Why Congress May Not Come To Power In Kerala—Ever Again

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Mar 14, 2021 04:19 PM +05:30 IST
Why Congress May Not Come To Power In Kerala—Ever Again Oommen Chandy campaigning (Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Without the Nair vote they lost some years ago, a substantial portion of the Christian vote, and the OBC vote, the Congress in Kerala is reduced to what is meant to be – a subset of the Muslim League.

Five years ago, Swarajya posed a simple question in the wake of the 2016 assembly elections in Kerala: could Oommen Chandy be the last Congress Chief Minister of the state?

That doubt was impelled by the sustained, dwindling un-winnability of Hindu candidates within the Congress fold, and the comprehensive manner in which the Nair vote shifted from the Congress to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The results of the 2019 general elections made it appear as if that doubt was misplaced, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (the UPA, called the UDF locally in Kerala) swept 19 of the 20 seats on offer in the state. Even in Alappuzha Lok Sabha constituency, where the Left front managed a solitary fig leaf of a victory, the winning margin was less than one percent – and that too, only because both the Left and the UPA put up Muslim candidates.

But that was just a transitory, misleading blip, because, five years on from Pinarayi Vijayan and the Communists’ triumph in 2016, a number of opinion polls seem to suggest that the answer to our original query is ‘Yes’.

As things stand on date, with three weeks of campaigning left, the polls predict that the Left will be returned to power with 80-90 seats and 41-43 per cent of the popular vote.

In a house of 140, the Congress-led UDF would be restricted to 45-55 seats, with a 36-38 per cent vote share. That leaves the BJP at 15-20 percent vote share, with a strong chance in three-five seats.

However, there is a major flux happening in Kerala this week, cutting across parties and communities, as a result of which, it is entirely possible that the Congress may get squeezed further. If that trend is sustained, then the Left could cross 90 seats, the BJP could surge to over 10, and the Congress-led UDF could plummet to 40.

But either way, the chances of Oomen Chandy becoming Chief Minister again, now look increasingly remote.

So what’s going on?

The biggest news is that the Congress is splintering internally, under the weight of its own, notorious, age-old factionalism (the ‘A’ and ‘I’ factions of Oomen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala, respectively, which draw their roots from the AK Anthony–K Karunakaran divide of a generation earlier).

The first shot was fired by veteran Congress leader PC Chacko, who quit the party in disgust after half a century of public service. As he bluntly told the press, things were so bad that even the Congress’s central leadership in Delhi had thrown up their hands, and spinelessly surrendered decision-making to the two competing factions.

This splintering was then aggravated by mass resignations by Congress office bearers in Kollam district, merely on the rumours that popular local Congress leader, Bindu Krishna, might be denied a ticket to Kollam city seat by the ‘A’ faction.

This was a nightmarish development, since the UDF had already lost all 11 assembly seats in the Kollam region in 2016, and failed to make a splash in the 2020 December local body polls.

As this piece goes to press, frenzied damage control measures are being effected in Kollam by the Congress, but it is probably too little too late.

To make matters worse, Vijayan Thomas, a popular Congress leader in the Trivandrum region, resigned as state general secretary, and joined the BJP at a well-publicised event in Delhi. He too echoed Chacko’s disgust, at what the Congress had reduced itself to in Kerala.

In the midst of that, the Jacobite Church sent their top clerics to meet Amit Shah in Delhi. This was a precursor to the pledging of their denomination’s support to the BJP, in four key constituencies of the Cochin region, which the Congress-led UDF routinely used to win.

There is also the matter of Congress MP for Kannur, K Sudhakaran, who insultingly called Pinarayi Vijayan a toddy-tapper’s son (as if that is a bad thing to be!). That raised hackles amongst even the Communists’ worst detractors, and was exacerbated when the Congress leadership in both centre and state, failed to penalise Sudhakaran for his awful comment.

Such deeply-ingrained contempt for opponents of humble origins, and the fact that such sentiments, when publicly expressed, routinely pass without censure from the senior leadership, is the reason why the Congress Party does not get, and will never get, the bloc OBC vote. That is also why they have been pathetically reduced to scrounging for the minority vote, desperately, and at any cost.

And then came the sting in the tail: Muhammad Nahas of the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), a Congress-ally, quit the RSP and joined the BJP.

Now, the Congress and the RSP may crow that Nahas’s departure is no great loss, since he received only 25 per cent of the vote in 2016, in a Thrissur region seat, but that’s not the point.

The truth is that Nahas was the RSP’s state youth wing president. With his departure, an ugly, secular, concocted untouchability towards the BJP stands further eroded. And, dismally, his is also, now, one more seat which the Congress and their allies will not win.

Add to that the bigger point, that in seat after seat, in district after district of Kerala, the Christian vote is moving away from the Congress-led UDF, mainly to the Communists, and significantly in pockets, towards the BJP.

Thus far, such factionalism had had only a reduced impact on the Congress’s electoral fortunes, because the Christian vote stood stoutly with the Congress through thick and thin since decades. That has now changed irreversibly, to the UDF’s grave, political detriment, after the largest Christian party in the state, the Kerala Congress, junked the UDF to join the Left last year.

Surreal as it may sound, this tripartite split of the Christian vote, albeit in unequal portions between the Left, the Congress, and the BJP, leaves the Congress without that crucial swing vote in tight fights.

This is a body blow which the Congress will find had to weather, because, without the Nair vote they lost some years ago, without that substantial portion of the Christian vote which the Kerala Congress brings to the table, and without the OBC vote which they haven’t had in over half a century, the Congress is reduced to what is meant to be – a subset of the Muslim League. (The treatment meted out by the Congress in the 1960s, to their Ezhava leader and former Congress Chief Minister, R Shankar, ensured that the OBC vote swung to the Communists in droves, permanently)

How ironic would it be, if a janeu-dhari Shiv-bhakt’s party, built upon the minority vote, loses because minorities voted against it? Or, is that karma?

Nonetheless, Swarajya has been reporting two trends for long: one, that Christians and Muslims in Kerala were getting increasingly disgusted with the stigmatisation and alienation they were forced to bear, on account of the Congress’s vile identity politics and minority appeasement (especially their craven patronage of the Muslim League); and two, that the Christian community in Kerala, in particular, has slowly begun edging towards the BJP.

That tipping point now appears to have been reached. Of course, we don’t yet know if these positive developments will propel the BJP to substantial gains in the forthcoming assembly elections, but for the first time, firm trends are now beginning to develop with undeniable clarity:

It appears that Pinarayi Vijayan and the Left may receive a renewed mandate; that the BJP may surge spectacularly in more seats than the three-five pollsters give them presently; and, that Oommen Chandy may indeed have been the last Congress Chief Minister of Kerala.

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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