Few days back, on 16 December, results of the election to the local self-governing bodies (panchayats, municipalities, corporations, etc) were announced. These elections are generally considered a dress rehearsal or an opinion poll for the election to the state assembly in May next year. As the table below will show, however, the results were not commensurate with the noise each front generated. The LDF which won the election hands down at every level probably had the most muted campaign, followed by NDA (which in Kerala for all practical purposes is only BJP) and the most vocal was the UDF campaign. Yet the results were the exact opposite of this.
Going into the election, LDF was universally written off due to the allegations of corruption, smuggling and other illegal activities against the top leadership of the CPIM. Therefore, it is simply baffling how well LDF has performed leaving one to wonder if Keralites have become so unresponsive to corruption and criminal activities of those in power? It’s a little hard to believe but it is what it is.
As the only viable alternative to the ruling LDF in the state, the Congress party led UDF was generally expected to do well. That UDF did so poorly despite the deficiencies of Pinarayi Vijayan’s govt is a story in itself. It is might just be a continuation of the trend we are seeing nationally of Congress limping to it’s impending death. But a careful analysis suggests there might be more interesting social reasons, as I discuss below. As the leader of the opposition in the Assembly, Ramesh Chennitala was till now seen as the frontrunner for being nominated as the CM face of UDF in next year’s assembly elections. These results could mean a setback for that and might pave way for the return to the UDF leadership of Ommen Chandy, health permitting.
The 3rd minor front in the Kerala politics is the BJP-led NDA which has overall done well despite some disappointments like Thiruvananthapuram corporation where they were expecting to come close to power, if not outright victory. In the end they only managed to retain the number of wards that they won 5 years ago. They have won 2 municipalities outright and almost doubled the number of grama panchayats (village admin bodies) that they had after 2015. Interestingly, in several places where LDF won, BJP wins are very close to UDF wins signalling a potential opening for BJP to replace Congress as the main rival to CPIM in the state in the medium-term if they work hard and sort out their internal groupism. What is however clear is that BJP is in no position to threaten the 2 established fronts at least in the next year’s assembly elections.
Now coming to the why of the results. I am not a political scientist or an election strategist; so can only make an informed guess. In my view, the result is a reflection of the political realignment of different religious and social groups happening in Kerala. This realignment is what has helped CPIM and LDF overcome the sort of corruption and criminal behaviour allegations which have never been seen in the state’s political history.
The CPIM has traditionally been a party with predominant support among the Hindus in Kerala, particularly the Ezhava (which is the largest community among the state’s Hindu population) and other OBC groups. The support for Congress and UDF has traditionally come from upper caste Hindus (particularly the Nairs) and a major portion of the of the Muslims and Christians. Ever since it came to power in 2016, the current LDF government with Pinarayi as the Chief Minister has made systemic attempts to appropriate the Muslim votes from the UDF positioning itself as the main hindrance against the penetration of BJP in the state. And there is enough evidence that this strategy is bearing fruit at least to some extent that it has forced the main Muslim component of the UDF, the Muslim League, to form an alliance during the current elections with the Welfare Party of India, the political arm of the Islamic fundamentalist group, Jamat-e-Islami.
This collaboration of Muslim League with the Islamic fundamentalists appears to have spooked the 2nd largest vote bank of the UDF, the Christians, with fear of abandonment. In the last year or so, this fear has come to bear in the form of protestations by the Christian leaders and clergy against the hegemony of the Muslim community. There have been voices raised against what is called the love jihad and forced conversions or against the disproportionate cornering of scholarships and other government benefits meant for the minority communities by the Muslims.
In addition, the insipid leadership of the Congress party in the state and at the national level forced the major Christian party in the state, Kerala Congress, to split after the death of party supremo KM Mani with one of the factions being forced out of UDF and into the embrace of the LDF. This along with the aforementioned fear appears to have led the Christian votes to shift away from the UDF, thus reducing the group’s winnability.
This alienation of Christian votes from Congress (UDF) has opened up a opportunity for not only LDF but also BJP to replace UDF as the main challenger to LDF in the state. But for that to happen, the party will not only have to consolidate the Nair (and other upper caster Hindu) votes behind it (this already appears to be happening), but also get support from at least one of the major Christian factions in addition to OBC Hindus. The party already appears to be alive to this opportunity with the state leaders trying to woo the Church leadership. If they manage to succeed in these attempts in the next 5 years, they’ll pose a very strong challenge to LDF in the subsequent assembly elections.