BJP finally opened its account in Kerala with veteran leader O.P. Rajagopal winning from Nemom. In Manjeshwar, it lost by a whisker (89 votes). BJP led NDA recorded c.15 percent vote share almost tripling its share compared to 2011 assembly polls.
The social combination in alliance with SNDP / BJDS helped the alliance finish second in another nine seats. This is despite a violent competition with the Communists and with both the UDF and LDF aiming fire at the BJP. In many seats, BJP succeeded in converting a bipolar into a triangular contest having sucked out both Ezhava and Nair votes from both the LDF and UDF. The big question is, ‘Can BJP win Kerala in 2021?’ ‘Will Kerala be the second South India state to go saffron?’
Factors which could work in BJP’s favour-
1. BJP increasingly displacing Left as the Hindu party of the state
Traditionally Left has been the Hindu party of Kerala enjoying the support of a large portion of Ezhavas and other Dalits along with sizeable number of upper castes. These groups account for most of the Hindu population in the state.
The Congress on the other hand has been supported by the minorities with sizeable number of Nairs and Dalits. In the last two elections, the BJP has expanded its vote base from its hardcore voters to impact both the Left as well as the Congress. Around three-fourth of BJP’s vote share came from Ezhavas and Nairs.
2. State has always voted for change
For the past three decades since 1982, the state has been ruled by Congress and Left alternatively for full five year terms. In 2011 the trend was almost broken due to the mercurial Achuthanandan. The Congress led UDF scraped through with a result of 72-68.
While Achuthanandan led the popularity ratings and a majority people were happy with his government’s performance, the LDF lost due to Kerala voter’s penchant for change. 56 percent respondents in CSDS post poll survey opined “Change is beneficial for development”. In an atmosphere where people want change and with Congress weakening nationally, it is likely that the BJP could be an important beneficiary of the anti-incumbent mood in 2021.
3. Further inroads into Hindu votes will increase vote share
There could be a sea change in voting patterns by 2021. BJP with its aggressive policies and programs could woo a larger number of Nair and Ezhavas votes from both Congress and LDF significantly boosting its vote share from the current alliance share of 15 percent. This could add another 10-15 percent to the BJP kitty.
With a strong push for Dalits and strategy to woo Christian community in line with Goa, BJP can reach the 25-30 percent mark which is enough to put it in contention given that 30 percent vote share in a tripartite environment can deliver numerous seats (30-40) for the BJP
4. Historic precedent
Two States serve as historic precedents. In Karnataka a combination of Urban, Border districts, Lingayats and Upper Castes helped BJP eventually notch up a majority in 2009. Once the party crossed the 20 percent mark in 1991, it went down only twice below that number in 10 elections.
In Assam, a strong focus on the immigration issue along with wider economic issues has helped consolidate the Hindu vote in favor of the majority. The learning in both cases is that given its differentiated offer and better re-election rates across states, BJP is gradually able to push itself to the centre stage of the politics in any state over time.
Central to the success in Karnataka in 2008 and Assam in 2016 is availability of a strong local leader who is able to stand on his own right versus other CM candidates. In many ways, the work of the local BJP and RSS will have to be supplemented by a strong leader on the ground.
5. LDF and UDF alliances are not written in Stone
Given that there are a number of parties in each of the alliances (LDF and UDF) it is likely that by 2021, one or many of them (including IUML) will be open to doing deals with the BJP. In the 2016 election, 40 seats were won by parties other than the Communists and the Congress. With about 25-30 percent of the votes, BJP on its own could deliver 30-40 seats in 2021 making it an attractive proposition for the ‘others’ to ditch their alliance partners and join a BJP Government in Kerala.
6. BJP’s strength nationally likely to bring Communists and Congress together
Despite the fiasco in West Bengal where the Left-Congress alliance failed to make an impact, the stride of BJP nationally means that Communists and Congress will need to collaborate more in the future to stop the Modi juggernaut. They are even more likely to challenge the BJP both in Kerala and outside after these polls.
A pan India formal understanding if it materializes (and is the need of the hour) can be used by BJP in the state to target LDF and UDF pitching they are the same sides of a coin. Even during these polls there were reports of under the table deal between LDF and UDF to ensure BJP doesn’t open account in Kerala.
To sum up, with the BJP at its current peak, the next five years are crucial to build on the momentum touching the 25-30 percent mark in Kerala and pitch to establish the first BJP Government in the State.
Lack of strong leader on the ground, high literacy levels meaning BJP can’t play the polarization card to the hilt and perception among voters that BJP is still a Hindi heartland party remain as challenges though.