Why The Congress-Led UDF May Be More Worried About The Slow But Steady Growth Of BJP In Kerala


Feb 23, 2021, 12:08 PM | Updated 12:08 PM IST

A Kerala vote share estimate during the recent local body polls.
A Kerala vote share estimate during the recent local body polls.
  • Politically, by and large, Kerala has been bi-polar, with power alternating between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Assembly elections.
  • But if the BJP-led NDA plays smart, it could take over the Opposition space owing to fissures within the Congress.
  • Here's an analysis.
  • Those familiar with Kerala's demography and politics can skip this section, but for those who are not, here are a few basics to start with.

    As per the 2011 census, Kerala had 54.73 per cent Hindus, 26.56 per cent Muslims and 18.38 per cent Christians. Though there are no official figures for 2021 yet, it will not be much of a miscalculation to assume the numbers as roughly 53, 28 and 19 per cent respectively.

    Politically, by and large, Kerala has been bi-polar, with power alternating between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress led United Democratic Front in Assembly elections.

    The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has been mostly a distant third, except for one assembly seat it won in 2016 and a few in which it came second.

    Elections are due in a few months, there are 140 Assembly seats for grabs with 71 being the magic number for a simple majority.

    More About LDF And UDF
    Traditionally, apart from CPI(M), the LDF mainly consisted of CPI — to understand their relative strength, in the 2016 Assembly elections, out of the 140 seats, CPI(M) contested in 90 and won in 58, while the CPI contested in 27 and won in 19.

    The rest of the allies — which included JD(S), NCP, some factions of the Kerala Congress, Indian National League (a rival to Muslim League), some independents and so on — got to contest 23 seats and won 14, taking the tally of LDF to 91 out of 140.

    For the UDF, apart from the Congress that contested in 87 seats and won only in 22, the biggest ally has been the Muslim League (IUML) that contested in 24 seats and won 18.

    The third biggest ally was Kerala Congress (Mani), which contested in 15 and won six. Rest of the allies contested in 14 seats and won only one seat and the net tally for UDF was 47 out of 140.

    BJP won one seat and P C George, who won as an independent, is the other one, completing the count of 140 seats as it stood after the 2016 elections.

    It must be stated that, one of the biggest jolts to the UDF recently has been that the Kerala Cong (Mani) split, and the stronger group led by Mani's son Jose K Mani and which is now officially the Kerala Cong (Mani) is now with LDF.

    The relatively less popular Kerala Congress (Joseph) group remains with the UDF. This has been one of the reasons for LDF getting an upper hand in the December 2020 local body elections in spite of anti-incumbency. This has also given hopes for the LDF to retain power after the 2021 Assembly elections.

    Has INC in Kerala been a 'declining force' in the last decade?

    Let us look at UDF's performance including its two main elements, the Congress and Muslim League over the last three decades — that is six Assembly elections.

    1991 (winning cycle) — UDF came to power with 90 out of 140, Congress had 55 and IUML had 19.

    1996 — UDF lost out, had 59 out of 140, Congress had 37 and IUML had 13.

    2001 (winning cycle) — UDF came to power, had 99 out of 140. Congress had 62, IUML had 16.

    2006 — UDF lost out, had 42 out of 140, Congress had 24 and IUML had 7.

    2011 (winning cycle) — UDF came to power, had 72 out of 140, Congress had 38, IUML had 20.

    2016 — UDF lost out, had 47 out of 140, Congress had 22, IUML had 18.

    You will notice at least two key points — one, among the "winning cycles", while in the 1991 and 2001 elections, UDF had a comfortable 90+ number, in 2011, it just managed a 72 against the Oppositions LDF's 68.

    Secondly, in the last decade, while the IUML's number has remained rather steady, Congress numbers have been all-time low of 38 in the cycle it got power (2011) and 22 in the cycle it lost power (2016) — if not for the IUML's strong performance in the losing cycle of 2016, UDF may have even fallen below 40 in 2016.

    Clearly, UDF's challenge this time are two fold — its own declining organisational strength and loss of an ally like Kerala Congress (Mani).
    It is said that IUML is now asking for five or six more seats to contest — and it has a strong argument that even in the losing cycle in 2016, it had a good strike rate winning 18 out of the 24 it contested, while even in a winning cycle in 2016, the Congress had a rather poor 38 out of 82 — that is less than 50 per cent strike rate.

    To put it in short, the UDF was 'saved' in 2011 by its allies, mainly the IUML. It was a rare occasion for Kerala when the Chief Minister was from a party which did not have even 40 out of the 140 seats.

    Many factors could have led to this seeming decline of the Congress in Kerala — history of corruption, inept and infighting "old leaders", lack of attraction for the youth etc.

    One may ask, how about the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, where UDF won 19 out of the 20 Lok Sabha seats? Well, there was a strong anti-communist feeling in the backdrop of Sabarimala issue and UDF simply cashed in on the "defeat the LDF" sentiment.

    If at all the UDF comes to power in 2021, it will be yet again thanks to anti-Left feelings — this time more due to corruption and nepotism allegations against it — rather than Congress' own merits.

    Another factor to look at are the Chief Ministerial choices of the UDF. The last time UDF had a Hindu as chief minister was K Karunakaran in March 1995 when he had to prematurely resign in the backdrop of the ISRO spy case, which, in hindsight, many think was a conspiracy by A K Anthony and Ooommen Chandy with support from some media houses to bring down K Karunakaran.

    With twenty-five years of no Hindu as CM, one can imagine how many Hindus may have been driven towards the BJP, and among the Christians, it has perhaps given a feeling that a Christian has to be the natural choice within the UDF.

    2021 is the Congress' chance, perhaps the last chance, to regain some of the Hindu votes by projecting Ramesh Chennithala as its CM candidate. However, the poor performance in the 2020 local body elections under his leadership has led to the high command ordering that there be no single CM candidate and it has appointed Oommen Chandy as the coordinator for the 2021 Assembly elections.

    Though not openly admitted, there is an increasing feeling within the UDF that multiple factors have led to Christians moving away from the UDF in the 2020 local body elections — a Hindu being the leader of Congress, Kerala Congress (Mani) moving to the LDF and an increasing feeling that IUML is controlling the UDF more and more.

    In fact, there has been some feeling among some Christian denominations that in general, both UDF and LDF are much more interested in appeasing Muslims of Kerala and it is not clear which way this may impact the upcoming Assembly elections.

    All this has put the UDF in a Catch-22 — if it tries harder to regain its Hindu votes and promote Ramesh Chennithala, it may continue to lose Christian votes. If it increasingly gives the feeling that Oommen Chandy is the undeclared CM candidate, it is likely to lose some more Hindu votes.

    The Muslim Factor

    Over the last two decades, the CPI(M) has worked hard to attract the Muslim votes to its side — a clear manifestation of that can be seen in the fact that three of the key 'youth' leaders of the CPI(M) in Kerala — Rahim, Shamseer and Riyaz — are Muslims.

    Riyaz married Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan's daughter Veena Vijayan, which too was seen by many as a "soft signal".

    Going by the 2020 local body election results, there are reasons to believe that this has started paying off for the Left — let us do a back of the envelope analysis with numbers.

    Though the state election commission is yet to release official figures for the 2020 local body elections, it is believed that the LDF polled 40.2 per cent, UDF 37.9 and NDA 15.

    The 'others' at 6.9 is relatively higher as expected because in local body elections, there are many more local and smaller parties as well as independents taking away the vote share.

    In comparison, the 2016 Assembly elections had LDF getting 43.5 per cent, UDF 38.8 , NDA 15 and the "others" only about 2.7.

    Now, let us take the 53-28-19 ratio of Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities and subtract 4, 2 and 1 as "others", which is the near 7 per cent vote share polled by them.

    That leaves us with 49-26-18 which approximately split as 40 for LDF, 38 for UDF and 15 for NDA. Almost 14 out of the 15 for NDA must be Hindu votes, so that leaves 35 Hindu votes being split between LDF and UDF. The likely split is 20 for LDF and 15 for UDF.

    If that is the case, LDF got nearly half of its votes from Hindus and the other half from 'minorities' — indeed, this is a guess without proof.

    Even though Kerala Congress (Mani) would have brought in a good amount of Christian votes to LDF, it is a rather localised party with its strongholds in only two or three districts out of 14.

    It must then be a fact that pan-Kerala, the LDF has a lot of Muslim support, which though in a district like Malappuram may not be yet big enough to defeat IUML, but is significant enough in other places to be able to swing the result.

    On social media too, one can see the increasing trend of vocal Muslim suporters for LDF than ever before.

    Impact of the slow but steadily rising BJP

    A bit of history, and once again with numbers — note that in general, NDA tends to gain a bit more vote share during Lok Sabha elections because of its context, so let us keep that aside for a while, except for the 2019 case.

    NDA's vote share in the six Assembly elections since 1991 were 4.77 per cent, 4.76, 5.02, 4.84, 6.04 and 14.93. While in 2011, it may be the non-trivial shift of minority votes to the LDF that may have caused a reduced margin (72 vs 68) for the UDF, the rather sudden jump in BJP led NDA's vote share within the next five years (6 per cent in 2011 to 15 per cent in 2016) had resulted in an all time poor performance of Congress in the 2016 Assembly elections — and this has made the upcoming Assembly elections — which is otherwise a UDF winning cycle somewhat unpredictable.

    To put it in short, right after the 2011 Assembly elections, a good number of anti-LDF voters stopped seeing UDF as the long term alternative to the Left and shifted base to BJP.

    A poor performance in 2021 by the UDF is likely to cause many more to shift — whether that shift is already big enough for the UDF to not be able to regain power from LDF is to be seen — for sure it has started to worry the UDF leaders.

    After a surge during 2011-2016, has the BJP vote share hit a plateau?

    In 2015 local body elections, NDA had 13.28 per cent vote share and in the Assembly elections held six months later, it got nearly 15 per cent, part of that could be because of a new party BDJS being added as an ally to NDA.

    However, as was shown before, the 'others' factor is less in Assembly elections and so, if the 2020 local body percentage is 'prorated' , NDA is expected to get between 15 and 16 per cent vote share in the upcoming assembly elections. Remember, it got 'only' 15.53 per cent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in spite of some help from the Sabarimala issue and the general trend of getting more vote share for Lok Sabha elections.

    Many feel that over the last five years, the NDA vote share has been rather static at around 15 per cent. While that can be confirmed only after the 2021 Assembly elections, as any other comparison will be apples-to-oranges, there are a few points that the state leadership could look into.

    One, while it is true that there is a sense of dissatisfaction within the Christian community against its "traditionally natural choice" of UDF and most Christians in general remain averse to the Left, there is no guarantee that the NDA will be able to bring these votes to its fold.

    Also, in the past, the approach the party has taken is to try to bring in some so-called "leaders" from among Christian politicians and this has hardly paid off.

    Neither will it help get the "on-paper" support from some Church heads. The bridge if at all has to be built connecting to the youth and families who have a nationalistic mind, who are willing to put India first above narrow political gain of supporting the UDF.

    Two, not even one-third of the Hindus of Kerala vote for the BJP or NDA yet. So there is quite a bit of ground to cover there — an oversimplified estimate would be that 40 per cent Hindus vote LDF, nearly 30 per cent for UDF and 28 per cent for NDA. Part of the reason why the LDF still goes strong in spite of allegations of corruption, nepotism and minority appeasement against it is the "ecosystem" that it has built.

    Perhaps, nepotism is not even seen as a bad thing among the LDF supporters, but as a necessity to sustain and grow the party — to put it in a nutshell, if the husband dedicates his time for party work, the wife is assured of a government or a semi-government job!

    Could BJP's efforts at growth lead to LDF retaining power?

    Given the 'ecosystem' it has built and given the 'cadre nature' of LDF, it will not be easy for the NDA to drain further from that 40 per cent Hindu LDF votebank. But they can continue to try. The continued lack of industrialisation leading to most educated youth looking for jobs outside the state, the fact that the CPI(M) is increasingly coming under the control of people who many believe are "CPI(M) in the daytime and SDPI at night" are some points on which the NDA can try to campaign against, apart from the corruption and nepotism charges.

    There is also a good number of Hindus who still vote UDF simply because they want to see the LDF defeated, and in most seats, the UDF has better chances than the NDA candidate.

    This section of the crowd has to be convinced to think long-term, even if their vote for NDA does not lead to a winning candidate.

    This tactical approach may lead to the UDF losing some seats where it has only a thin advantage over the LDF.

    If the LDF does indeed retain power in 2021, that will be a golden chance for the NDA to grow as an Opposition and prepare the ground for 2026. Though NDA managed to win only about 19 out of 941 grama panchayats and two out of the 86 municipalities, these should be used to showcase what it considers an ideal model.

    For example, it won the Palakkad municipality, came second in nearby Shoranur municipality and a shared second in nearby Ottapalam — this is an area where traditionally, there are some industries. However, many have been facing challenges. A strategy could be developed over the next 10 years to develop this area.

    However, any Kerala Hindu activist on the ground or someone who has followed developments over the last two to three decades realises that the challenge faced by Kerala's Hindu community go much deeper than BJP not winning elections — apart from external threats, alcoholism, economic backwardness, increased suicide rates, and reduced fertility rate are much bigger issues within the community itself — keeping it in an unwisely ignorant shell while the 'others' march ahead in glee.

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