The south Indian state of Kerala is credited with installing the first non-Congress government in India as early as in 1957. The state, which has been the site of bipolar contests in the past six decades, is once again witnessing a fascinating clash between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The BJP, which made significant inroads into the state with the 2014 LS polls, is pitching hard to open its account in the Assembly, even claiming that no government can be formed without it in the state. LDF, till now, was the Hindu party in the state, and the emergence of BJP has made the elections interesting – a three-cornered contest with BJP emerging as third front. For both parties, these elections are very important as Congress is gradually losing states (Arunachal and Uttarakhand) while the Left is ruling just one tiny state – Tripura.
Kerala has an uncanny habit of throwing out incumbent governments – as has been evident in the past four decades. Neither the LDF nor the UDF have been re-elected to office since 1977. Despite being reasonably satisfied with the incumbent government’s performance, Kerala voters have voted out the ruling party in successive polls similar to the trend observed in Tamil Nadu. Leadership ratings have been one of the key deciding factors. The winning coalition in 2001 and 2006 benefitted from the higher popularity ratings of their leaders.
In 2001, UDF leaders had a combined lead of 11 per cent, while in 2006, the LDF had a combined lead of two per cent. The 2011 elections was the first time Kerala bucked trend!
The Congress-led UDF defeated CPI(M)-led LDF in line with the trend. While the UDF won 72 seats (+30), the LDF won 68 (-30). In terms of vote share, UDF got 45.8 per cent and 44.9 per cent went to the LDF (a narrow gap of 0.9 per cent). However, the trend of the last four decades of alternate rule was seriously threatened. The LDF almost managed to pull it off at last minute. The result of 72-68 was very close against the clear mandate of 98-42 in 2006 and 94-46 in 2001.
VS Achutanandan (CPM) was by far the most preferred CM candidate of 38 per cent voters as opposed to the 25 per cent who rooted for Chandy. The majority of the people who voted expressed satisfaction about the government performance (72 per cent). Hence it was surprising that the Left lost. When asked about the change of government every five years, 56 per cent of the people thought “Change is beneficial for development”. (Source: CSDS Post Poll Survey).
Who will win Kerala?
To determine the winner, one needs to keep in mind three factors:
1. Dimensions of caste and religion
While Kerala is no Bihar from an economic or HDI perspective, there are significant caste and religious dimensions that will determine the final results. The Congress party has typically stitched an alliance of upper castes, Muslims, Christians and some Dalits while the Left party has had a significant proportion of its votes coming from the numerically large Ezhavas along with small proportions of upper castes, Muslims and Christians.
However, the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the 2015 Panchayat election have demonstrated new trends in Kerala on account with BJP emerging as a strong force. Nairs, along with other upper caste communities are increasingly gravitating towards the BJP in line with national trends. The BJP’s strong focus towards Ezhavas through its partnership with BDJS has led to gains from the small set of Ezhava voters who preferred the Congress party in the past.
The Congress party is likely to garner a small proportion of the upper caste vote along with a large proportion of the minority vote, giving the Left a decided advantage in the election. The only way in which the Congress can win this election is by winning at least 80-85 per cent of the Muslim and Christian votes, something it has not achieved anytime in the past (its historical average in the past being 60-65 per cent).
2. Corruption and sex scandals
As if the caste equation being loaded against the Congress was not enough, the series of corruption and sex scandals has probably quashed hope for the Congress party. The bar bribery case cost finance minister KM Mani his job last year. The vigilance court said that prima facie there was enough evidence that Mani had accepted bribes from the Bar Hotel Owners Association for the approval of liquor licenses of 418 bars identified as substandard.
Team Solar set up by Biju Radhakrishnan and Saritha Nair raised substantial money from investors and customers and then failed to deliver on their promises. The scam engulfed numerous ministers of the UDF regime and finally reached the staff working with Chandy. Over the past one month, one of the main accused, Saritha Nair, alleged that the CM had sexually abused her. Only last week, the CM filed a defamation suit against her.
3. BJP’s entry
The entry of the BJP has made the contest triangular and complicated matters for both the Left and the Congress. It may not win many seats, but could hamper the prospects of either or both alliances in many seats – especially in Kasargod, Palakkad and Thiruvananthapuram.
RSS has the highest number of shakhas in the state (4,500; even though the BJP has never formed government in Kerala nor had an MLA in the state). The organisation looks determined to create a solid base for future and has ensured one of its key figures is appointed as state BJP chief.
BJP’s tie up with BDJS/SNDP, a social organisation of the backward Ezhava caste, may help the party improve its position.Adivasi leader CK Janu of Gothra Mahasabhahas also joined the NDA and may help to bid for a section of 11 per cent SC/ST voters. The alliance between the Congress and the Left in West Bengal may confuse the voters of the state and might aid BJP to some extent.Will the trend continue in 2016?
The Oommen Chandy government has delivered on development in the state – Kerala’s GDP has been higher than the national average for the past three years (FY 12-14). However, a 100 per cent literacy level means citizens are more aware of issues impacting their lives. The two corruption scandals have damaged the image of the CM and the UDF government and probably turned away many of the fence sitters in the election and a split with key alliance partners – Kerala Congress, JDU and RSP – is also affecting its prospects.
Left’s strong performance in municipal polls held in November 2015, after a disastrous LS 2014 performance, is an indication of the things to come. The LDF bagged majority in the three-tier local bodies in 12 of the 14 districts in the state. The BJP too increased its vote share from 10.5 per cent in LS 2014 to 14 per cent and, for the first time, gained power in a local body by taking control of the Palakkad municipality.
The UDF had expected that BJP would gain additional vote share from the backward community of Ezhavas (20 per cent of population) who have been traditional supporters of the Left. However, BJP is actually eating into the Congress’ Hindu support base, leading to loss of Ezhava community votes, and also a section of upper caste voters (Nairs). The charged atmosphere in the state is also leading to a section of the minority community switching sides, from UDF to LDF, apprehensive of BJP’s rise in the state (as witnessed in the municipal polls).
To sum up, the various scams in the UDF regime, a split amongst its alliance partners, the BJP entry – with a high-pitched campaign – and the Kerala voter’s penchant for change are likely to result in the continuation of the overall trend and result in the LDF snatching the state from the UDF, yet again. The margin of victory is also expected to be high, unlike the close contest of 2011.
Expected vote share from upper caste and Ezhavas
|Courtesy: CSDS reports|
Ratings of preferred CM candidate