What Do Kerala Elections Tell Us About State’s Political Equations

Sayan Majumder

Jun 06, 2016, 04:03 PM | Updated 04:03 PM IST

Voters queue at a polling station in Trivandrum.Getty Images
Voters queue at a polling station in Trivandrum.Getty Images
  • It is easy to dismiss the results of Kerala as nothing beyond the periodic oscillation of the mood of the electorate between the UDF and the LDF.
  • However, if one is to look beyond the obvious, the numbers reveal latent undercurrents that may gradually upset the current political equations in the state.
  • The rise of BJP and its allies in the state is bound to leave the Left leaders worried.
  • The results of the recently concluded Assembly Elections in Kerala were along the expected lines. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) came back to power winning in 91 out of 140 seats, pushing the United Democratic Front (UDF), the ruling coalition, to a distant second with 47 seats. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was finally able to make its electoral debut in the state assembly, but was limited to a solitary seat.

    It is easy to dismiss the results of Kerala as nothing beyond the ordinary, a continuation of the periodic oscillation of the mood of the electorate between the UDF and the LDF. However, if one is to look beyond the obvious, the numbers reveal undercurrents that may gradually upset the current political equations in the state.

    The performance of the United Democratic Front, on the face of it, was poor. The vote share of UDF in 2016 reduced by around seven percent which translated into a loss of around 25 seats. This is, however, continuation of a decade long trend when the vote share of UDF peaked in the 2009 Lok Sabha election and has come down gradually ever since. That UDF’s struggle in this year’s election had become apparent from its performance in the local body elections of 2015. The five years of incumbency and the long list of scandals caught up with UDF in the 2016 elections.

    In terms of overall vote share, the difference with LDF was not very high, at around 4.5% only. But Kerala has a relatively bi-polar political structure, dominated by UDF and LDF (BJP has performed well in 2016 but only in a limited number of seats). As a result, a small swing in vote share can cause a large difference in the number of seats won or lost. Out of the 90 seats won by LDF, as many as 30 were won by a margin of 6% votes or less; thus a vote swing of 3% in both the directions (i.e. UDF’s vote share increasing by 3% and that of LDF reducing by 3%) could have swung the majority in the other direction.

    But, having said that, the performance of UDF would not be very comforting to the party leaders. It did well in the traditionally strong districts of Malappuram, Kottayam and Ernakulam, but struggled pretty much everywhere else. These three districts together contributed around 27 of the current crop of UDF legislators (out of a possible 39) whereas in the remaining eleven districts and 101 assembly segments, UDF had a measly return of just 20 victories.

    There have been indications in the recent few elections that the UDF has primarily become the party of the religious minorities. This has been further confirmed by the results of the 2016 Assembly elections. Notice how in the following chart, the voting share of UDF in the various districts correlate almost perfectly with the share of minority population in those districts.

    This spells trouble for Indian National Congress (INC), the largest constituent of UDF. Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress – Mani (KCM), the other major parties under UDF, are parties which almost explicitly represent the political interests of Muslim and Christian voters respectively. As a result, these parties contest mostly from safe seats in a few districts (Malappuram and Kozhikode in case of IUML, Idukki and Kottayam for KCM) and the number of seats won by such parties do not vary much from election to election. INC, on the other hand, is a pan Indian party that, at least on paper, appeals to all sections of the society and has to contest bulk of the seats in the less favourable Hindu majority segments, which are no longer supporting UDF at the ballot box. This routinely results in the INC returning with a limited number of seats compared to the number of seats it contests in the state.

    This is reflected in the strike rate (number of seats won as percentage of number of seats contested) of INC in successive elections. Among the large constituents of UDF, INC routinely has the lowest strike rate. Even in 2011 which was a favourable year for UDF, its strike rate was slightly lower than that of the major parties of LDF.

    If this trend persists i.e. the UDF continues to lose its support among the Hindu voters while being limited to a few districts with heavy minority population, the influence of INC will gradually wane and it will have to become increasingly dependent on its allies for support. Further, it will also face the risk of losing some of its more majoritarian leaders or factions crossing over to either the LDF or the NDA, thus weakening the party more.

    In case Kerala votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election exactly the way it did the 2016 Assembly elections, the UDF shall win only six seats, four of them by extremely slender margin of less than five percent. In fact, Malappuram and Kottayam are the only two Lok Sabha seats the UDF can be reasonably confident of winning right now, and both these segments are with the allies of INC. This will also be a huge let down for INC at the national level, since the eight seats of Kerala were a major contributor to the overall kitty of 44 seats that the INC managed in 2014.  

    The Left Democratic Front, on the other hand, delivered a solid performance in the 2016 Assembly elections with a majority which was comprehensive and beyond doubt, unlike the performance of UDF in 2011, which had a majority of two seats and had to depend on victories in by-elections and the political skills of Oommen Chandy for its survival.

    Interestingly though, the vote share of the LDF fell in 2016, relative to 2011, by around 1.63 percent. This fall in vote share of LDF was primarily because of the large increase in vote share of NDA. In other words, the NDA won votes from both UDF and LDF, but the votes lost by UDF were much higher than the votes lost by LDF, which allowed LDF to come back to power with a big majority.

    Geographically, LDF did well in the districts where it has performed well in the past. Outside the pocket boroughs of the UDF in the districts of Malappuram, Kozhikode and Kottayam, it managed to almost sweep the rest of the map, reducing the UDF to a handful of seats each in the remaining districts.

    Notwithstanding this good performance, the rise of BJP and its allies in the state is bound to leave the Left leaders worried. Although BJP won only one seat, the first ever Assembly constituency won by BJP in Kerala, in alliance with Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) and a few smaller parties (collectively known as the National Democratic Alliance), it was able to garner close to 15 percent of the total votes cast, a huge improvement over the 6 percent vote share of the party in the 2011 Assembly elections and 11 percent vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The improvement of vote share by around 9 percent in the span of five years in a political system which has been inherently bi-polar in nature over the last sixty years speaks highly of the smart strategy adopted by the party leaders and hard work done by the party workers in the state.

    Historically, the BJP has done well in pockets of the Thiruvananthapuram district and Kasaragod districts, the southernmost and northernmost districts of the state respectively. However, its presence in the rest of the state has been limited to a few urban areas. For example, in the 2011 Assembly election and the 2014 Lok Sabha election, around 26%-27% of the total votes earned by BJP came from these two districts alone. The corresponding figure for UDF and LDF was around 13-14 percent.

    But, in the 2014 Assembly election, only around 21 percent of the total votes of the BJP came from these two districts, indicating the large improvement made by the party in the remaining parts of the state. Particularly impressive were gains made by the National Democratic Alliance in districts like Thrissur, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha and Kottayam where it has struggled historically to get into double digit vote shares. In all of these districts, the alliance had managed to get vote share of more than 17% and this bodes well for the expansion of the party into hitherto unchartered territories of the state

    The number of Assembly segments where the NDA has obtained more than 20% vote share has also increased from just three in 2011 to 31 in 2016.

    In a genuine three party contest, a candidate winning more than 40 percent of the votes may be expected to win most of the time. Thus, the 31 seats where NDA has obtained more than 20 percent vote are expected to provide solid bedrock of support on which the alliance can build up its numbers in the legislative assembly in the coming elections.

    Worryingly for LDF, out of these 31 seats, 11 seats are those which have voted for LDF with a margin of more than five percent in the last two elections i.e. they are more Left leaning in nature. In contrast, only five of these seats have voted for UDF with a margin of more than 5 percent in both the elections. Both LDF and NDA have also done better in districts with more Hindu population, although the relationship is weak.

    It is dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions, but in some ways, both the BJP and the Left may be currently appealing to the same Hindu voters. Although the Left is the favoured party of the lower caste voters, the tie-up with BDJS has allowed BJP to increase their support among these voters. As a result, if BJP continues to rise as a political force, it is conceivable that LDF may have to engage in increasingly bitter fight with BJP in some of its currently fertile terrains. This is also reflected in the often frequent clashes between the Left and the BJP which has taken a turn for the worse in the recent years.  

    It would be a mistake though to assume that the NDA will automatically go on to become a strong political force in the state. In spite of its improved performance, the alliance’s vote share was only about 15%. Further, the ‘first past the post system’ followed in Indian electoral politics does not proportionately reward smaller parties. It also encourages voters to vote tactically instead of wasting votes on smaller parties which have no chance of winning majority.

    The BJP in this election could win only one seat. Also, the  winner O Rajagopal has demonstrated a track record of improving the performance of BJP by several notches in whichever seat he contests. Rajagopal is already 85 years old and was not very keen to contest in this year’s elections. It is very likely that he may not contest in the 2021 elections and the BJP may go back to having no representative in the assembly, unless it continues to make electoral progress in the state.

    The improvement made by BJP and NDA in the 2016 Kerala election was significant and impressive. But the party and the alliance need to ensure a lot of further progress before they can genuinely start challenging the current political hegemony of UDF and LDF in Kerala.

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