Kerala’s voters delivered a predictable verdict in Kerala’s recent state assembly election. In habitual fashion, they voted out the incumbent and voted in the opposition. This time, they tossed out the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and brought in the communists’ Left Democratic Front (LDF). The LDF won 91 out of the 140 seats in the state legislature while the UDF got 47. In this tally of victories and losses, the BJP’s sole victory in the capital district seems unimpressive.
But elections are not merely about victories and defeats; they’re also about the growth and decay of political parties. Seen as such, the BJP’s gains this time are groundbreaking and consequential for the state and the party.
BJP makes history
Four trends speak to the historic nature of this election. First, never in Kerala’s history has the BJP garnered more than 7% of the votes in state elections. With an average vote-share just shy of 5%, the highest it had polled as yet was 6.03% in 2011. This time around, even when we exclude the votes of its alliance partners, the party won more than 10% of the state’s polled votes. That’s over a 100% growth over its average vote share and a 75% growth over its best performance to date. And, if we compare the performance of the BJP along with its allies, the vote share this time crossed 15%; that’s about a 50% increase over what the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) polled in the state at the height of the Modi-wave in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Second, the BJP’s electoral presence in Kerala until now had been limited to its northern and southern districts of Kasargod and Thiruvananthapuram, with patchy support elsewhere. In 2011, for instance, only in these two districts did the party win over 10% of the votes in contested constituencies. That changed this time around. Now, the BJP has a presence throughout the state, securing over 10% votes in the contested constituencies in 11 out of the 14 districts.
Third, this time the BJP emerged as a viable political party in several constituencies, alongside the long-established Congress and LDF. For the first time, the party won a seat in the state legislative assembly and finished second in seven other constituencies spread across four districts. Additionally, in a third of the remaining constituencies where the BJP fielded its own candidates, the party finished a close third, with just a shade over 10% of the votes separating it from the runner-up. In contrast, the party was a remote third in nine out of the 10 constituencies it contested in 2011, failing to get even a quarter of the votes the runner-up got. Then, the BJP in Kerala was a party of losers, with over 95% of the candidates surrendering their deposits. This time, bringing in several allies, the NDA helped the BJP focus its energies on fewer constituencies (98 compared to the 138 it contested in 2011) and reap higher electoral dividends.
Fourth, the BJP this time ate into the votes of both the LDF and the UDF. This belies the prognosis that the BJP’s alliance with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, a party formed by some Ezhava caste leaders, will erode Ezhava votes from the LDF and inadvertently help the UDF in Kerala. In fact, the BJP’s gains have come at the expense of both the Congress and the Left, not merely from the LDF. On average, a 1% increase in BJP’s vote share brought about corresponding diminutions in both the LDF’s and the UDF’s vote shares.
Taken together, the four trends proclaim that the BJP in 2016 is no longer a long-shot party in Kerala. It offers a viable political alternative; it’s a party that’s growing and attracting voters from the communist and the Congress fronts in ways that are consequential for the state and the party.
What BJP’s growth means for Kerala
The BJP’s growth as an electorally viable political party will change state politics in three foreseeable ways. First, it will diversify political representation. Voters until now, even when they were disillusioned by both the communist and the Congress fronts, were compelled to settle for the less-despised one on polling day. From now, they will have an alternative. And, with it, ideas that the LDF and UDF had artfully kept out of the political arena – such as the government trusteeship of Hindu temples in a professedly secular state – will find political voice. For better or for worse, more divergent views will henceforth resonate in Kerala politics.
The established political fronts of the Congress and the communists will now have to strive even harder to win over the electorate. Slim victory margins in the state already ensure that the political parties are ever sensitive to voter concerns; increased political competition means that the parties will now have to reach out to the very last voter. The BJP’s inept but strategic attempt to mobilise the state’s tiny but poorly served 1.5% tribal population, with an oafish comparison of the state’s tribal areas to Somalia, is a telltale sign of what heightened political competition holds in store for the older political parties: no more complacency.
Third, the competition among the parties to extend or retain their sway will turn savage. In a state where politics is not something that’s switched on only during elections but is an everyday preoccupation in schools, colleges, offices, teashops and the streets, political contestations that pit the growing BJP against the incumbent communists will get edgier. With political fury already starting to boil over, one thing is certain about politics in the state: there will be blood.
What the BJP’s growth means for the party
Compared to its national incarnation, the BJP in Kerala is truly a party with a difference: it accepts beef-eating as part of the state’s culture, coddles Christian clerics and advocates a non-sectarian platform of eco-friendly sustainable development.
Based this time on uncharacteristic party unity and the unpretentious leadership of Kummanam Rajasekharan, the BJP’s gains are hard won. Yet, it won over only one in 10 voters in the state. To win over more Keralites – many of whom are Christians, Muslims and Hindus who wish a lofty wall between their religion and politics – or more allies, who represent such voters, the BJP unit in the state will have to move further to the centre.
As for the BJP national leaders, the party’s expansion into the deep south throws into sharper contrast their monochromatic saffron hallucinations of India with its kaleidoscopic cultural quintessence. And, if the electoral logic persuades them to accept this reality, as it has made the party’s Kerala branch embrace the beef-eaters and Christian clerics, then it would only underscore the historic nature of the 2016 Kerala elections.
Anoop Sadanandan is a social scientist and an assistant professor in the Maxwell School of Public Affairs, Syracuse University.