Kerala Local Body Polls: BJP's 'Saffron Surge' Claim Can't Be Dismissed As Hype

The BJP has improved its vote share, but its tally has not increased significantly compared to the last election.

Kochi: Around noon on December 16, I received a message from a friend abroad asking whether the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance is turning tables in the Kerala local self-government elections in its favour. She forwarded a jubilant tweet by a BJP leader and Karnataka minister, Shobha Karandlaje, claiming that “Lord Ayyappa has blessed the saffron party” in Kerala, and that it is on an unstoppable surge.

When I logged on to Twitter, this narrative had already gained momentum in the right-wing troll space, with many of their Twitter handles, including that of BJP national leaders, tweeting and retweeting the same. In fact, by that point in time, they were all being little more than Yudhishtir at Kurukshetra, who said, ‘Ashwatthama hataha iti, narova kunjarova’. Ashwatthama is slain, whether human or elephant.

Also read: How the Spectre of Hindutva Captured Politics in Kerala

What they were referring to was the victory of NDA in the Pandalam municipality of Pathanamthitta district, which devotees believe as the birthplace of Lord Ayyappa. B. L. Santhosh, the national general secretary of the party, went a step further trying to strike an emotional chord with Ayyappa devotees by equating the 18 wards won by the NDA in the Pandalam municipality to the ‘Lord’s abode’ of Sabarimala temple’, as the shrine has 18 sacred steps.

It is very clear what the saffron brigade wanted to project. The non-Keralite news media did not hesitate to swallow the BJP narrative, supported by a photograph syndicated by the news agency Asian News International (ANI). The interesting fact is that when this was happening, the ruling CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) was weathering all the odds predicted by the media for the last few months and winning.

Election results

While the Election Commission has not yet published the final result due to a glitch in the software. The author’s independent calculation puts the BJP in a majority in only 10 out of the 941 gram panchayats – just 1 more than in 2015.

The LDF is clearly winning in 540 gram panchayats (compared to 561 in 2015), 108 block panchayats (98 in 2015), 11 zilla panchayats (7 in 2015) and 39 municipalities (48 in 2015). The ruling front has also wrested power in five out of six city corporations (three with absolute majority and two as the single largest bloc).

Kerala elections

Kozhikode: Officials count votes during counting day of Kerala local body elections, in Kozhikode, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. (PTI Photo)

As per the EC website, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is holding 45 municipalities as against LDF’s 35 and the NDA’s two. But these figures may change further in favour of the LDF, as many independent candidates backed by the LDF have been put under the category of ‘others’ by the State Election Commission. These LDF-backed independent candidates will vote for the front and could flip at least five municipalities and render another five hung, with no one having absolute majority.

So, the final figure for the municipalities would be, LDF –  40, UDF – 35, NDA – 2, and nine will have hung houses.

Similarly, another 20 odd panchayats could swing in favour of the Left front either when the glitch in the software is rectified, or when the presidents of the local bodies are elected. The election will take place on December 29 and 30.

Also read: Kerala Local Body Polls: Counting Begins, Traditional Fronts Confident

It is clear that the LDF can match their spectacular show of 2015, but will be falling well behind their total tally of wards across the state. The UDF also will find themselves in very sticky ground with a huge loss in rural areas. NDA, on the other hand, will emerge as the only bloc which has bettered their vote and seat/ward share across the state.

In the areas where the NDA made inroads, the UDF has suffered the worst. In the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation, where the BJP leadership was expecting to wrest power, it could not better its tally of 35 out of 100. The ruling LDF retained power with a much-improved show of 52 of the 100 wards. The UDF, which has 21 wards in the outgoing council, ended up with a paltry number of 10. It should be noted that in the 2010 election, the UDF was the runner-up in the corporation, with 40 seats.

Let’s consider some wards in Thiruvananthapuram now. In the Nedungad ward, where the CPI(M)’s mayoral candidate S. Pushpalatha shockingly lost to her NDA rival, the total votes polled by the UDF are a mere 74. The NDA candidate got 3,626 and LDF got 3,442 votes. In 2015, the UDF polled 1,192 votes here.

Similarly, in 15 wards where NDA candidates defeated Left nominees, the UDF’s vote share has gone well below their base votes. This indicates a serious erosion in their vote base in the capital city. On the contrary, the LDF has managed to win back the support of the minorities with an imminent threat of BJP’s victory looming over the corporation.

As per the preliminary calculation of votes consisting of the district panchayat, municipalities and city corporations, the LDF has secured 41.72 % votes as against the 36.98% of the UDF and 14.60% of the NDA. In 2015, the LDF had 37.40, UDF 36.96 and NDA 13.8%.

In the subsequent assembly election, the LDF got 43.40%, he UDF 38.8% and NDA had 14.6% of the votes.

Last year in the Lok Sabha polls, the vote share of the UDF jumped to 47.25%, whereas the LDF’s plummeted into 35.2% and the NDA/BJP’s share also dipped to 12.93%.

With these statistics, the daily newspaper Malayala Manorama has projected a lead for the LDF in 101 assembly constituencies and 38 for the UDF and one for the NDA, Nemom which is also their only seat in the current assembly.

BJP leaders were very quick to allege deliberate cross-voting in favour of the LDF by Congress, an allegation that does not hold much water, with the numbers showing the opposite. Thiruvananthapuram city corporation falls under the Lok Sabha constituency of Shashi Tharoor where he recorded a thumping victory this time, beating the BJP leader Kummanom Rajasekharan.

Pandlam municipality of the Pathanamthitta district is another area where the NDA had pulled off a fantastic victory, wresting the local body from the LDF. Here, the LDF and UDF suffered losses evenly as both the fronts lost six seats each in the 31-member strong council. This is the municipality which the BJP national leadership is projecting as their trophy in Kerala as the place is closely associated with the Sabarimala shrine.

Kerala BJP

Kozhikode: BJP workers celebrate during counting day of Kerala local body elections, in Kozhikode, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Photo: PTI

But this result was pretty much expected, as the NDA had done very well in the last Lok Sabha polls, when their current state president K. Surendran contested immediately after the Sabarimala protests led by the Sangh Parivar and initially supported by the Congress, against the entry of young women into the shrine following the Supreme Court order. Even though the Congress has had the final laugh, Surendran had put up an impressive show despite finishing third.

Palakkad municipality, which shares the border with Tamil Nadu, is another area where the BJP has fought impressively. They retained the municipal council which had been the only urban body that went to the NDA last time, with an improved tally of 28/55. The LDF has been pushed to a distant third position, which would certainly cast a shadow over their spectacular show across the state.

Apart from these much-celebrated victories, the NDA has done fairly well to secure the runner-up position in many grama panchayats all over the state. Even though it was not unexpected after 2014, it would be interesting to examine that whose vote pie they are eating into. From the preliminary statistics available now, it could be well established that the UDF is suffering the most.

According to the state leadership of the BJP, it was realistically expecting to win the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation along with four to five municipalities and 50 grama panchayats, a target they could not achieve this time. They have an absolute majority in four grama panchayats and two municipalities, but can possibly rule 15 grama panchayats as the single largest bloc. They could even negotiate with other parties, even though the odds are very low.

The CPI(M) has already started accusing the Congress of having a tactical understanding with the BJP to share the local bodies where both the fronts have not got absolute majority at the grass root level. Finance minister, Thomas Issac, has dared the opposition leader to make a public statement that their party would not make any understanding with the BJP or NDA in this regard.

UDF poor show

The UDF has only got themselves to blame for this drubbing even in a very favourable political atmosphere, where a majority of the mainstream independent media took its side. The primary reason for their heavy loss could be traced back to the exit of Kerala Congress (M) led by Jose K. Mani, the son of former finance minister and a founding father of the current UDF. Roping in Mani and his faction of the KC (M) proved to be the wisest move by the CPI (M) leadership.

With Mani and team in its fold, the LDF almost swept Christian-dominated central Kerala with the only exception of the Ernakulam district. Mani’s home town Pala elected an LDF council for the first time after its inception. The UDF lost power in their bastion Kottayam district with the district taking a Left turn this time. The UDF lost power in Puthuppally village panchayat, which is the home of former chief minister Oommen Chandy, for the first time in the last three decades.

Moving towards the northern side, the UDF stood its ground in the Malappuram district, thanks to the cadre strength of the Indian Union of Muslim League (IUML) and the backing it got from the Welfare Party of India (WPI), a party floated by the Jamaat-e-Islami. Even though the relationship with the WPI helped the UDF to keep its head over the water in Malappuram, Kannur and some parts of Kozhikode district, it might have caused an erosion in their majority vote bank throughout the state. The CPI (M) was dubbing this alliance of the UDF with the WPI as communal in nature, even though they had an alliance with WPI in the last elections.

The most relieving takeaway for the LDF in this victory will be the regained faith of the minority community. As far as the ‘political votes’ are concerned, the Left parties had lost the major chunk of the minority support in the last Lok Sabha elections. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad and the high-pitched anti-BJP campaign had left them red-faced when the UDF won 19 out of 20 seats from the state last year. Interestingly, this time in the LSG polls, the LDF has wrested power in the Wayanad district panchayat for the first time in history.

An opportunity squandered

The opposition Congress-led UDF and the BJP were in an upbeat mood when the LSG polls were declared given that the government was reeling under allegations ranging from the gold smuggling case involving M. Sivashankar, the then principal secretary of the chief minister to the drug-related hawala case in which CPI(M) state secretary’s son Bineesh Kodiyeri was implicated.

From the moment when the news was aired by television channels, of a consignment to the United Arab Emirates consulate with 14 kgs of gold was intercepted and seized at the international airport, Trivandrum, on July 5, 2020, the government was under tremendous pressure.

Swapna Prabha Suresh who had been arraigned as the first accused in the smuggling and related other cases used to work with a prestigious government project as a contract employee. Swapna’s alleged involvement in the gold smuggling opened a pandora’s box and the government was forced to answer numerous uncomfortable questions. The media went into a frenzy mode and started training their guns at the chief minister, with a string of central agencies, including the National Investigating Agency (NIA), Customs, Enforcement Directorate (ED) and finally the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), pouncing on the case.

Also read: Kerala: Contraband Gold Emerges Biggest Threat to Pinarayi Govt’s Popularity

A lot of television prime time was spent debating various angles of the gold smuggling case and its alleged links to the chief minister’s office. The government was pushed to the wall when the Enforcement Directorate, Customs, and the NIA took turns to question M. Sivashankar and then K. T. Jaleel, the minister for higher education, and finally arrested the former.

BJP state unit chief K. Surendran and opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala made it a habit of convening media conferences every day accusing the government and the chief minister’s office of being complicit. The arrest of Bineesh Kodiyeri, the son of CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan in Bengaluru by the ED proved to be an insult to injury. Kodiyeri had to step down citing his deteriorating health condition due to his ongoing cancer treatment.

According to the media narrative, for the last four or five months, the Pinarayi government has been a ship losing its way in unforeseen conditions. Vijayan had been starting to feel the heat not only from the outside but also from within the party.

Kerala politics

Kochi: Left Democratic Front (LDF) supporters celebrate their partys lead in the Kerala local body elections in Kochi, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020

According to CPI(M) leaders, the chief minister has been relying solely on the plank of good governance, with crisis management skills being the government’s unique selling point. From the 2018 Nipah outbreak, two back-to-back massive floods, and now COVID-19, disasters have brought the best out in Pinarayi Vijayan.

The welfare measures undertaken by the Vijayan government, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19, have proven to be key to the success.

The public distribution system has provided extra rations as well as special monthly packets when the pandemic-driven recession hit people hard. The lockdown and subsequent job crunch have increased dependency of people on welfare measures and distributed goods, and the government has risen up to their expectations.

Even fans of this government had been skeptical of its survival given the severity of the onslaught.

BJP stokes controversy 

Meanwhile, immediately after the results were declared in Palakkad municipality in favour of the NDA, a huge banner with Shivaji’s picture and the slogan ‘Jai Shri Ram’ was rolled out on the wall of the municipal office in Palakkad, triggering a controversy first on social media and then on the ground.

Also read: Kerala Police Registers Case Against BJP Workers in Palakkad for Unfurling ‘Jai Shri Ram’ Banner

The upbeat BJP leaders did not see anything wrong in the act of their workers and even went on to fiercely defend it. Some even went on record that Palakkad is going to be ‘Kerala’s Gujarat’. After 48 hours of allegations and counter-allegations, police registered an FIR against the BJP workers for inciting violence on communal grounds.

“This banner is the indication of the presence of soft Hindutva in our society,” observes Harish Vasudevan, a lawyer and political commentator.

“As a society, we have become used to it. Imagine what will happen in this state if some IUML workers rolled out a banner reading, ‘Allahu Akbar’ on the Malappuram municipality?” he asked in his social media post.

Rajeev Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Kochi.