerala standards, the LDF's vote retention was very poor. In 1999, the LDF retained 92 per cent of the votes it got in the Lok Sabha elections of 1998. This time the BJP could retain only 56 per cent of the votes it got in 1999, but the remaining votes split evenly between the UDF and the LDF. This curious change in the behaviour of 'traditional' BJP voters and those who voted for it in 1999 could be attributed to the RSS effect.

The unpopularity factor can be seen in many ways. The proportion of those who wanted the UDF to form the government was much larger than of those who voted for it. This section includes 12 per cent of the LDF voters. Only 23 per cent are "very satisfied" with the performance of the LDF government; only 9 per cent of the unattached voters have this impression. Nearly half the electorate thought that the UDF government was better than the LDF government that succeeded it in 1996. On this point, opinion is sharply divided along party lines but among unattached voters the UDF leads over the LDF by 17 percentage points. About 80 per cent of the voters characterise this government as "very corrupt" or "somewhat corrupt". The figure is 88 per cent among the unattached voters.

The 'Antony effect' is in many ways the result of the electorate's disenchantment with the LDF over the issue of corruption. But it is not clear whether 'Mr. Clean' was responsible for the pro-UDF swing. But it appears certain that the current mood of the voters is responsible for tilting the scales in favour of A.K. Antony in the race for chief ministership. He is way ahead of his rivals, including K. Karunakaran, in popular rating. This must have prompted Congress(I) president Sonia Gandhi to throw her weight behind Antony in the faction fight in the Kerala unit of the party.

There is a clear verdict against the record of the LDF government on the law and order front. Nearly half of the electorate believes that the law and order situation did not improve at all under the LDF regime. More than 40 per cent hold it responsible for the hooch tragedy in Kollam district.

The overall negative rating for the LDF government among all sections of society crystallised into a general swing against it. Kerala's well-known 'vote banks' retained their normal loyalties: women in favour of the UDF, Ezhavas and Dalits in favour of the LDF and the Muslim and Christian voters against the LDF. There is no evidence of these groups shifting their loyalties en bloc or in an overwhelming manner to bring about this swing. The swing was the result of small chunks of voters from all sections of society moving towards the UDF. The Left's inability to gain substantial support from Christians and Muslims, who constitute more than two-fifths of the electorate, has created a structural barrier to its electoral success. This factor has effectively prevented the Left in Kerala from developing the kind of long-term political and electoral dominance that it has been able to develop in West Bengal. It has also rendered the LDF governments vulnerable to even small changes in public opinion.

However, some small deviations from the usual pattern of voting are notable. The UDF's lead among women and rural voters is higher than usual. If there is some kind of consolidation of upper-caste Hindus behind the UDF, the Ezhavas seem to be more enthusiastic than ever in backing the LDF. This enthusiasm can be traced to the possibility of V.S. Achuthanandan becoming the second Ezhava Chief Minister of Kerala in the event of the LDF's victory. Christians by and large remained as anti-Left as before, but the Left seems to have succeeded in winning some support among some Christian groups. Muslims have voted overwhelmingly in favour of the UDF. The number of Muslim votes for the UDF this time may be marginally higher than that in the last Assembly elections. But there seems to be little evidence of an anti-CPI(M) polarisation among Muslims votes this time following the violence in Nadapuram where activists of the CPI(M) and the Muslim League were involved in some skirmishes. In the 1999 Lok Sabha elections a large number of Muslims voted for the UDF.

The UDF and the LDF retain their class bases. The higher one goes in economic status, the stronger is the tendency to vote for the UDF. The LDF remains strong among the poor and the very poor.

In that sense, this round of Assembly elections in Kerala was a routine affair. It resulted in a change in government and upset the fortunes of many. But it did not alter the two-decades-old structure of political competition in the State. Nor did it change the established patterns of how politics relates to the existing social divisions in Kerala. These facts offer hope for the Left in its hour of defeat. What the Left faced this time is a massive electoral defeat which did not bring about a permanent change in the ground rules of the game of politics in Kerala. The Left is down, but certainly not out.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment