Kerala Chief Minster Pinarayi Vijayan (R) along with Travancore Devaswom Chairman, Ex-CPM MLA A Padmakumar (L) (Pic: Facebook)
Snapshot
  • What will be the outcome of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala’s Malabar region?

    As things stand, the BJP will do much better than before in these five southern assembly segments, at the expense of the Left, but it may not be enough to win.

Malabar is an appealing region of Kerala for many reasons. It has a rich history, is the birthplace of modern Malayalam, and hosts the site of Vasco Da Gama’s epochal foot-fall. Bound tightly between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, this long, narrow strip was ruled by the Zamorin of Calicut, before becoming a part of British India.

The destiny of Malabar diverged slightly from the rest of Kerala, for while the other two crowns – Travancore and Cochin – continued as princely territories, this part of the land created by Parashurama’s axe remained with the Madras Presidency until a unified Kerala was formed under the States’ Reorganization Act in 1956. Since then, Malabar has been at the forefront of state politics. It has provided five Chief Ministers – four Communists, and – for a brief fifty days – one from the Muslim League.

Aspects Considered For Political Assessment

The assessment of the prevailing political situation in the Malabar region of Kerala, and the forecasts on electoral outcomes in its nine seats, takes into consideration the following aspects:

  • 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.)

Alathur (SC) Lok Sabha Constituency

This is a Hindu-dominated Communist strong-hold and a reserved seat, wedged between Cochin, Malabar and the Western Ghats. Its assembly segments fall in both Palakkad and Trichur districts.

The sitting MP is P K Biju of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), who won with small margins in 2009 and 2014 Lok Sabha elections. He is now seeking a third term. The Congress has been steadily draining votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), albeit at a lower rate than at some other seats in the state.

Vote share for Alathur / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Alathur / Venu Gopal Narayanan

The Congress candidate is a sparkling young lady named Ramya Haridas. She was in the news for a while, when a Communist columnist made scathing remarks about Ms. Haridas and her carefree ways (the candidate is an excellent singer and often breaks into song during public meetings). This was followed by some truly unworthy innuendos by a senior Marxist leader.

Naturally, the Congress media machine went to town and played both the remarks up as an insult to women and Dalits. Someone even filed a complaint. But the press got bored, as stories have only so much staying power during election season, and the rigors of hard campaigning returned to the forefront.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate is T V Babu of the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS). He is not expected to make too much of a dent in the Left’s vote base but the ripple effects of hard campaigning by the BJP in neighboring Palakkad and Trichur constituencies, could result in more votes leaving the Congress for the NDA.

Also, surprisingly, women candidates in Kerala have among the poorest success rates in the country. This seat will once a again be a case of who wins by losing less votes to the NDA. The net result: the Left will most probably end up retaining Alathur.

Palakkad Lok Sabha Constituency

This is where the soul of Kerala resides – old Valluvanad on the Palghat Gap. The people here are almost 70 per cent Hindu, with very large pockets of Muslims in places like Pattambi, Mannarkad and Ottapalam.

The young Communist MP, M B Rajesh, has held this seat since 2009 and is contesting again in 2019. Both his wins have been tough fights. In 2009, his margin was less than 2000 votes. In 2014, Sobha Surendran of the BJP put up quite a fight (at a time when her party was nowhere in Palakkad), but in the end, the Left’s vote held firm, and it was the UDF which lost 9 per cent of its vote to the BJP. This trend continued into the 2016 assembly elections, with the BJP pushing both the Left and the Congress to third spot in two key assembly seats.

Vote share for Palakkad / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Palakkad / Venu Gopal Narayanan

In 2019, things are very different. The Congress candidate, V K Sreekandan, has already been spotted on camera, mumbling apologies for having bungled his campaign’s first round. He is not a heavyweight and he will be hard-pressed to draw enough Muslim votes from the Left to make some difference.

Also, readers may note that his party lost Shoranur seat in the 2016 assembly elections very badly, without a large negative vote swing to the BJP. Indeed, the only two assembly seats they won in Palakkad were courtesy Muslim candidates. This means that the Congress is already a weakened force here and reinforces the hypothesis that a Congress vote lost to the BJP usually stays lost.

M B Rajesh of the Marxists is still quite popular in Palakkad. In the table above, note that his party managed to retain 42 per cent of the vote share in 2016, against the BJP’s first dramatic surge. But in 2019, the poor man has been asked to defend the indefensible – the insulting actions of his Marxist brethren during the Sabarimala agitation. He may not succeed.

And then there is the BJP. Their candidate is C Krishnakumar. He is young, well known, and a through-and-through organization man, who earned his spurs in 2016 by taking on the Communist veteran and former Chief Minister, V S Achuthanandan. The BJP polled 29 per cent against a legend, then. They will poll a lot more in 2019.

This writer was fortunate to travel the length of Kerala during the period 2012-13. That was a time when the BJP popped the champagne cork if a candidate retained his deposit. Yet, even then, the Palakkad region was manifesting a curious phenomenon. In village after village, whose names few have ever heard of – Varode, Chunangad, Trikkadeeri, way off the beaten path – whitewashed walls were seen to frequently sport a lotus or two.

Consequently, our forecast is that the Congress will be pushed to third place and that the BJP might just wrest the seat from the Marxists with a tiny margin.

Ponnani Lok Sabha Constituency

This seat has been a Muslim League strong-hold for decades. Take a look at the vote share for this constituency.

Vote share for Ponnani / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Ponnani / Venu Gopal Narayanan

Once in a while, during assembly elections, local squabbles spill out of control, egos come into play, and the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) loses. But truly, that is like the Karni Sena cutting votes from the Shri Ram Sene to make the Shiv Sena win! It doesn’t change the overall picture.

Forecast: the IUML will win the Ponnani seat.

Malappuram Lok Sabha Constituency

This is another Muslim League seat where time and verdicts stand still. In 2016, the IUML won all seven assembly seats – in some places with over 60 per cent of the popular vote.

Vote share for Malapurram / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Malapurram / Venu Gopal Narayanan

That is probably enough to make other parties wonder why they should even bother contesting. And that is also probably why, in 2019, the Communist candidate is an import from another district – the sitting Nilambur independent MLA (Left-backed), P V Anvar. In such cases, psephology becomes boring.

Forecast: the IUML will win the Malappuram seat.

Kozhikode Lok Sabha Constituency

This used to be another straight Muslim League seat till the 1970’s, when delimitation changed the constituency’s demographics. Since then, most of the winners have been Hindu Congress candidates. The Hindu:Muslim ratio is about 55:40, and the IUML stays firmly loyal to the UPA/UDF through thick and thin.

There is a large Nair community concentration in Kozhikode city, which has been well-represented in the parliament by the Congress – former Chief Minister K Karunakaran’s son, K Muraleedharan, won from here thrice. M K Raghavan of the Congress is the sitting MP since 2009 and is seeking re-election now.

Vote share for Kozhikode / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Kozhikode / Venu Gopal Narayanan

Traditional victory margins have been tight here, with the Congress managing success often enough courtesy the Muslim vote.

But in the 2016 assembly elections, 4 per cent of its votes shifted to the BJP. Consequently, the Congress/UDF lost six of the seven assembly seats. Their only success was an IUML win in Kozhikode South.

Very interestingly, the IUML actually lost the Koduvally assembly seat to a Left-backed independent Muslim candidate, by just 573 votes. This was in a contest where, believe it or not, a Muslim BJP candidate polled 8.4 per cent (11,537 votes to be precise)! Well, well, well…look what happens when the shoe is on the other foot?!

The Communists, recognizing these and other changes, are not taking any chances in 2019. They have therefore nominated the sitting Kozhikode North MLA, A Pradeepkumar, who had won in 2016 with a thumping 21 per cent margin.

The Congress on the other hand, is in a frightful mess. A newly-launched channel called TV9 Bharat Varsh, recently aired a sting, in which the Congress candidate, Raghavan, was allegedly caught asking for a bribe over a land deal. Springing valiantly into damage-control mode, the honorable candidate worked his lachrymal glands on the television and shed a few tears in commendable apology. He also said he was innocent. It was a spirited performance (if you can stand the sight of grown men weeping for sympathy, that is!), and apparently, casting agents from all parts of the country are asking for his contact details! But will that be enough for him to retain his seat?

The answer to this question lay for a fortnight in jail, with the BJP candidate K P Prakash Babu. In one of the silliest political moves seen in recent times, the Pinarayi Vijayan government arrested Babu after the elections were announced. They said this was for his alleged activities during the Sabarimala agitation and then they slapped attempted murder charges on him. All of a sudden, a nobody was transformed into a somebody, and the BJP got tons of free publicity – and sympathy.

This was milked dry last week during the Prime Minister’s massive rally in town. Until Babu’s arrest, the BJP was set to improve slightly upon their 2016 margins but probably not by much. Now, they will do better, because of an additional influx of votes from the Left. Yet, even with such a vote migration, ironically, it is the Congress which stands to benefit. This is because the Muslim vote will be scrupulously corralled under the sigil of the hand, by a firm Palakkad fiat. In such a scenario, the Left gets squeezed.

Forecast: Ironically, it is quite possible that Raghavan of the Congress will get a reason to smile, and head off to the parliament, leaving Kozhikode his tears. Kleenex, anyone?

Wayanad Lok Sabha Constituency

The forecast first: Rahul Gandhi will win this seat with an easy-breezy margin. Past history doesn’t matter, neither do issues, nor psephology. This is a minority seat (about 60 per cent), and the IUML have taken it upon themselves to ensure that their master faces no challenge. They will succeed.

Vote share for Wayanad / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Wayanad / Venu Gopal Narayanan

What is interesting about Wayanad is everything other than the verdict. As elaborated in an earlier piece, the BJP never really had a presence here. They lacked a good tribal leader, their organization and structuring remained ineffective through election after election, and they were unable to make any headway with the minority vote.

But now, out of the blue, Rahul Gandhi’s nomination has gifted the BJP/NDA with a marvelous opportunity to establish themselves where hitherto they had failed. They have seized it with both hands by nominating Tushar Vellapally of the BDJS as the NDA candidate for Wayanad.

He is no small fry, even if this is his first election; as head of the BDJS, he commands the loyalty and respect of a good number of OBC Malayalees and he is well funded. He will not win, but this election is a godsend for a much bigger prize – the assembly election of 2021.

All of a sudden, the Left appears sidelined. Communist leader Sitaram Yechuri’s genuine despondency at having to actually fight the Congress, instead of sleep-walking through the motions of a fixed match, could not be concealed when he spoke with the press. This will add to the Left’s further enfeeblement as time goes by. Ironically, they are in no position to complain either because it is they who chose to trust the Congress. You sleep in the bed you make. Thus is life!

Vadakara Lok Sabha Constituency

This seat straddles the districts of Kannur and Kozhikode, and is a transition zone between North and South Malabar. As you travel north, accents, dialects, rituals and cuisines change. So does the politics. The Left like to think of this seat as theirs. The old socialists disagree and remind us that the most popular politician of these parts for a full half century, was the late K Chandrasekharan (who won assembly elections under varied socialist banners from the 1950’s to the early 1990’s). But it is the Congress veteran Mullapally Ramachandran who has held this seat since 2009.

By demographics, it is roughly 60 per cent Hindu, and between the Left, the socialists and the Congress, all have managed to keep the BJP at an inconsequential periphery, making for close contests.

In 2014, however, the Congress votes started to shift to the BJP and reduced the Congress victory margin to just 3,306 votes. This alarming trend (for the Congress) continued into the assembly elections of 2016. In 2014, the Congress/UPA had led in five out of seven assembly segments; in 2016, they managed to win only one – that too, a Muslim seat, which the IUML picked up. Thus, a worried Ramachandran wisely chose not to participate in the 2019 elections.

Vote share for Vadakara / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Vadakara / Venu Gopal Narayanan

Vadakara is important to the Congress, so they have nominated former Chief Minister K Karunakaran’s son, K Muraleedharan to stand from here. He is the sitting MLA for Vattiyoorkavu, at the other end of the state, in Trivandrum, where he ousted Kummanam Rajasekharan of the BJP by a small margin in 2016.

The Communist candidate is P Jayarajan, a former MLA and strongman, who was recently charged by the CBI with the murder of a young Muslim political worker. This is where Vadakara gets interesting.

According to very strong rumors floating about, the BJP is desperate to ensure that the Congress wins in Vadakara. Read again if you want, but actually, it is not as crazy as it sounds. The BJP knows that it cannot win this seat but if Muraleedharan wins, then Vattiyoorkavu assembly seat falls vacant, necessitating a by-election.

The BJP also knows that they currently stand the best chance of winning that by-election, if it takes place, because Trivandrum has slowly emerged as a saffron stronghold. Such a win would be a perfect setup for the 2021 assembly elections, and it would literally set the cat amongst the pigeons!

Forecast: we may gamely forecast that the Congress will win in Vadakara, not least because the BJP possibly wishes it so and the Left candidate’s image stands tarnished!

Kannur Lok Sabha Constituency

This seat is set to be a strong test for all three political groups, for different reasons. Many view it as a Communist heartland, and in a sense it is but it would be wrong to think that the Reds are invincible. Actually, the Congress won in 2009 with 50 per cent of the votes. And in 2014, the Communists won by a mere 6,566 votes, only because a small section of the Hindu vote shifted from Congress to the BJP and an equal number of Muslim votes to the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI).

Through all of this, the Left vote stayed firm at 45 per cent, and rose to 49 per cent in 2016. They have been particularly successful at keeping the BJP in check, primarily through a mixture of intimidation and violence. As a result, the BJP polled only 5 per cent in 2014, and 9 per cent in 2016. Even opinion polls are chary of predicting more!

The northern part of the constituency has a 45 per cent minority population, of which, about half are Christians, mainly inland and along the foothills. Azhikode is an IUML seat. To the south, Muslims number about 40 per cent. This demographic distribution is important because it influences electoral outcomes. The dominant Hindu community is the OBC Thiyyas, identified as Ezhavas. The assembly seats of both Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his right hand man, E P Jayarajan, lie here.

Vote share for Kannur / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Kannur / Venu Gopal Narayanan

In 2019, the sitting CPM MP, P K Sreemathy, is contesting against the 2009 winner, K Sudhakaran of the Congress. In 2014, the Congress led in the minority areas, and the Left only won courtesy the solid block voting in their strongholds. Interestingly, this trend continued into the 2016 assembly elections: the only UPA/UDF victories were by two Christian Congress candidates and one from the IUML.

Thus, we can infer that for all the ideology people may spout, this seat appears to be neatly carved along lines of identity. By this premise, the onus of defending a narrow margin is on the Left, for which, they will have to ensure that their vote base stays intact. To upset this plan, the BJP has nominated former state party president C K Padhmanabhan. He is local, well known, and thankfully senior enough to be impervious to Communist threats. He will raise his party’s vote share.

The big unknown is to what extent the BJP will be able to attract votes from the Left. This attractive force could however, be amplified by Congress efforts to consolidate minority votes.

Our prediction therefore, is that if the BJP increases its vote share even marginally, the Congress will win in Kannur.

Kasargod Lok Sabha Constituency

This is the northern-most constituency of Kerala. The minority vote is about 45 per cent,who are mainly Muslims. It has been a Communist seat for decades with sitting MP, P Karunakaran having won in 2004, 2009 and 2014.

The Congress response has been to put up a Muslim candidate, without success, though it nearly worked in 2014. They lost by a very narrow margin of 6,921 votes, when, abruptly, the Left vote share came down by 6 per cent (of which half went to the BJP, and that is the other story).

Political commentators always felt that the BJP would open its account in Kerala from Kasargod. Bordering the Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and sharing cultural ties, including the language, Kasargod is where the BJP first started polling consistently in the low double digits. It was enough to get noticed and to cut votes, though not for much more.

In 2014, however, the BJP candidate K Surendran came second in the two northern-most assembly segments, where the IUML reigns, pushing the Left to third place. He polled rather poorly in the other five assembly segments, or else the Congress might just have won.

This trend continued into the 2016 assembly elections. Surendran lost to the IUML by a mere 89 votes. Next door, his mate Ravisha Thanthri too lost fairly closely to the IUML but not before he pushed the Left vote down to 15 per cent. These two seats have now become almost exclusively IUML versus BJP contests.

Vote share for Kasargod / Venu Gopal Narayanan Vote share for Kasargod / Venu Gopal Narayanan

But two assembly segments does not a Lok Sabha victory make. Everyone knows that. So, the Left have re-nominated P Karunakaran. The Congress have, surprise, surprise, put up their first Hindu candidate in years! And the BJP have gone with Ravisha Thanthri.

As things stand, this election is the Congress’s to lose. Two of their young party workers were brutally murdered here recently. Rahul Gandhi’s condolence visit to the victims’ families received wide coverage. The Chief Minister’s condemnation of violence sounded staid and lame in comparison.

The BJP too, has accused the Left of trying to intimidate their candidate personally and complaints have been filed. The Left is not managing the media spin well. This has been further fuelled by videos circulating widely on social media, which show the Communist candidate being openly mocked and taunted by youngsters, in true-blue Mallu style. This is worse than political violence or intimidation. Ergo, we may infer that fear of Communist brutality is slowly, very slowly, beginning to lift. And this will be reflected at the ballot box.

Conclusion

All things considered, our prediction is that the BJP will do much better than before in the five southern assembly segments, at the expense of the Left but it may not be enough to win. That victory will be the pleasure and privilege of the Congress, after decades of trying.

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