God’s Own Contortions: Will The Prophesy Of Chandy Being The Last Congress Chief Minister Of Kerala Come True?

God’s Own Contortions: Will The Prophesy Of Chandy Being The Last Congress Chief Minister Of Kerala Come True?

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Sunday, June 5, 2016 07:38 PM IST
God’s Own Contortions: Will The Prophesy Of Chandy Being The Last Congress Chief Minister Of Kerala Come True?Oomen Chandy
  • A detailed analysis of Kerala Assembly Elections.

The recently-concluded legislative assembly elections in Kerala led, not surprisingly, to a victory for the Communist’s Left Democratic Front [LDF]. The incumbent Congress’s United Democratic Front [UDF], headed by Oommen Chandy – a genial, bumbling politician blessed with disarmingly-rustic charm, maintained valiantly till the final vote was counted, that his coalition would retain power for another five years. It was not to be. The UDF lost, and in what has become a half-century old Malayalee tradition, the popular mandate forced Chandy to make way for the ascent of a Northerner, Pinarayi Vijayan – a stern, severe Communist with graying, swept-back hair, a hint of a moustache, and a carefully-cultivated if fearsome reputation, of slicing first and asking questions later.

On the surface, it looked like business as usual, with the will of the people moving peaceably through the revolving door of liberal-democratic politics; but beneath, almost silently, the change had arrived – firmly, and by the looks of it, irreversibly. So it behoves us to analyse matters in some detail if we are to understand the precise nature of the people’s sacred will: For that, some data first: the social indicators of Kerala, India’s most literate and in many ways, most progressive state, are comparable with many nations of Europe.

Crimes of both the petty and organized variety exist, but remain controlled to fairly manageable limits; the state is the largest source of foreign exchange for the nation, by virtue of having flourished as a remittance economy for many decades now; caste wars are almost unheard of; there is negligible religious tension; intellectual discourse is a way of life; art and culture bloom at levels comparable to the best years of Calcutta; and the state’s citizenry are characterized by a tendency for simplicity of lifestyle cutting across denominations. 55 percent of the population are Hindus [approximately 20 per cent FC, 25 percent OBC, 10 percent Dalit & 1 percent ST], 27 percent Muslim and 18 percent Christian. And yet, there is no material manufacturing sector in the state, it cannot feed itself, power shortages are legendary, National and State Highways look like village roads of Gujarat, it has the worst unemployment levels in the country, and the service sector thrives on exporting manpower – a bulk to the Middle East, and as many millions more to the rest of the subcontinent. With that in mind, the 2016 election results threw up little out of the ordinary: the UDF dropped 25 seats in a house of 140, and the LDF gained 23 to post a healthy majority of 91 seats. Not that different from 2011, when 30 seats transferred from the LDF to Mr Chandy and the UDF. But there, the similarities end.

A sense of variance could be seen from the start of the 2016 campaign itself, in how the Communists chose not to attack the incumbent Chandy government beyond a point, for their numerous scams and other assorted misdemeanors; instead, they raised the bogey of impending severe, communal carnage and advised the electorate against voting for the BJP. A second indicator was in the manner by which former Communist Chief Minister, V. S. Achuthanandan – still wonderfully rambunctious at 92, and lazy wit well intact – was brought back into the fray as the chief campaigner. It was a deft move, in part to polish the LDF’s OBC credentials, and in part to counter the BJP tie up with the BDJS – an Ezhava OBC outfit. Not a bad gambit actually, since, after all, VS had been the tallest Ezhava leader in the state’s history. But what was left unsaid was the Left’s worries, that if they attacked the Congress too hard, a larger chunk of the anti-incumbency vote would gravitate towards the BJP.

Giving them credit for their political nous, it must be admitted that the Congress was first on the block two years before the Communists. Perhaps they had already sensed grim portents in 2011 of what might lie in store for them when they took a majority by a slender two seats. Thus, it might be said that their campaign began when Chandy appointed Ramesh Chennithala as Home Minister in early 2014. The man was a genuine ‘grass-roots’ leader, the upper-caste Nair face of the party, and believed to be a Gandhi family favourite.

Unfortunately, the move was painted by all as nothing more than a tacky shade of desperate tokenism; and there was truth in the accusation, since in the preceding three years, Chandy had been accused more than once of crass minority appeasement; especially, when he gifted an extra cabinet berth in April 2012 to his UDF allies, the Muslim League [IUML]. But the IUML had 20 seats to the Congress’s 39, so that was that. Trivandrum scuttlebutt has it that upon the induction of this fifth IUML minister into his cabinet, Chief Minister Chandy was warned by a colleague that with this morally unconscionable move, he, Chandy, would be the last Congress Chief Minister of Kerala.

This third force had for decades in Kerala, run at a comfortable 2-5% of the vote share without ever causing UDF or LDF candidates any harm; the BJP was at best a nuisance in one or two pockets which the two big coalitions tolerated since it kept the natives from becoming restless.

But numbers never lie: In May 2012, a by-election was held in the southern constituency of Neyyatinkara, a month after the brouhaha over Chandy’s induction of Manjalamkuzhi Ali – the fateful fifth IUML minister. During the 2011 state elections, the seat had held to form, with the BJP registering a better than average 6 percent vote share. But in May 2012, the people spoke loudly, increasing the BJP’s vote share by 17 percent to 23 percent. The Communists dropped 8%, and the Congress retained that seat in spite of a 9 percent vote erosion.

One might have thought that with such an unexpected vote surge, the UDF would have ‘introspected’ seriously, but it took them two years to try and right those wrongs, by which time their Chennithala tokenism became a bigger burden than the accusations of financial irregularities which the UDF was swamped with. And this congenital inability to institute ruthless course-corrections showed itself during the 2016 campaign.

While the BJP replaced their state party president at the start of the year, and issued tickets to all communities, for the Congress it was business as usual. Mr Chandy spent much of the final fortnight lambasting Prime Minister Modi for having insulted Kerala, writing open, derisive letters to him. Admittedly, there was a flurry of activity on social media when Mr Modi compared the condition of destitute Kerala tribals to Somalia – a factually correct statement, but one which the Congress tried to play up as an insult. An astute Rahul Gandhi chose not to campaign in Kerala at all and stayed away under the pretext of a security threat received in Pondicherry.

Former Union Defense Minister Mr AK Anthony mocked the BJP, saying that the only account they’d open would be in a bank. Worse was the tag of ‘match-fixing’ which the UDF had to weather: this is a quaintly Indian political term which refers to deniable, tacit understandings between opponents, whereby, weak candidates are placed selectively to counter a more pernicious third force on the rise. It happened in the 2011 elections, and in the 2014 general hustings, but without proof, there was little the Election Commission could do; besides, with the Communists and the Congress openly declaring an alliance in West Bengal, where was the moral ambivalence if the two parties indulged in such activities in Kerala? The answer arrived on 19th May 2016.

Normally, vote swing calculations can clearly identify the transfer of the anti-incumbency vote from the ruling party to the opposition, but in 2016, something strange happened: In a state where the margins of victory between the UDF and LDF normally range between +/- 2-3 percent, the Communists won 91 seats out of 140 after having registered a negative vote swing away from them in 90 seats! This is an astounding statistic, made even more significant by the fact that the average vote share loss amongst these 90 seats was a huge -6 percent.

What it means is that such a vote swing away from the LDF, which in normal circumstances would have wiped them out, instead handed then a handsome victory solely because the negative vote swing away from the Congress was far, far greater.

The beneficiary in both cases was the BJP, though not of the magnitude to grant them more than the solitary seat they won. A few fascinating examples: the LDF lost 10 percent and Congress 17 percent in Malampuzha, increasing the BJP vote share by 28 percent - and this, in VS Achuthanandan’s constituency! In Ettumaanoor, their vote share reduced by 7 percent but still held the seat because the Congress lost more [-12 percent].

Also in Nedumangad near the capital, they dropped 6 percent but took the seat from the Congress who lost 13 percent. Indeed, if the LDF vote erosion had been any greater, the outcome may have been an absurdity of the UDF returning for another five-year term.

What of the Congress then? Like in other parts of the country over the past half century, the Congress has remained adept at both vote-bank politics and minority appeasement – the twin tools of overcoming the monolithic majority they lost in the late 60’s courtesy the Syndicate’s rebellion. Unfortunately, this approach works on the principle of swiftly-dwindling returns, as can be seen by the permanency of their losses in the Gangetic plains and the peninsula.

The situation was exacerbated in Kerala because here, both the Muslims and the Christians have their political parties who add straight half to the UDF’s kitty; the IUML for the Muslims of Malabar, and a clutch of ‘alphabetical’ Kerala Congress parties under KM Mani for the Christians. With the liberal intelligentsia not caring to contest this social abomination, both the IUML and the KC’s have over time, become accepted as part and parcel of the Malayalee political tableau; the result was a clear, distinct and visceral separation of electorates on religious grounds. But with the rise of the BJP – especially over the past three assembly elections, the Congress came to be faced with a serious issue: the winnability of their Hindu candidates.

In 2011, successful Hindu UDF candidates constituted only 35 percent of the coalition’s total [25 of 72]. In 2016, this fell alarmingly to 28 percent [13 of 47]. Why did this happen? The answer is simple – because predominant Hindu support for the UDF, which traditionally came from the upper caste Nair community, exited in droves to the BJP. The numbers are staggering even if the BJP did not enjoy any more than their solitary success this year, and they deserve to be assessed in detail.

In seat after seat, after seat, the angry Nair vote – finally fed up and galvanised by the UDF’s religious politicking, shifted primarily to the BJP. For example: Kozhikode North, -14 percent; Manalur, -14 percent; Thrissur, -17 percent; Kodungallur, -20 percent; Thripunithura, -16 percent; Chengannur, -21 percent; Vaikom, -16 percent; Chatanoor, -20 percent; Kazhakkoottam, -18 percent; and on and on, from north to south. So much so that in the seats the UDF lost, the average vote swing away from them, and that largely to the BJP, is a painfully negative 10 percent [bear in mind this includes a number of seats where the BJP has little presence, and where thus, the swing away was far less].

In Chavara, a popular UDF minister who won with a handsome 5 percent margin in 2011, lost in 2016 solely because the Nair vote shifted to the BJP. So too in the north, in Kuthuparamba. The picture that emerges from three consecutive elections is of a rapid decline is the winnability of Hindu Congress candidates, thereby turning the party into a predominantly Christian one.

This is a dangerous development with the potential to rupture society further, and yet, the Congress leadership refuses to acknowledge it [nor the press for that matter, rather curiously, begging the question: why does the fourth estate in Kerala need to be so delicately and politically correct if it is impartial?].

There are those who may say that some equalisation has happened, with the LDF returning larger Hindu numbers to the assembly. I disagree because that is a simplistic notion devoid of logic. What will most probably happen now is a gradual counter-consolidation among the OBC’s within a Kerala, already divided along religious lines, and now further sadly fractured by caste.

Deep within AKG Bhavan, Communist leader Sitaram Yechuri surely knows what happened in these elections – that his party benefited from fortuitous electoral math; that the anti-incumbency vote swing from the UDF to LDF was seen only in literally a handful of non-minority dominated seats.

With the obliteration of his party in West Bengal, what option is he left with but to quietly harden his party’s hold over their principal non-minority supporters – the OBC’s? It is a cleft-stick situation since the mobility of Ezhava [OBC] votes to the BJP is clearly discernible in many seats, especially in their southern bastion; indeed, enough in a few selected cases to push them to the third position behind the UDF and the BJP.

In that case, the focus has then to shift upon the BJP. Their performance this year in Kerala is marked by an amazing statistic: the BJP increased its vote count in all 140 seats [this includes 37 where the BDJS contested as the BJP’s alliance partner].

In the far north, in Palakkad and the Deep South, their vote share has increased in enough contiguous assembly segments, for them to seriously expect three Lok Sabha seats in the general elections of 2019 – if candidate selection is made judiciously. This is a key aspect in Kerala, where this time, voters complained that the BJP candidate was too dull, unknown or uninspiring to merit their vote. A second factor is the relative failure of their tie-up with the OBC outfit, the BDJS.

As a counter, BJP Union minister Prakash Javadekar has already appeared on news channels with a simple solution: every BJP candidate is to return to grass-roots campaigning as if elections are imminent next year. They must become known to their constituents, and tap into a sense of having been stymied, since in half a dozen seats, the BJP came agonisingly close to success. Nevertheless, a buzz has been created, and the party also expects to target both the rural Christian and Dalit communities whose votes are crucial. They also know that in 2021, there will be a larger anti-incumbency vote for them to attract [which interestingly, being the LDF, means that a larger proportion of such a swing would be in majority-dominated seats], giving a fairly realistic target of an additional 8-12 percent vote share.

That would take them to a band of 23-27 percent at least, meaning a genuine three-cornered fight, more seats, and prospects of a hung assembly five years hence. Note: there is no divinity in such psephological contortions – only data analysis and conservatism of projections.

In the interim, Congress members recently elected to the West Bengal assembly have had to suffer the ignominy of signing loyalty bonds, Ramesh Chennithala remains a woeful, fading symbol of repulsive Hindu tokenism by the Congress in Kerala, the Nair vote is gone for good, and they stand to lose further relevance along with Karnataka in 2018.

By that, and the results of the 2016 Kerala elections, will the unnamed cabinet colleague’s prophesy of Chandy being the last Congress Chief Minister of Kerala ring true? As they say in cricket and politics, ‘Who can tell?’, but that chance is not low. All we know is that the UDF looks set to become increasingly and irreversibly non-representative of the demographics, and aspirations, of the people of Kerala.

Perhaps it is the best that can happen to a party, which treated the sacred linkages of a pluralistic society in such cavalier manner; perhaps that is the best they deserve.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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