The performance of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is just short of its 1977 show when it won all 20 seats in Kerala.
People are upset with how Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has administered the state.
But BJP is yet to make a mark as the Congress and Left have devised a switch-voting programme to prevent the rise of a surging tertiary force.
For a bruised and battered Congress, its performance in Kerala comes as a soothing balm in the Lok Sabha elections for which results were announced on 23 May. Quite a few factors contributed to the Congress’ splendid show in the state, winning 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats.
The performance of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is just short of it winning all the 20 seats in 1977, when the Communist Party of India was also an alliance partner. In 1984 and 1989, the UDF had won 17 seats respectively, while the Left Democratic Front (UDF), led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) won 16 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
In 2004, the Left parties won 60 seats in Parliament, giving them a major say in the affairs of the United Progressive Alliance government led by Manmohan Singh. So what helped the Congress sweep Kerala amidst an onslaught by the Bharatiya Janata Party across the country?
Greek philosopher Aristotle has said a job well begun is half done. First, the Congress made the right choices for the 16 seats it contested under the UDF umbrella, conceding two to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), one to the Republic Socialist Party and the other to the Kerala Congress (Mani).
In picking up its candidates, the Congress was tough in handling some of the old leaders who protested the ticket distribution. For example, in Ernakulam Lok Sabha constituency, the Congress chose Hibi Eden, a legislator from the Ernakulam Assembly segment, over veteran K V Thomas, who has been elected from the constituency seven times. It is another issue that Eden is one of those allegedly involved in the multi-crore solar energy investment controversy in which former chief minister Oomen Chandy is seen as the prime beneficiary.
A Master Stroke
Second, the decision of the Congress leaders in the state to impress upon their president Rahul Gandhi to contest from Wayanad, a constituency where the minorities are in a majority, was a master stroke. It galvanised the entire party and probably gave the impression that if Congress comes to power, the Prime Minister could be representing Kerala.
Nothing can be as revealing as a comment from a 55-year-old voter, Thomas P, at Pathanamthitta. “I will vote for the Congress since it is a vote to make Rahul Gandhi the prime minister,” he told Swarajya. And such a thought was not confined to a few like Thomas.
The third factor that helped the Congress was the consolidation of the minorities. Muslims and Christians together make up 45 per cent of Kerala’s population with Muslims making up 26 per cent and Christians the rest. With IUML being a part of UDF, Muslims as a whole decided to support the Congress.
Christians in Kerala have generally supported the Congress, especially since they see former Congress president Sonia Gandhi as one among their own. Roman Catholics, in particular, backed the Congress to the hilt rather than even considering to cast their votes for the LDF.
A Gain By Default
The main reason for the minorities to totally support the Congress was the perceived fear over the BJP’s growing clout in the region. The minorities could have looked at the LDF as an option but they were clear that the Left parties stood no chance in government formation and thus, by default, the Congress stood to gain.
The fourth factor was an anti-LDF wave with the way the Pinarayi Vijayan-led government has been running the state administration since it came to power in 2016. A lot was expected from Vijayan when he took charge in May 2016. Today, all expectations have been crushed.
Three aspects have contributed to the disillusionment against the CPM-led LDF government in Kerala.
First, the handling of the flood situation, the worst in a hundred years, was poor. The state government failed to act in time, leading to many parts of the state being marooned.
There have been instances, for example in Pathanamthitta, where people had to depend on help from their relatives elsewhere in the state during the floods. Relief measures, especially monetary benefits, announced by the Vijayan government have not been fully disbursed.
Worrying Law And Order Situation
Second, is the worrying law and order situation in the state. Attacks on opponents, including the Congress, have increased since the LDF came to power. These attacks have been deadly and two Congress workers being hacked to death in Kasaragod in February this year didn’t send the right signals.
The third aspect is the way the Vijayan government tried to implement the Supreme Court ruling allowing women of reproductive age to enter the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple.
Overall, the disenchantment against the LDF government benefited the Congress to a great extent.
The fifth factor was the Sabarimala issue. It is true that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to make gains out of the issue. But those who were hurt by the way the government was trying to implement the SC verdict were looking for a horse that would be a certain winner.
Sabarimala Issue: A Better Option
To the Congress’ credit, it didn’t send any wrong signal on the issue though it didn’t go all out as the BJP on the issue. For those Ayyappa devotees wanting to register their strong protest in the polls, the Congress was a better option as it looked a winner.
But there was more to the Congress victory that neutralised the BJP gain from the Sabarimala controversy. That was the sixth factor that contributed to Congress sweep with the Left cadre resorting to switch voting.
Switch voting is proving to a great tactic by both Congress and the Left in Kerala. Whenever they find the BJP rearing its head, these two parties then switch their votes to the candidate who is most likely to run the saffron party close and even win.
Veteran BJP leader and current legislator from Kerala’s Nemom Assembly constituency, O Rajagopal, told the media on 24 May that a CPM minister and mayor cross-voted for the Congress. The CPM has denied Rajagopal’s charges.
A week before polling, BJP leaders had expressed the fear of such switch voting by the LDF cadre. “The situation looks good for us in Thiruvananthapuram. But who knows? At the last minute, they could be switching voting by the Communists, We are wary of it,” a local leader told Swarajya.
BJP Can Take Heart
The BJP looks upset at drawing a blank again in the state when even opinion polls showed it could win Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta constituencies. However, the party, while reviewing and redrawing its strategy for Kerala, should take heart in its performance.
In the 2014 elections, the BJP had got 10.33 per cent of the votes polled. This time, it has polled nearly 13 per cent. Overall, the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP has garnered 15.5 per cent vote share, a gain of 4.6 percentage points over 2014.
Also, many of the BJP candidates have more than doubled their votes this time. For example, Suresh Gopi, despite campaigning for just 17 days, has almost trebled the party votes to three lakh. In Pathanamthitta, despite finishing third, the party’s candidate, P K Surendran, has more than doubled his votes to 2.95 lakh.
The other interesting aspect is that nearly 20.30 million Keralites cast their votes this time against 17.17 million last time. The BJP had got an additional 1.2 million votes and it is likely that it could have got a fair share from the new three million voters.
The 2019 Lok Sabha elections outcome in Kerala has set the scene for the 2021 Assembly elections. Clearly, the Congress has got a head-start.