For one, the coming Lok Sabha election would reveal what effect did the Sabarimala agitation have on the political landscape of Kerala.
Kerala, with 20 Lok Sabha seats, might not seem to be crucial in the larger scheme of things for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, but it would present a fascinating contest of ideologies and narratives. With the burning Sabarimala issue in the backdrop, the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is poised to bag majority of the seats this time around, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more than likely to win a seat or two, if it plays its cards right. The biggest loser would of course be the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
This is a radical change from the numbers many were expecting before the judgement of the Supreme Court on the Sabarimala issue in September last year. That gave a new life to the Congress, dooming the CPI(M).
Another issue that has further tarnished the state government’s image is the treatment of Chaitra John, the Deputy Commissioner of Police, who was taken to task for daring to raid a CPI(M) office to arrest the accused in a POSCO (Protection of Children from Sexual Offences) case.
A few months ago, the prospects for Congress were quite dim; there were fractious conflict among groups, the party lacked a permanent state president and was under pressure from UDF constituents. In fact, the Congress was forced to accede to the demand of the Kerala Congress (Mani) for a Rajya Sabha seat to get them back into the UDF fold. A few astute political commentators predicted a lapse into irrelevance for the party, with declining vote share and the rise of the BJP in the state.
A few months down the road, however, the Congress has renewed hope and vigour for itself as the Sabarimala issue has potentially mobilised Hindu voters in great numbers behind the party.
There is, however, trouble within the alliance, as the Muslim League, which holds Malappuram and Ponnani has claimed a third seat for itself — either of Wayanad, Vadakara or Kasargod and the Mani Congress, which already holds Kottayam claiming a second seat — either Chalakudy or Idukki. While it seems the Muslim League is willing to negotiate, P J Joseph, the number two in Kerala Congress (Mani), seems to be willing to split the party to achieve his aims. (The Kerala Congress is notorious for splitting — at one point, there were more than six parties named Kerala Congress). The Congress has opted to field all of its sitting members of Parliament (MPs) again, with the Muslims League also likely to do the same. The UDF currently holds 12 seats, and it is likely to retain them and win a few more. The final tally for the UDF could be around 15-17.
The CPI(M) leadership must be ruing its management of the Sabarimala issue, as it is sure to take a hit in this elections. The CPI(M) and LDF had a spectacular performance in the 2016 legislative assembly elections. The public image of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had significantly risen after his calm handling of the floods that had rocked the state in July-August months of 2018. That has taken a significant beating with the insensitive and abrasive handling of the Sabarimala issue by the Chief Minister and the state government generally.
The realisation seems to have hit home, with the Chief Minister remarking in November 2018 that the “government cannot favour social evils in fear of losing votes”. He may, however, have to rethink this in the face of a possible drubbing in the polls. While the Chief Minister had courted Vellapally Natesan, the secretary of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), the leading community organisation of the Ezhavas, the major Hindu caste in Kerala, it is unlikely to stem vote leakage to the Congress and BJP.
The party seems to hope that there will be a split of leaking votes from which it would benefit. The new constituents in the LDF, Loktantrik Janata Dal and Democratic Kerala Congress led by M P Veerandrakumar and Francis George respectively are bargaining for a seat each. This could potentially mean that the CPI(M) has to reduce the number of seats it will contest in, compared to 2014.
The LDF had campaigned in 2016 with the motto “LDF verum, ellam sheriyakum” (LDF will come, everything will be alright). The lustre of 2016 is missing in the campaign this time, with the state government being unable to attract significant investment projects into the state. The allegations of misuse of the Chief Minister’s Disaster Relief Fund have further accentuated the displeasure against the state government. The mass-firing of empanelled Kerala State Road Transport Corporation workers due to a Kerala High Court order has not won the LDF any friends on that front either.
The LDF has eight sitting seats currently; including two Independents in Innocent and Joice George. While Innocent has confirmed that he will not be contesting again, George is unlikely to be fielded again since he had been elected against the backdrop of the controversial Kasturirangan report from Idduki.
Much of the front’s success this time around will be dependent on candidate selection. The Kozhikode constituency was, for example, traditionally considered a strong seat for the CPI(M), but M K Raghavan from the Congress had bested them twice before. While the party leadership wants to field Mohammed Riaz, the national president of the CPI(M)’s youth wing, it was Riaz who Ragahvan had originally beat in 2009 with a margin of 838 votes. Riaz is a comparatively uninspired choice, considering there is a better candidate in the shape of A Pradeep Kumar, the sitting MLA of Kozhikode North, who won with almost 28,000 votes in 2016. Pradeep Kumar is, however, associated with the V S Achuthanandan faction, which has been sidelined ever since Pinrayi Vijayan became the Chief Minister. The final LDF tally could be between two-three seats.
The BJP has been making a huge dent in Kerala politics since the Narendra Modi wave in 2014. The party has for long had a marginal presence in Kerala politics, but was able to send its first elected representative in O Rajagopal to the state assembly and finished second in eight other constituencies in 2016. The Sabarimala issue has given a substantial fillip to the state unit. While a significant bump in vote share is expected, the question will be whether the BJP can send its first Lok Sabha MP from Kerala in 2019. A lot will come down to the candidate selection in key constituencies.
Another key factor that BJP would be banking on is the entry of Bharta Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) into the scene. The BDJS is the political wing of the SNDP. The BDJS was able to show strong performances in many constituencies in 2016. The fractious relationship between Vellapally Natesan, the general secretary of SNDP and Thushar Vellapally (who is his son), the leader of BDJS, is going to be problematic, however.
The factionalism within the BJP state unit does not bode well either. The BJP can take relief from the fact that the Sabarimala issue has polarised and mobilised the Hindu vote like never before, and they have a golden opportunity to open their account in the state. Their chances are further bolstered by the Nair Service Society (NSS), the community organisation of the dominant upper caste Nair community, which is playing a prominent role in the Sabarimala agitation. The once weak relations between the NSS and BJP have been augmented by the 10 per cent reservation to economically weaker sections. The rebate announced in the 2019 Budget for the middle class is sure to attract votes as well.
The BJP has a chance to win in Thrissur, Kasaragod, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram. The ‘make or break’ factor for the BJP will undeniably be candidate selection. The move to draft Mohnalal, the popular film actor, to contest in Thiruvananthapuram has met with failure, however. An attractive alternative though, is the former DGP of the state, T P Senkumar, who had taken a very forceful stand against the state government on the Sabarimala issue. His uncharitable comments on the integrity of Nambi Narayanan, who was falsely convicted in the Indian Space Research Organisation spy scandal, has however dimmed his prospects. Another star from the Sabarimala agitation is K Surendran, who is being discussed as a candidate in Thrissur.
BJP should hope for at least one seat, but it can possibly win two. The problem that the BJP faces is a crisis of leadership. The state unit is plagued by factionalism that has hampered its growth significantly. The party has been unable to create a comprehensive public narrative on the issue that many Keralites are concerned about. While the party did not pay enough attention to its ally, the BDJS, who could play a very significant role in mobilising votes from the Other Backward Class communities to its cause, it attempted an alliance with the Christian community in the state. In effect, this meant reaching out for increment votes before consolidating the core support of Hindu votes. It is the Sabarimala issue that has woken up the party from its slumber, but even then the state unit could not consistently drive a message home.
Even so, a significant vote share gain of 10 percentage points is on the cards for the BJP. It could have well been much more.
The Sabarimala judgement has definitely changed the course of politics in the state, with Hindu political identity coming into focus like never before. There is a near universal condemnation of the state government’s handling of the issue — as witnessed in the Ayyappa Bhakta Sangamam. The Congress is without doubt going to be the primary beneficiary from such a polarisation, but BJP can create crucial inroads into the state through the issue.
The future of CPI(M) is the big question at hand. While the communists can take a few losses in the polls and still remain relevant due to the strength of their ground support, is a West Bengal or Tripura on the cards in the long run? Most of these questions, if not all, would be answered on counting day.