In a major surprise, the Bharatiya Janata Party has eaten heavily into the vote base of the Congress-led United Democratic Front or UDF, while failing to make a dent in the vote base of the Left Democratic Front — its main target.
The numbers, as reflected in the votes cast in the recent elections for Kerala’s 14 district panchayats, have also come as a rude surprise for the Congress-led United Democratic Front, which was all set to come back to power next year.
Going by conventional wisdom, BJP’s growth was expected to cut into the vote-base of the Left parties.
It is estimated that the Left Parties get about 70% of their votes from Hindus (who form about 55% of Kerala’s population), while UDF is seen getting only about 25-30% of its votes from various Hindu communities in the state.
As a result, the growth of the BJP — which gets its support almost exclusively from the Hindu communities — was expected to hit the Left Front harder than the UDF.
In other words, it was assumed that the UDF had less to lose from BJP’s rise compared to the Left parties. As far as the UDF was concerned, the gains from the weakening of the Left would outweigh the loss caused by the loss of some Hindu votes. At least that was the theory.
Fearing this, the Left parties have repeatedly accused the current chief minister, Oommen Chandy — a Christian himself — of adopting an accommodative stance against communal elements in Kerala with such calculations in mind.
However, the Kerala Panchayat elections results have surprised everybody, handing the Left parties a clear victory despite strong gains for the BJP.
An analysis of the voting trends in three districts of Kerala — Trivandrum and Quilon in the south and Kannur in the North — reveals that the BJP is eating into the Congress Party’s Hindu vote-base, while having no impact on the Left parties’ voters.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Quilon — a district where the minority population is relatively smaller and the two dominant Hindu communities — Ezhavas and Nairs — easily account for the majority of the total voters.
As expected, the BJP made strong gains in Kollam, going from just 6.67% of total votes in 2014 to 14.81% this time.
However, confusingly, the Left Parties also saw an increase in its vote-share over the two elections — from 42.18% last year to 45.01% this year (see chart on top).
In other words, all of BJP’s 8.1 percentage point gain came at the expense of the Congress-led alliance. Not surprisingly, Congress’ vote share fell drastically from 46.46% in Lok Sabha elections in 2014 to 36.93% in the District Panchayat polls in 2015.
Another district where Hindu voters hold the key is Kannur in the north. Here too, it was the same story.
BJP doubled its vote share from 5.44% in 2014 to 10.70% this year.
However, the Left too moved from 45.08% to 50.29%.
The loser was the UDF, which saw its vote share shrink from 44.39% to 35.46%.
Another key district is the capital Thiruvananthapuram — known as the area where BJP has the strongest support.
In 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP had given a scare to the other two parties after it led for most of the counting process. It was only towards the end that Congress’ Shashi Tharoor managed to overcome O Rajagopal of the BJP to clinch the seat.
This year, the saffron party became the runner-up in the election for the Trivandrum Corporation (which is different from the Trivandrum District Panchayat.) The BJP managed to win 34 seats in the Corporation, while the Congress-led alliance managed only 21. The Left front, however, won 42 seats making it the biggest party. However, it is unlikely to form the government.
Coming back to the District Panchayat — which is bigger in size and more comparable to the Lok Sabha constituency — BJP managed a 17.41% share of total votes — one of its all-time highs in for any district in Kerala.
However, the 17.41% vote share of the BJP in the Panchayat election this time was a steep fall from the 32.32% it had in the Lok Sabha elections. Part of the reason is that it had fielded veteran leader and ex-Railway minister O Rajagopal as its LS candidate in 2014.
In other words, BJP gave up a vote share of around 15 percentage points, which should have gone equally to the LDF and the Congress to bring them both up to the 40% mark.
However, the UDF got just 4 percentage points, taking its share to 38.26%, while the LDF went from 28.50% last year to 42.47% this year.
To understand the phenomenon requires delving into the nature of the Left Parties’ support base. About 35-40% of the LDF’s votes come from just one community — the Ezhavas, who are the largest ethnic group and also enjoy OBC reservation in the state. Out of the remaining 60-65%, about 45 percentage points is obtained from minorities and dalits and the remaining from Non-Ezhava OBCs and upper castes.
For reasons such as the implementation of land reforms, the Left parties get less than 10% of their votes from upper caste Hindus.
On the other hand, the UDF has traditionally got about 20-25% of its total votes from upper caste Hindus. Another 20-25% used to come from non-upper caste Hindus, while the remaining 55% came from minorities.
However, with the rise of prominent Christian leaders in the Congress after the death of veteran leader K Karunakaran, many of the Congress’ Hindu supporters have been looking for a patch of their own and this is where BJP’s arrival has proved opportune.
However, unfortunately for the Congress, the BJP has not managed to attract all segments of Hindu population equally.
The more privileged and socially upward classes — the type who used to support the Congress Party against the ‘pedestrian’ Communists — are keen on the new outfit, while the economically and socially backward Hindus — the mainstay of the Communist vote bank — have not warmed up to the saffron outfit.
Part of the reason why the backward and Dalit Hindus haven’t left the Left camp and joined the saffron group has to do with Kerala’s history. The observance of caste-related prejudices and law was so strict in the state that Vivekananda — who was prevented from entering a temple in Kerala due to his Kayast background — described it as a mental asylum.
This fear was accentuated by recent events that have also hit BJP’s prospects in places like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The campaign against beef, which is universally consumed in Kerala, only added to such fears.