Kerala heads towards cliffhanger

Kerala heads towards cliffhanger

Pitched Battle: Growing vote share of BJP and allies could swing fortunes of CPM-led LDF and Cong-led UDF

Kerala heads towards cliffhanger
Kerala, which changes its government every 5 years, will see polls next week. Election this time, too, is as interesting as always with the BJP and its allies throwing in a haze of intrigue. The Congress-led UDF and CPM-led LDF are pitching a no-holds barred campaign and at this point of time, there appears to be no clear favourite. With thin margins separating the winners from losers, it can be anybody’s game.

Intellectual flavour is a pre-requisite for any socio-political endeavour, particularly in the highest-literate state of Kerala where people debate and discuss everything under the sun, even in village dhabhas. This critical mindset makes the state electorate a different crop of voters against the hegemonistic national political narratives. The establishment of the world’s second only democratically elected communist government from the very first election to the state legislature exemplifies this fact.

From 1982 onwards, the state politics is dominated by two grand alliances. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPM, comprising 10 parties, and the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress having 7 Kerala-based regionally strong religious parties like the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress(M). Though the UDF is often named as the Right Front, in essence it also works as a Central-Left coalition to outsmart the LDF in popular projects.

In political terms, the Kerala elections are a Central-Left business. It is in this scenario some slight changes are happening. First of all is the emergence of a Right-Front led by the BJP which makes the election quite unpredictable. When the BJP joined hands with the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), the number of seats where triangular fights take place went up by more than 18.

The BDJS is the political party recently founded by Vellapally Natesan representing the Ezhava body called Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP).

The Ezhavas–a powerful Hindu Other Backward Class (OBC) community–are the traditional supporters of the LDF. Despite the rare chance for the BJP to win a single seat, votes they attract can dampen the possibility of both the alliances in a state where only 2 to 4% swing  determines electoral outcomes.

The BDJS factor makes this poll the mother of all elections in Kerala. Practically, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy is the sole leader of the UDF. It is evident in his dominance in deciding the candidates of the Congress. Though the idealist state unit chief V M Sudheeran declared an all-out war against Chandy against giving seats to tainted ministers and MLAs, the sympathetic high command could not cross the Chandy wall. Chandy’s strength comes from 3 sources. First, his strong association with the local Congress leaders and activists. Second, his closeness with the alliance partners like the Muslim League and the JD(U).

Third, his association with caste and religious heads like Natesan.
Even when the state was embroiled in a strong political battle, Natesan openly praised Chandy against the declared stand of his own party and alliance, prompting the LDF to allege about the existence of a secret, unholy alliance between NDA and UDF brokered by Natesan to help Chandy retain power.

Chandy is also a master tactician and a darling of the rich and the bureaucracy. His government’s performance on the development front impressed the UDF allies and helped them stay united.

When these positives adds weight to the UDF parties’ expectations, corruption scandals pose a major challenge. Many decisions of the last Cabinet were controversial and had to be withdrawn later. So the cumulative impact of these scams is yet to be seen. 

According to a survey by the Delhi-based Centre for Study of Development Studies (CSDS), based on the last Assembly and Lok Sabha elections, only 4% of Kerala voters give importance to development, whereas 11% are moved by corruption.

LDF finds new zest

The happy news for LDF supporters is its renewed vigour. The self-destructive sectarianism in the CPM is effectively patched up sensing the impending danger posed by Chandy and the NDA. The LDF is also strengthened by the arrival of a splinter group of Kerala Congress (Mani) called the Democratic Kerala Congress.  Though they got only 4 seats to contest, the presence of the party is expected to be of great help for the LDF in the important central Travancore and high ranges where the LDF had performed badly last time, as a  result of the break up with Kerala Congress (Joseph). Pre-poll surveys also give slight edge for the LDF.

The corruption scandals, new found unity in the party and the front, the minority’s anti-BJP feeling, the still-felt goodwill of the last LDF government and the financial mismanagement of the present UDF regime have created an ideal situation for the Left alliance to make a possible come back. Thus, the conditions seem to favour the LDF.

RSS still a foreigner

The RSS has an extensive number of shakhas in Kerala, but the Hindutva ideology was always seen as a foreign element in the state. The history of Kerala is not that of religious antagonism. Not only the modern, but even in ancient and medieval history incidents of religious intolerance are comparatively lesser.

Moreover, the minorities constitute about 48% of the population and the Hindus are influenced decisively by reformists like Narayana Guru, Mannathu Padmanabhan and Ayyankali.  A new middle-class emerged out of the opportunities provided by the Gulf boom and globalisation started showing leniency towards Hindutva. This is most prevalent among the OBCs like the Ezhavas, and SCs and STs.

The financial upliftment gave them a chance to seek more respect in the Hindu fold. As most ashramas and temple committees naturally have some Hindutva connection, their attachment to these institutions attract them to the Sangh ideology. The relative well being of the minorities resulted by Gulf boom made the new generation upper-caste more disturbed. There is also a desperate search for a third alternative.

These factors made the gradual  growth of the BJP in Kerala in the last 15 years.  Their vote share increased from 6% in the 2011 Assembly election to 10% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. With the BDJS factor, they improved it to 13% in the panchayat election last year. This time, the vote share may increase up to 14-15%, an ideal situation to attract more powerful allies. Still, factionalism and internal contradiction can possibly spoil the BJP’s dream of getting a foothold in the Assembly.

(The writer is a political analyst and researcher)