Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan (Anushree Fadnavis/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The fight this time in Travancore will be extremely tight, as there is a rising tertiary player on the field.

    Though the BJP may have it tough on the ground, it is likely to effect an unpredictable swing of votes.

A fortnight is truly a long time in Kerala politics. So much has happened, so swiftly, since the last piece in this series was written:

Rahul Gandhi of the Congress filed his nomination from Wayanad constituency. KM Mani, head of the Christian Kerala Congress (KEC), passed away. A member of the Kerala legislative assembly for half a century, the state finance minister in various United Democratic Front (UDF) governments for over a dozen years, the grand patriarch of Central Travancore Catholics, and an accused in the ‘Bar-bribery’ case (for which he had to step down as finance minister), Mani was one of the rocks upon which the UDF was founded.

PC George, formerly of the Kerala Congress (KEC), joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) of Tamil Nadu pledged its votes in Kerala to the NDA. And Narendra Modi delivered a crackling speech at Calicut beach.

With that in mind, let us briefly remind ourselves of Kerala’s demographics:

1. Muslims (27 per cent) are largely concentrated in the northern Malabar province. They traditionally vote mainly for their own political party, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), and for the IUML’s ally, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Hardly any vote for the BJP.

2. Christians (18 per cent) live largely in Cochin and Travancore provinces (Central and South Kerala). A majority vote for their own Christian parties like the Kerala Congress, or for their ally, the UPA/UDF. A small percentage has now begun to shift to the BJP.

3. Hindus form 55 per cent of the state’s population, and are the majority in all districts except Malappuram in South Malabar (70 per cent Muslims). They are divided into four groups:

a. Nairs (Forward Class, about 20 per cent) used to form the bedrock of the UPA/UDF, but since 2009, have started voting increasingly for the BJP. Today, they constitute the bulk of the BJP’s vote base.

b. Ezhavas (OBC, about 25 per cent) form the core vote base of the Left parties. But since the advent of Narendra Modi, and post the Sabarimala agitation, they have begun to gravitate towards the BJP.

c. Dalits (10 per cent). There is little quantitative evidence on precise voting patterns, but some recent electoral results and anecdotal reports suggest a gradual move towards the BJP.

d. Tribals (2 per cent). They are concentrated in the hilly tracts of the Western Ghats, in two constituencies – Wayanad and Idukki. Voting patterns are unclear, with wild swings from election to election; possibly candidate- dependent.

(For more details of the 2016 Kerala assembly elections, see here)

Every forecast must contain two parts – political analysis and electoral analysis. The first captures the tone, tenor and mood of the area under study, and incorporates the worth and importance of various issues – local, regional, national and international. The second is pure number crunching, done while keeping ground realities in mind. There is no place for wishful thinking in such an exercise.

Thus, while assessing Kerala, the following aspects have been taken into account:

· A comparison of vote shares, victory margins and swings from election to election at the Lok Sabha constituency level.

· A comparison of the same parameters at the Assembly segment level in 2014, with the Assembly elections of 2016. This has been done for all 140 Assembly seats in the state.

- The fact that the first, real, state-wide surge of the BJP happened not in 2014, but during the 2016 Assembly elections.

- An over-draping of constituency demographics to better understand the dynamics of candidate selection and voting patterns.

- Economic factors that may be at work.

Calibration of historical trends with the two most recent, detailed, state-wide opinion poll surveys: one by Manorama-Karvy concluded in early March 2019, and one by Mathrubhumi-AC Nielsen concluded in early April 2019. The March 2019 poll numbers are questionable, since they give the BJP ridiculously low vote shares in some seats, and perhaps inadvertently, appear to mimic the 2014 results in others.

· Tabulated vote shares of both past elections, and the two recent surveys are given for each Lok Sabha constituency.

Mavelikkara (SC)

This is a largely inland reserved constituency near the coast straddling multiple districts. It is somewhat Christian-dominated in the north and Hindu to the south. The sitting MP, Kodikkunnil Suresh of the Congress, won in both 2009 and 2014.

He led in six out of seven Assembly segments in 2014, but in 2016, his UDF coalition managed to retain only one seat out of seven, losing the rest to the Left quite badly. This was because of a very sharp swing from the UDF to the BJP in multiple seats; three in the range of 8-10 per cent, and two around 17 per cent.

Suresh is a popular-enough MP, standing above his Left and BJP opponents, but a 12 per cent vote decline is a pretty large gap to cover up. It is doubtful if he can do it. The 2019 April poll gives the seat to Suresh with 9 per cent votes shifting uniformly from the Left to the Congress, and none to the BJP. That is probably not representative, because votes lost to the BJP in 2016 will likely not return to the Congress.

The BJP will get additional votes from the UDF in 2019 because state party president Sreedharan Pillai, who has high recall value now, contested from Chengannur Assembly constituency, polling over 29 per cent. Further, the current NDA candidate is from its alliance partner, the BDJS (an Ezhava-OBC-centered party), which means that he could also draw votes from the Left.

On the other hand, the flow of votes from the Left to the BJP could be partially stymied by the presence of Nair leader Balakrishna Pillai and his son KB Ganesh Kumar, MLA, now with the Left. Expectations that this will be offset in the Congress’ favour by some magical Christian consolidation seem groundless, because the preconditions for such polarisation are absent here.

Consequently, higher chances are that the Left will win because it loses less votes to the BJP, while the Congress fails to recover most what it lost in 2016.

Alappuzha

The sitting MP of this coastal constituency is KC Venugopal of the Congress, who won in both 2009 and 2014. In 2014, his victory margin was wafer-thin, and he survived only because the NDA did not contest this seat.

But in 2016, the UDF lost six of the seven Assembly seats, some of them quite badly, as massive swings from the UDF to the BJP were registered. The only seat they retained was Haripad, on the personal appeal and strength of Congress candidate Ramesh Chennithala. That is probably one reason why Venugopal is not participating in 2019.

This seat is roughly 70 per cent Hindu, but in 2019, both the UDF and the Left have put up Muslim candidates. Perhaps, they sense that it is going to be a tight contest, with the BJP creeping up to around 22 per cent of the pie, the Christian vote split fairly evenly between the traditional two, and an outcome to be decided by the Muslim vote.

According to the latest opinion poll, the 2016 Assembly elections never happened, the Congress retains its 2014 vote share, loses nothing to the BJP, and it is 9 per cent of the Left vote which shifts to the BJP. The March 2019 poll is worse – it gives only 4 per cent to the BJP. Neither is representative of ground realities.

Thus, this tight fight will be decided by the campaign. The BJP’s candidate, Dr. KS Radhakrishnan, is an import from the Congress, so he will make a splash. Even then, it is difficult to see him taking the party’s vote share to above the projected state average of 22 per cent.

Conversely, the Left candidate is AM Ariff – a local, and a sitting MLA whose 2016 victory margin was 24 per cent, so he will be no pushover. In this, the personal appeal of senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala will be a factor. He too is a local and popular, and in the end, will probably swing the seat for his party by a small margin, with reduced vote shares.

Kottayam

The Christian citadel of Kottayam has been with the Kerala Congress for some elections now. Jose K Mani, son of the recently-deceased local patriarch KM Mani, won in both 2009 and 2014 with over 50 per cent of the vote. This trend continued into the 2016 Assembly elections, and is reflected in the two recent opinion polls as well.

Jose K Mani may have moved up to the Rajya Sabha, and his father may have passed on, but the family clout is not entirely diminished. So yes, there have been grumblings from the PJ Joseph faction about candidate selection; 5 per cent of the UDF vote did shift to the BJP in 2016, and present NDA candidate PC Thomas actually bested Jose K Mani here in 2004.

There is a lot of talk that rubber cultivators might switch allegiance to the NDA because of a new central policy by the NDA government in their favour. Perhaps, but to think that a sense of gratitude would transcend community identity and traditional, set voting patterns, is probably stretching credulity beyond limits.

As things stand, the Left looks set to lose more votes to the NDA, and this will be to the UDF’s benefit; it will offset whatever votes the NDA draws from the UDF. Conclusion: the UDF retains Kottayam seat.

Idukki

This is another Christian seat tucked away atop the Western Ghats. It used to be a Congress stronghold for decades, but since the last delimitation, has become prone to wild, unpredictable swings. In 2014, Joice George, an independent backed by the Left, won by a small margin, on the back of a 11 per cent swing away from the UDF. In the 2016 Assembly elections, it was the turn of the Left to be handed a negative 9 per cent swing.

The BJP is poorly organised here, perhaps for which reason, the NDA candidate in 2019 is Biju Krishnan of their alliance partner, the BDJS. Past history shows that there is a greater tendency for votes to move from the Left to the BJP/NDA.

In Idukki, it is entirely possible that the NDA could poll close to a predicted state average of 22 per cent, but this will be largely at the expense of the Left. Consequently, there are far higher chances for the UDF to win this seat.

Ernakulam

The commercial capital of Kerala, and the pearl of the Arabian Sea, is the third Christian seat in the state. It is also a firm Congress bastion. KV Thomas, the sitting MP, is both a successful politician, and a professor of chemistry. His record is 5-1, winning in 1984, 1989, 1991, 2009 and 2014.

But he has not been given a ticket this time. Instead, the party has chosen a young, sitting local MLA, Hibi Eden (son of two-time Ernakulam MP and Congressman, the late George Eden). A strange move, since Prof. Thomas is that rarity – a Congress politician one might respect.

In 2019, the Communists have fielded P Rajeev, a former Rajya Sabha MP, and a man who has not won an election before – another strange choice. This being Kerala, Rajeev will benefit from high media coverage and widespread publicity, courtesy a well-oiled party machine, but will that be enough to see him through?

That might depend upon the BJP/NDA, whose campaigns of both 2014 and 2016 were hopelessly inept. Their focus was off, their organisational structuring was insufficient, and they lacked leadership. In 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party polled as many votes as they did in one Assembly segment! In 2016, if the NDA polled near 20 per cent in a few Assembly seats, it was not because of their campaign, but in spite of it.

That might change slightly in 2019, because the BJP has nominated the ex-IAS officer and original demolition man, KJ Alphonse, for the Ernakulam seat. He is a maverick, speaks nineteen to the dozen (not often coherently), and routinely exceeds his brief. But he is also a Christian, a diehard Modi loyalist, an experienced, hard-nosed bruiser who knows his onions, a man who once won an Assembly seat as a left-supported independent, and fearless.

He will pull in a large number of votes, more from the Left than the Congress, though probably not enough to derail Hibi Eden’s candidacy. Once again, it is the Left which will get squeezed in the middle. Forward-thinking NDA planners would do well to use this election as a training exercise, for the corporation and Assembly elections to come.

Conclusion – Eden should get his garden.

Chalakudy

This is a tough one to call. Demographically, it is a minority seat, dominated primarily by Christians, with a large Muslim population around Aluva. Half the seat falls within greater Cochin City limits.

The sitting MP is Mr. Innocent – Kerala’s favorite comic actor, who won by a whisker in 2014 as a Left-supported independent. In 2009, this seat was a solid win for the Congress, with over 50 per cent of the popular vote, and that was the general trend for decades, making this a Congress stronghold.

But in 2014, the Congress lost over 11 per cent of the votes, roughly half each to the BJP and the AAP. This trend continued into the Assembly elections which followed, with the BJP getting over 22 per cent of the vote in two seats, and 17 per cent in one. The AAP votes went to the Left, marking them as a clear, non-Congress, non-BJP voice, and will stay with the Left.

Innocent is seeking re-election, but unfortunately, he hasn’t exactly covered himself with glory as a member of the Lok Sabha, and there is some public disaffection that he wasn’t around enough during the 2018 floods. The area around Aluva faced the worst of the 2018 floods, so the Communists will be hard pressed to make their case. As a result, some votes may shift from him to the Congress.

Unfortunately for the Congress, their candidate Benny Behanan suffered a heart attack just as the campaign was starting. Unable to campaign, he is presently recovering in hospital. This puts the Congress in a sticky spot, and unable to fully capitalise upon popular disaffection with the Left.

The BJP’s candidate is their senior leader AN Radhakrishnan. He is an organisation man, a local, and is expected to attract a sizeable share of the Nair vote (remember, that this seat was home to two former Congress Chief Ministers of Kerala – PG Menon and K Karunakaran, both Nairs). That will not be enough to take first spot, but it will spoil someone else’s party badly.

Truly, this race is too close to call. It could go to the Congress if they manage to reign in the SDPI vote (a radical, fringe Muslim outfit). But it could just as well go to the Left if the Congress loses a major chunk of the Nair vote. Or it could go to the Congress if the Left loses OBC and Dalit votes to the BJP, particularly along the coast. Wait and watch.

Trichur

The cultural capital of Kerala has changed hands every time in the past five general elections, and is in for an interesting contest this time as well. Hindus form close to 60 per cent of the population, but since their vote is always split, it is the minority vote which is the deciding factor.

In 2009, the Congress won with a solid 47 per cent. But in 2014, they lost 10 per cent of their votes – half each to the BJP and the AAP, and the seat to the Left. In 2016, half the AAP votes went surprisingly to the NDA, and the Congress’ vote erosion continued, with them losing another 5 per cent to the NDA. The UDF lost every single Assembly seat to the LDF, in some cases by painful margins. The NDA on the other hand, put up a spirited show, polling 20 per cent in five seats, and 17 per cent in one.

Very wisely, and possibly in the spirit of true secularism, the Congress has junked their decades-old practice of nominating a Christian candidate, and gone with a Hindu this time. Taking advantage of this ‘lapse’, the Left has nominated RM Thomas, an ex-MLA from these parts.

And then, there is the BJP’s candidate: National award winning actor Suresh Gopi, the quintessential South Indian superstar. If recall was the only factor at play, he would already be sitting in the Lok Sabha. But it is not, so let us put emotion aside and analyse the contest dispassionately.

As an individual, Gopi tends to ramble, and extempore is certainly not his forte. But give the man a script, and he transforms into a brilliant dialogue-delivery machine. Then, what pause of breath, what glint of angry eye, what menacing growl, and angst of stern visage! Politics truly becomes theatre. What this means is that if the BJP gives him a good script, he will rake in the votes. To his many, many fans, we may impishly report that thus far, he is holding to the script.

What does this mean in electoral terms? The Congress starts the race with a 12 per cent vote share deficit behind the Left, and the ignominy of having lost every Assembly seat under this Lok Sabha constituency in 2016. Some of this may be covered up by the shift of minority votes to them from the Left, especially the Muslim vote, which means that the Left could get squeezed.

The Left starts with a vote share of 45 per cent from the 2016 Assembly elections, but is firmly on the backfoot because Suresh Gopi has made it abundantly clear that they are his primary target. Marxist misdemeanours over Sabarimala, and the insults they heaped upon devotees, Gopi dramatically maintains, are cardinal sins, for which they will be turned to dust.

How much traction such bluster gets is difficult to quantify presently, but we cannot forget another aspect: this seat was being prepped by the BDJS for their leader Tushar Vellapally, before he valiantly agreed to shift to Wayanad to take on Rahul Gandhi.

This means that some foundation had already been laid for the Ezhava-OBC vote to join with the Nair vote under the NDA banner. Add to this, Poonjar MLA PC George’s statement earlier today, in which he vowed to ensure that every vote under his influence (meaning a section of the Christian vote) goes to the BJP.

Can that happen? Can Nair, Ezhava and Christian votes come together on a BJP ticket in enough numbers to engineer an upset of upsets? Tempora mutantur? The possibility definitely exists, even it has never occurred in Kerala before.

Still, in the end, it is slightly more probable that Rahul Gandhi’s appeal, the UDF’s organisational apparatus, the squeezing of the Left, and traditional voting patterns, will see the Congress through – albeit with a lower vote share, and a smaller victory margin.

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