Election Analysis

Verdict 2016: Kerala

20 May, 2016    ·   5032

Manu S Pillai weighs in on the arrival of the BJP, which rules in Delhi and now in eight states, in Kerala's political arena

Voters in the state of Kerala on India’s south-western coast heralded in its fifteenth legislative assembly on 19 May with a guarded but noteworthy break from tradition. On the face of it, the rotation of power between the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) endures - for over four decades control of the state has see-sawed between these alliances, and no incumbent chief minister has continued to a second term in office. To this extent the elections were a case of business as usual. However, the arrival of a fresh political force, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rules in Delhi and now in eight states, is what makes 2016 different.

While the BJP must necessarily trumpet its win of a single place in Kerala’s 140-seat legislature, there is reason for the other camps to challenge further gains - the BJP’s vote share has risen alarmingly from 6 per cent to nearly 11 per cent between 2011 and now. The question, though, is whether either is up to the task. The UDF is a gravely divided house -there is its parent Indian National Congress, a Kerala Congress (M), a Kerala Congress (Jacob) and other, now largely defunct variants, as well as allies such as the Muslim League. A public impasse between the Congress party president in the state and the chief minister on the subject of selecting candidates for these elections, as well as corruption scandals (the ‘Solar Scam’ involving a businesswoman and big names cornered prime-time attention for half the government’s term) also weakened the UDF’s pitch for re-election.

This was despite a record of development that the UDF could claim. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy opened access to his office and travelled in every district of the state, receiving tens of thousands of petitions directly; he gave to Kannur in the north Kerala’s fourth international airport; to Kochi in the centre a metro-rail project; and to Thiruvananthapuram in the south the Vizhinjam Port; even while improving social security and welfare schemes. The BJP swept the 2014 national elections on promises of development, and the UDF hoped that demonstrable successes in Kerala would see it through these elections into a second term by the same formula. The seesaw with the LDF, however, prevailed.

Factionalism is a cross that the LDF too must bear with camps revolving around VS Achutanandan (92), a popular former chief minister, and Pinarayi Vijayan (72), a politburo member who controls the CPI(M)’s state unit. Credit for the LDF’s 91-seat win is widely ascribed to Achutanandan’s energetic campaign in the state, while greater press scrutiny around corruption and an old 1990s case involving Vijayan works against the latter. Both leaders will need to be accommodated, with talk arising of ‘sharing’ power under an arrangement that will see two LDF chief ministers in a single term. The risk here is possible policy paralysis and the widening of the breach in the party leadership, even as it opens up possibilities of other heavyweights in future expecting similar compromises that could threaten the wider interests of the LDF itself.

It is into this fraying battleground that eight-seven year old O Rajagopal arrives as the BJP’s sole winner and first MLA in Kerala. A man of sobriety and experience (including a stint as a union minister), Rajagopal enjoys an avuncular appeal in the state. This was despite his reputation as a chronic loser of elections - starting in 1980, each of his attempts to enter parliament or the Kerala legislature was a spectacular failure. However, with the rise of sympathy for the BJP in Kerala, O Rajagopal began to inch closer to victory, nearly winning a parliamentary seat in 2014. Unlike elsewhere in India where BJP firebrands whip up passions around issues like beef-eating, in Kerala an elderly moderate like O Rajagopal is more palatable to voters.

For the BJP, finding a core constituency in Kerala is a complicated proposition. Religious polarisation - a calling card of the BJP - has historically been frowned upon, and nearly half the population are Muslims and Christians. There is no consolidated Hindu vote, and Hindus are mainly divided between the Ezhavas (an entrepreneurial class with a long history with the Left till they favoured the BJP in 2016) and their rivals, the Nairs (who are wary of the BJP, but among whom an attraction for a Hindu identity is on the rise). Remittances from the Gulf have sparked a greater religiosity and sense of ‘reviving’ Hindu pride in Kerala, and while it will take the BJP some time to convert this into a vote-bank, their parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is heavily invested in building an organisational base through its 4500 local units or shakhas, a network that can be exploited for political gains.

With one seat in the legislative assembly the BJP may have a window from which to launch itself in Kerala. The LDF and UDF could, however, show the BJP the door if they set their house in order. The LDF can bank on longstanding leftist traditions in Kerala, while the UDF has charismatic youth leaders who have, even in their latest electoral loss, proved they can win votes. Add to this a cultural and social setting that still looks at the BJP’s ideological roots with suspicion, and it is clear that winning more allies and a grassroots path with moderate leaders is what will allow the BJP to work its way into Kerala looking ahead.

Views expressed are the author's own.