Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra finally wended its way across the Western Ghats onto the Deccan plateau this week.
Starting from Kanyakumari in early September, the march attracted large crowds and media coverage in the three weeks it took to traverse Kerala.
Gandhi’s national objective is to re-energise his party along the spine of the country as a build-up to the general elections of 2024.
His objectives in Kerala are a lot more specific: to win back the Christian vote he lost to the Left, and to firmly consolidate the minority vote under the Congress banner.
It is vitally imperative for the Congress that they manage to do this in Kerala, because if they don’t, they will suffer a severe electoral debacle in the next elections.
As our analysis shows, the surprise defection of Jose K Mani’s Kerala Congress (Mani) or (KEC(M)) in mid-2020 to the communist coalition led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, after many decades of a comfortable alliance with the Congress, had three major impacts.
First, it helped the Left Democratic Front (LDF) sweep the Kerala local body polls in December 2020.
Second, this defection was central to the LDF securing a unique, consecutive second term in the legislative elections of May 2021.
Third, this alliance will not only set the Left up to win over a dozen seats in 2024, but it also puts Rahul Gandhi’s chances in Wayanad seat at serious risk.
Some Background Electoral Information First
At the provincial level, the Left swept the 2016 assembly elections, and the Congress-led coalition, the United Democratic Front (UDF), was reduced to nearly its worst tally ever.
(Note: The Congress’s national coalition, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is called the UDF in Kerala). This was primarily due to a strong shift in the Nair vote from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the 2019 general elections, the UDF leveraged Rahul Gandhi’s candidacy from Wayanad to consolidate the minority vote.
It won 19 of 20 Lok Sabha seats, and the Left got only one.
Yet in the 2021 assembly elections, it was the turn of the Left to leverage the KEC(M)’s Christian vote base to handsomely renew their provincial mandate, and push the UDF down to record depths.
For an apples-to-apples comparison, the results of the 2016, 2019 and 2021 elections are presented at the assembly seat/segment level in a table below:
This analysis was done in two parts.
First, the positive vote swing to the LDF between the general elections of 2019 and the assembly elections of 2021, which was brought about by the Christian KEC(M)’s alliance with the LDF, was assessed at the assembly segment level.
Second, the results of the 2021 assembly elections were re-calculated by Lok Sabha seats (in Kerala, every parliamentary constituency is made up of seven assembly segments) to gauge the KEC(M)’s shift of allegiance at the national level.
The results were startling, and provide excellent indicators of what might happen in 2024 if Rahul Gandhi fails to woo the Christian vote back into the Congress fold.
First, the Left benefited tremendously from their new alliance with the KEC(M) in 2021.
As a vote swing map of 2019 on 2021 shows, this additional Christian heft granted the Left a decisive electoral advantage across the state.
This comprehensively masked diverse anti-incumbency effects, including atrocious mismanagement of the Wuhan virus pandemic, a bankrupting of the state treasury, and a sordid gold scam involving foreign diplomats, civil servants and a femme fatale.
The LDF registered a whopping, unprecedented, plus-10 per cent vote swing in 65 of 140 assembly seats. And in 53 seats, they enjoyed an unbeatable vote swing of 5 to 10 per cent. Indeed, the LDF suffered a negative vote swing in just four seats.
Second, this remarkable outcome erased the humiliation the LDF suffered in the 2019 general elections. The shoe is firmly on the other foot now.
In contrast, the Congress-led UDF coalition suffered a devastating erosion of votes. A map of its vote swing from 2019 to 2021 tells it all:
Next, the results of the 2021 assembly elections were tallied up to the Lok Sabha level, to simulate a general election. A number of intriguing observations become instantly apparent:
First, the LDF registered a phenomenal 10 per cent positive vote swing between 2019 and 2021 in Kerala. These were mainly Christian votes brought to the Left from the Congress by the KEC(M).
Second, if 2021 had been a general election, the Left would have notched up its best performance since 2004; they would have won 14 seats (a gain of 13) and the UDF just six.
Pertinently, five of these six UDF win projections are toss-ups, meaning that the Left’s tally could, in fact, go up to 19.
Third, Rahul Gandhi’s overwhelming victory margin of 40 per cent in Wayanad, in 2019, reduces to a mere 4 per cent in 2021. That’s an incredible drop of 36 per cent.
Now, Gandhi apologists may be quick to argue that one mustn’t compare assembly and general elections; that the Congress gets a natural fillip during Lok Sabha contests by virtue of being a pan-Indian party; and, that the Left could put up a weak candidate against Gandhi for courtesy’s sake, as they did in 2019.
Fair enough, we needn’t, but these numbers tell us just how instrumental the Christian vote was (along with the Muslim vote supplied by the Muslim League), in getting Rahul Gandhi elected from Wayanad.
Yet, just as pertinently, in a constituency as heavily dominated by the identity vote as Wayanad is, they also tell us that if the bulk of the Christian vote sticks with the Left, and if even a part of the Hindu vote shifts from the Congress to the BJP, then Rahul Gandhi could very well be in for a nasty shock.
Fourth, and this is perhaps the biggest surprise of all, the Muslim League is seen to win their bastion of Ponnani by a mere 1 per cent.
This is a stunning statistic, since Ponnani and Malappuram Lok Sabha constituencies have been resolute strongholds of the Muslim League for decades; their candidates normally win contests there by large margins, without having to campaign much.
They did lose Malappuram to the Left in 2004, but that was only because a number of Muslims weren’t too enamoured with the Congress’ silence on the Second Gulf War. However, the League has never lost Ponnani.
So, now, if the League is being pushed to the wall by the Left in its own redoubts, then that is a reason for reflection, and a moment to reconsider the merits of continuing an alliance with the Congress.
Might the League’s political interests be better served by aligning with the Left? These results also probably explain why the Left and the League have spent the past year denying that talks are on between them.
And, fifth, we see that the Congress would fare poorly in a number of seats which have a significant Christian presence, and from where the Congress wins regularly — like Thrissur, Chalakudy, and Ernakulam in central Kerala (old Cochin state), and uniformly across most of the south (old Travancore state).
Most curiously, the UDF is projected to lose Kollam seat — one of just 24 seats across the country which they have won back-to-back in the past three general elections.
The sitting UDF MP, N K Premachandran of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), won in 2019 with a healthy 15 per cent margin.
But current projections show that the RSP would suffer a withering negative vote swing of 25 per cent, and lose in Kollam by 10 per cent.
To summarise, if the present electoral dynamics of Kerala remain broadly unchanged until the 2024 general elections, then the Congress and its allies will be defeated resoundingly.
If the five toss-up seats go to the Left, then the Congress will be wiped out in Kerala, and the sole UDF winner would be the Muslim League in Malappuram.
In conclusion, Rahul Gandhi has run out of safe seats north of the Cauvery. If even Wayanad comes under threat, then he and his party will be in a tight bind come 2024.
And note, also, that this analysis does not factor in the further damage the Congress would suffer if the BJP were to surge in the deep south.
The Congress should hope that the Christian vote in Kerala returns to it. If it doesn't, then the irony, that practitioners of identity politics were defeated by identity politics, will reverberate ignominiously in the air for all eternity.
All data from Election Commission of India website
As you are no doubt aware, Swarajya is a media product that is directly dependent on support from its readers in the form of subscriptions. We do not have the muscle and backing of a large media conglomerate nor are we playing for the large advertisement sweep-stake.
Our business model is you and your subscription. And in challenging times like these, we need your support now more than ever.
We deliver over 10 - 15 high quality articles with expert insights and views. From 7AM in the morning to 10PM late night we operate to ensure you, the reader, get to see what is just right.
Becoming a Patron or a subscriber for as little as Rs 1200/year is the best way you can support our efforts.