Why the state bucked the national trend & voted for Congress en masse
When the rest of India voted in the BJP-led NDA with unprecedented numbers for the second time in a row, Kerala once again chose to take a different stand. But the forces that would have primarily liked it to stay that way can hardly afford a smile.
The Left in Kerala, that has always positioned itself as the defiant force against attempts to “saffronize” the state, has been routed beyond their worst nightmares.
Out of the 20 seats in Kerala, the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) returned with just one and that too with a margin of 10,500 votes.
The rest of the 19 seats went to the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front), a victory that suggests a tectonic shift in the political allegiance of communities in the most literate state in the country.
In nine out of the 19 constituencies won by the UDF, victory margins were over one lakh votes and this is indicative of the anger shown by the voter against the Left.
Take the case of Thiruvananthapuram where despite exit poll projections, Congress candidate Shashi Tharoor managed to not only achieve a hat-trick win but also repeated his 2009 performance with a thumping majority of 99,989 votes over his rival Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP.
Tharoor also improved his vote share by more than seven percentage points against his 2014 win when he managed a victory margin of just 15,470 votes.
The BJP’s grand plan in Thiruvananthapuram was biting dust by Thursday afternoon but what should have rung alarm bells for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sitting just a few miles away from the counting centre was the fall in vote share of CPI candidate C Divakaran who came a dismal third to Tharoor.
That a seasoned Left politician like Divakaran could not even hold on to the vote percentage that a novice like Bennett Abraham managed in 2014 tells the tale of the Communist establishment’s present woes in Kerala.
The state figures are also a refection of the same. If in 2014 the LDF had 40.12% of votes it dropped to 35.1% this time. Compare this to the 2016 assembly elections when the LDF had garnered 43.14% vote share.
“Wins and losses are a part of politics. But the extent of this loss has no parallels. This loss is a result of a well organised move against the Left forces in Kerala which needs to be analysed properly. We had no such indications during the campaign. The Left could not rise to the aspirations of the people. It has demoralised the Left cadre in a big way, no doubt,” a miffed Divakaran told media persons on Friday.
Divakaran is spot on. This loss does not have many parallels. Barring a few occasions like in 2004 when the Left came home with 18 seats from Kerala, the electorate here is known to favour the Congress-led front during Lok Sabha polls as the Congress is looked upon as a party that can play a bigger role at the Centre than the CPM or the CPI.
But even on such occasions when the Congress does well, the Left has always managed to hold on to at least three to four seats and certainly not take a beating in its bastions. But 2019 has changed all that.
Out of the 91 assembly constituencies that the LDF won in 2016 Assembly Elections, in at least 75 of them the UDF candidates had been leading since reports last came in.
Worse, even in the Chief Minister’s own constituency of Dharmadam and CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s constituency of Thalaserry, Congress candidates have had the upper hand on Thursday.
The people of Kerala were simply showing the Left the door, at least in these Lok Sabha elections.
Political pundits and left ideologues like NM Pearson not surprised at the result. Rather they look at this as a much anticipated reality that is staring Kerala in its face.
“We were always aware that there was an anti-Left wave in Kerala although nobody thought it would be this bad. The party might have been in denial made but this was waiting to happen because these elections were the most polarized. The minority communities - both the Muslims and the Christians voted in a militant manner against the Left which ensured this rout,’’ Pearson told The Lede.
Pearson also points out that even in the lone seat in Alapuzha won by the CPM, the winner MP AM Arif had the overwhelming support of the Muslim community. His opposing candidate Shanimol Usman was also a Muslim but Arif being a sitting MLA from the area had the local support to his advantage. It was not the party that played the role there.
That communal polarisation was at the root of this election results in Kerala is a fact political pundits agree with unanimously.
For the Left front though, this polarisation happened on either sides of the divide. While a minority consolidation favouring the Congress had indeed taken place post Rahul Gandhi’s entry in Wayanad, what ultimately trigged the rout is the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank against the Left front over the mishandling of the Sabarimala issue.
Hence analysts say, that apart from its core votes, the Left has not been able to get anything much in all the other 19 constituencies.
The rest of the neutral votes have abandoned the Left front entirely. Much of this is also put down as a direct indictment against the functioning of the Chief Minister.
“There can be multiple reasons for the defeat of the Left front. Minority vote bank consolidation against them is only one of them. But there is also a tremendous anti-Pinarayi Vijayan feeling among the voters and that is reflected in the Hindu vote bank consolidation. Sabarimala is certainly one of the reasons for it. His arrogance over the last three years has been suffocating and people are seeing all this. Such an attitude from a CPM leader is not what the party’s voters will tolerate. So when the time comes they will show you the door,’’ noted political commentator Joseph C Mathew told The Lede.
Top party leaders are now openly admitting that the stand taken by Vijayan on the Sabarimala issue has cost the party dearly.
MM Lawrence is a veteran CPM leader. Even he feels that this trend of vote erosion is slowly but surely catching up not just among neutral voters but even among party sympathisers. Sabarimala issue is only one of the reasons. Primarily it is the style of working of the CPM top brass that finds rejection among voters.
“Even inside CPM leaders’ families there are reports of the womenfolk and younger generation voting differently which is an alarming thing. See just because you are from the party need not mean your family members will think alike. The party needs to do a lot more to get such voters on its side,” said Lawrence.
AKG Centre which is the CPM state headquarters at Thiruvananthapuram had been busy throughout Friday with a number of closed door meetings. The Chief Minister and the top brass of the party had been in a huddle trying to make sense of the debacle.
Meanwhile the pro-Congress wave that swept across Kerala had diminished any chance the BJP had in opening its account. Thiruvananthpuram, Pathanamthitta, Thrissur and Palakkad all buckled under this trend.
Even though the Sabarimala issue should have worked in the BJP’s favour, it is now a certainty that the major share of that vote bank did not go the BJP’s way as many thought it would in at least three to four constituencies. Instead it went the way of the Congress party.
“There was a consolidation of the Hindu vote bank based on Sabarimala issue no doubt. But then it was more of anti-Left vote than a pro-BJP vote. BJP did get a good share of it which is reflected in the increase of its vote share in some of the key constituencies. But the overwhelming emotion was to defeat the CPM at all costs and for that people thought Congress is the best bet,’’ veteran journalist KVS Haridas told The Lede.
A classic example is that of Pathanamthitta where Sabarimala poster boy K Surendran was billed to have a fighting chance. When the results came out, he ended up third.
Apart from one assembly constituency in Pathanamthitta where he came second, in all others Surendran stood third.
Here again there was heavy consolidation of votes on both sides. Pathanamthitta being a Christian dominated constituency, it was expected that the minority votes would get split between the Congress and CPM candidates since both candidates were from the community.
The BJP put its hopes on the majority vote falling fully into Surendran’s kitty.
But that just did not happen as analysts now conclude that voters would have felt that since BJP has no base vote like the CPM or the Congress it had little chances of winning in Pathanamthitta.
In such a scenario, voters seem to have thought why they should waste their vote by giving it to the BJP when the Congress candidate has more realistic chances of beating the Left.
Surendran’s consolation was that he managed to muster 2.95 lakh votes, an increase of 1.5 lakh votes from what the BJP candidate got in 2014.
This story reverberates at many constituencies where the BJP had a realistic chance of winning. At many such places the Hindu voters preferred the Congress candidate more than the BJP, say political analysts.
Whatever votes the BJP candidates managed to capture from the Hindu vote bank in such constituencies might have increased their vote share but it also helped in ensuring that the Left candidates do not win in a triangular race. But it was also not enough to help the BJP candidate cross the line.
But the BJP’s woes do not end there. The party had banked heavily on the Nair Service Society (NSS) an organisation of the Nair community in the state for their electoral fortunes this time since the organisation was pitted against the government over the Sabarimala issue.
Though the NSS and the BJP shared common ground over Sabarimala and their opposition to Chief Minister Vijayan over the issue, the organisation might have been reluctant to go the whole hog in supporting the BJP candidates.
This is very much evident in the case of the Thiruvananthapuram result. While it had been a foregone conclusion that the minority community across Thiruvananthapuram would vote for Tharoor in a big way the BJP had been banking on the NSS to nudge the Nair community to move away from Tharoor.
It appears that that did not happen.
“How do you think Shashi Tharoor got such a majority inside Thiruvananthapuram city? How did he lead in Vattiyoorkavu where always BJP had an upper hand? The NSS hand is very evident. They have not supported the BJP since the BJP is attempting to be a pan-Hindu party rather than stay with its old upper caste Hindu image which is recognisable with the NSS’ own image. That is why Surendran from a lower caste lost so badly in Pathanamthitta. The NSS just wanted to teach Pinarayi a lesson and they did it by backing the Congress,” says political commentator and Aam Admi Party leader CR Neelakandan.
Above all the BJP has itself to blame for its predicament. Though it managed to make much noise around Sabarimala, not everyone believes that the party was really committed to the cause.
At least some of the statements emerging from the party leadership in the state gave this impression.
Right from organising the protests and dharnas to even deciding the candidates, the BJP looked a divided house in front of a huge Hindu vote bank that was calling for revenge against the Left over Sabarimala.
When they found the Congress more organised to support their cause, they decided to back the party.
Another big factor that worked against the BJP is the alleged Modi-phobia that both the Left and the Congress successfully unleashed on the minority voters in the state.
The Left however failed to capitalise on it since the minority voters’ first choice against Modi at the national level had always been the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s entry consolidated it further.
“Both the fronts were competing with each other to spread a Modi-phobia feeling among the minority community. The proof is in the results in some constituencies in north India where in spite of sizeable Muslim population BJP still won but in Kerala that feeling kept the minorities away. Here the Left also joined the Congress in doing this but fell in their trap,’’ BJP state spokesperson MS Kumar told The Lede.
BJP might not have succeeded in opening its account in Kerala and unlike Bengal and Tripura reaping electoral gains out of Kerala where the other two political fronts hold a lot of space between them is a tough proposition.
But to the BJP’s credit, it is still work in progress and their increasing vote shares show it would only get better here on.
But the real story lies in the debacle of the Left.
The Left has faced such setbacks before too post Emergency and the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. But all those were political setbacks.
This defeat has a hint of social engineering that involves polarisation of communities, something from which it would not be easy for the Left to emerge unscathed from.
And in a state where 44% of the population are minorities, a fiercely competing Congress and BJP waiting to grab their share of the pie, it is not an easy task for the Reds.
The Assembly elections of 2021 will give us the next emerging picture.