The victory of the Left Democratic Front represents the usual swing but the declining share of the Congress within the UDF and the debut of the BJP in the assembly are warning signs that the Congress could end up as a relic of history in the state.
Sticking to the tradition established after a two-front system emerged three and a half decades ago, Kerala’s voters threw out the ruling coalition and voted in the rival alliance, firmly rejecting the former’s plea for a second successive term and the newly formed third front’s call to dump both and plump for it.
Since the Congress-led United Democratic Front won the elections of 2011, it was now the turn of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front to win, and it comes back to power after a gap of five years with an impressive 91-47 victory.
While the voters rebuffed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance’s bid for recognition as a third force, the BJP was able to win a seat. This is the first time that the Hindutva party has made it to the state assembly.
Bucking the trend of rejecting unattached independents, voters in Poonjar constituency re-elected P.C. George, a veteran legislator who had won in previous elections as part of either the UDF or the LDF but did not have the support of any front this time.
In the early days of the two-front system, the difference between the vote shares of the UDF and LDF was small. So was the difference in their strength in the assembly. In 1982, for instance, less than 100,000 votes separated them: the UDF polled 4,617,498 votes and the LDF 4,523,228. In the assembly the UDF had 77 seats and the LDF 63. About 50,000 voters could have altered the fate of the contenders for power.
The parties which lead the two fronts and their major partners have committed voters who stick to them through thick and thin. The change of government in every election has been made possible by voters who keep switching from one front to the other. Their number gradually grew until 2001 when the UDF registered a 100-40 victory. In 2006, the LDF won with an identical margin. Studies have shown that it is the southern districts that swing from one front to the other.
In 2011, there was a slight reversal of the trend. The UDF, led by Oommen Chandy, registered a narrow 72-68 victory over the LDF, led by outgoing chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan. The LDF lost a few seats by small margins. Many observers believe that what brought the LDF close to a second successive term was the expectation that if it was voted back to power Achuthanandan would remain the chief minister.
Factions in the Left
The state CPI (M) had denied a party ticket to Achuthanandan, who was involved in a bitter squabble with the then party secretary Pinarayi Vijayan, in 2006 and 2011. On both occasions, street protests forced the politburo to overrule the state committee and permit him to contest. Since Vijayan, 72, who had led the state party ably from 1998 to 2015, stepped down he has been a hot favourite for the chief minister’s post. But there is nothing to indicate that Achuthanandan is ready to call it a day. At general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s instance, the Politburo intervened early and announced that both Achuthanandan and Vijayan would contest the elections and jointly lead the LDF campaign.
Recognising the 92-year-old Achuthanadan’s immense personal popularity, all LDF candidates, including Vijayan, flaunted his picture in their posters and banners. With both contenders elected to the assembly, the party could no longer postpone the question of who will head the government. The party has opted for Vijayan. Yechury, who has a better equation with Achuthanandan than his predecessor, Prakash Karat, will now have the onerous task of ensuring the veteran takes this decision in his stride and that whatever discord which follows in not allowed to spill into the streets.
One formula that was being talked about was to compensate within the party hierarchy. Achuthanandan – who was removed from the politburo in 2009 in the wake of his conflict with the state leadership and downgraded from a member of the central committee to a mere ‘special invitee’ last year – may be mollified by being accorded a better status in the party hierarchy. So far, however, there is no word on this.
Warning signs for Congress
The Congress has suffered a big rout which is not immediately apparent. Its share of the UDF’s bag of 47 seats is just 22. Three-fourths of the 87 candidates it put up lost. Actually, its decline is not a new development. Last time, too, it had fared poorly, winning only 38 of the 81 seats it contested but the UDF’s victory, made possible by the good performance of its major allies, especially the Indian Union Muslim League (which won 20 of the 23 seats it contested) helped to hide its dismal performance.
Unless the Congress urgently addresses the issue of its continuous decline under the diarchy of ‘A’ group leader Oommen Chandy and ‘I’ group leader Ramesh Chennithala, it is bound to end up as a relic of history, as has happened in several other states already. Two years ago, the party’s central leadership appointed V.M. Sudheeran as the state Congress chief in a bold bid to break the hold of the group leaders. Chandy and Chennithala joined hands and scuttled his initiatives to end factionalism.
BJP: Debut and beyond
The Congress leaders apparently imagined that any gains the BJP makes will be at the expense of the LDF, especially the CPI (M). The BJP’s main ally in the NDA was the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), floated by the leadership of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a social organisation of the Ezhavas, an OBC community. Although the BJDS was projected as a common platform of Hindus, from Namboodiri to Nayadi, it was viewed by many as an Ezhava outfit.
Ezhavas constitute the largest Hindu caste group. A study of the voting pattern in previous elections has shown that 65% of the members of the community traditionally vote for the Left. The BJP allotted the BDJS 36 seats, thinking it will be able to attract the support of the community. But its calculation did not work out. The BDJS polled 3.9% of the popular vote, but could not win even one seat. Apparently it could not extend much help to the BJP also. The presence of BDJS candidates did more damage to the UDF than the LDF.
The BJP can pat itself on the back on its entry into the state assembly, which both the LDF and the UDF had vowed to block. The successful candidate, O. Rajagopal, is a former Union minister. The party had got him into the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh to facilitate his appointment as minister of state for railways in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA-1 government. He is regarded highly in the state for the services he rendered as minister of state. The comparatively poor performance of the UDF candidate in his constituency suggests that there was large scale defection from the UDF to BJP there.
The BJP was in the second place in seven constituencies. In one of them, its candidate lost by a small margin of 89 votes. Viewed in the light of the caste complexion of the constituencies there is reason to believe that its limited success was made possible by the support it received from the Hindu “upper caste” rather than the ‘backward’ communities which it specifically targeted. Though it secured 10.5% of the votes polled across the state (and if we include the BJDS, the NDA’s vote share stands at 15.4%), the paradigm shift the BJP was hoping for is not in sight yet.
B.R.P. Bhaskar is a senior journalist.
Note: The article has been updated to take into account the CPI(M)’s decision, taken Friday morning, to appoint Pinarayi Vijayan as chief minister of Kerala.
Note: The correct expansion of the BDJS is Bharat Dharma Jana Sena and not Bharat Jana Dharma Sabha, as was stated in an initial version of this article.