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A race between traditional rivals

Print edition : Nov 06, 1999 T+T-

THE outcome of the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala reflects continuity rather than change. Notwithstanding media speculation about a possible shock to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) owing to organisational problems, the overall tally of seats was the same as in 1998 - 11-9 in favour of the United Democratic Front (UDF). Last year's results had shown that the LDF was in a rather precarious position: a mere three percentage-point swing from the LDF to the UDF would deprive it of all its seats. This time the UDF's vote share did go up by about one percentage point and the LDF's vote share declined by about the same measure. However, this did not translate into any net loss of seats for the LDF. The swing was more pronounced in the central region of the State, where the LDF lost one seat. However, it gained one seat in the north where the decline in the BJP's vote share upset the balance.

Once again, the BJP failed to win a single seat in the State. In fact its vote share declined by four percentage points, a net decline even if one includes the vote share of its ally, the Janata Dal (United). It seems that for some time to come Kerala will remain the only major State where the BJP or its allies do not matter in the electoral race.

In this round of elections, four seats changed hands. Kollam, where the Republican Socialist Party won in 1998, went to the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The Cong-ress(I) wrested two seats - Thrissur and Adoor - from the CPI, which left the latter unrepresented from Kerala. The Kerala Congress (Joseph) and the CPI(M) wrested one seat each from the Congress(I). All but one of the LDF's nine seats are now held by the CPI(M).

A look at the flow of votes between 1998 and 1999 shows that voter loyalty has remained stable since the 1998 elections. There is, of course, nothing new about it. Party loyalties are far stronger in Kerala than in many other States. The extent to which the main parties were able to retain their support base is staggering: 94 per cent for the UDF, 92 per cent for the LDF and 89 per cent for the BJP. Even before the campaign started, about 51 per cent of the voters had made up their minds about whom they would vote for. This was nearly 20 percentage points higher than the national average.

Party loyalty is not, however, to be taken for granted. The two main fronts canvassed hard, reaching out (in the CSDS sample) to 95 per cent of the electorate. A small percentage of voters shifted from the LDF to the UDF and vice- versa. There was, however, a bigger shift from the BJP to the LDF.

One of the features of the party system in Kerala is that a stable social alliance underlies both the dominant fronts. The extent of voter polarisation on caste-community lines is higher than in most other States. This round of elections saw no major change in the pattern. The UDF, of which the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress (Mani) are constituents, enjoys greater support among Muslims and Christians. This time, about three-fourths of these sections of the minorities appear to have supported the UDF. The LDF's support base is made up largely of the backward classes and the Scheduled Castes. It secured the support of the majority of voters from the Ezhava community and three-quarters of voters of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. As expected, the BJP picked up most of its votes from the upper rungs of the Hindu social hierarchy, in particular, from the upper-caste Nair community.

Yet political alignment in Kerala is not just caste- or religion-based. There is an equally sharp alignment on class lines; this cuts across community-based divisions and is more pronounced at the two extremes. The LDF vote is concentrated among the lower classes. It is twice as popular among the poorest as it is among the well-to-do. The profiles of the UDF and the BJP are radically different; these two formations draw support from those who belong to the upper classes. There is, however, one exception to this: the UDF does better among those sections that are just one rung above the lowest.

Unlike elsewhere in India, the class pattern is not directly reflected in the educational profile and the voting pattern. Both the major fronts get similar support across the education divide. The LDF draws less of its support from among the well educated, while the BJP gets most of its votes from this group.

The gender disparities in respect of support for the UDF are striking. Across the country the Congress(I) is traditionally supported by more women than men; in Kerala the difference on this count between the genders is 13 percentage points. Both the LDF and the BJP thus do better with male voters.

The age profile of supporters of the various parties is illustrative. The UDF enjoys greater support among the elderly; the LDF secures much of its votes from among the middle-aged. Both of them fare rather less well with young voters than with voters in other age groups. The BJP, on the other hand, appears to have the most significant appeal among the youngest among voters. If this trend continues for some years, both the major fronts will have something to worry about.

The survey reveals that Kerala is the only State where Vajpayee figures third in the ranking in respect of voters' preference for Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi was preferred by 41 per cent of those surveyed, Jyoti Basu by 20 per cent and Vajpayee by 19 per cent. The support that Jyoti Basu enjoys also indicates that the LDF voters' preference is governed by political consideration rather than regional considerations.

In Kerala the competition is principally between the LDF and the UDF, with the BJP nowhere in the picture. There is a high level of dissatisfaction with the Central government. Fifty per cent of the respondents said they were not at all satisfied with its performance, compared to the national average of 25 per cent. The BJP also faces the most strident opposition in Kerala, with 11 per cent of the electorate stating that it would never consider voting for it - significantly higher than the 'negative vote' secured by any other party, either regionally or nationally. There is a high level of opposition to many of the BJP's favourite issues, from Kargil and Pokhran to building a temple at Ayodhya.

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