According to some pre-poll surveys and going by the recent local body elections, the ruling Left Front led by the CPI(M) has the edge in the 140-seat assembly election and is expected to get close to 80 (LDF is sitting on 91 seats) seats. But the electoral strength of various parties and the demography of the three dominant communities means that a minor shift in voting pattern by either of these communities and the dominant Hindu castes would trigger a shift in power. Following is an explainer of how electoral behaviour could be in the polling scheduled for April 6. Kerala has never re-elected an incumbent government. What are the major factors in this elections and what is different?
What is significant about the demography of Kerala?
Kerala, with its enviable total literacy rate and a stable population of around 33 million, has only 55% Hindus. Muslims form 26% and Christians 19%, making them strong minorities if they stand together, as they have been doing in the UDF. These numbers have been stable since the population reached replacement or below replacement levels so there is no truth at all in the RSS/BJP campaign that Muslims will be a majority in Kerala soon. Here, Muslims and Christians are highly affluent and politically organized too, making electoral alliances the most crucial element in winning Kerala. The leading contenders, CPI(M) and the Congress, together only garner about 55% of the total votes.
Why is the Congress-led UDF seen to be in a disadvantageous position despite the anti-incumbency history of Kerala?
The UDF is a combination of Congress, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress (M) group. This dominant group of the Kerala Congress deserted the UDF and joined the LDF and helped the CPI(M) win crucial seats in Christian-dominated Central Kerala in the recent local body elections. This has left the UDF, which normally got Christian votes, bereft of crucial support in central Kerala. The UDF has come to be seen as a combine of the minorities and so the Hindus find the LDF the best way to stop the continuing rise of Christians and Muslim parties.
Also the upper caste Nair community, who are natural allies of the BJP, will prefer to vote the Left to see out the Muslim League. The Muslim League also has the chance to become the leading partner in the UDF with only four seats separating it from the Congress (18/22) in the 140-seat assembly. The Hindus see this as another danger signal and to stop this they see the LDF as the best and sure option rather than waste votes on the BJP, which has more noise than support in Kerala.
What are the factors in favour of Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF?
The CPI(M) has consolidated its stronghold in Kerala winning 58 seats last time, leaving the second placed Congress with 22, far behind. But Congress/UDF won 19/20 Parliament seats due to the Rahul Gandhi effect, after he contested from Wayanad. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan showed considerable leadership qualities, meeting the press everyday during the three major crises which swamped Kerala in five years: two major floods and the pandemic. The CPI(M) has actively promoted its young cadre graduating from the SFI and even made a 21-year-old debutant, Arya Rajendran the mayor of Trivandrum. The CPM has taken strident positions against the Modi government but here again, BJP-backing Hindus of Kerala see the rise of Muslim League as the immediate danger which has to be tackled first. Nothing has happened to take the majority Hindu vote (Ezhava plus Nair section plus lower castes) away from the LDF.
Despite Nair and Ezhavas being rivals in the social structure, the Nairs have closed ranks with Ezhavas seeing the impending danger of ‘Muslim invasion’ of the south districts (mostly imagined) as they see it. The Nairs of south Kerala are in a peculiar position: they have interest in voting for BJP, Congress, and the Left for different reasons. So the Nair vote will see a three-way split and the degree of split will determine many seats. This will turn out to be crucial in some tightly contested seats where margins are less than 1,000/2.000. For instance, in northernmost district of Majeshwaram, the BJP lost by just 89 votes in 2016 against the Muslim League candidate, with both getting 35.7% of the votes. The BJP stands a good chance here again. This direct Hindu-Muslim split does not happen in other places in the state.
Will the BJP indirectly help the LDF by drawing votes away from the Congress?
Yes. This is inevitable in a three-way contest. The BJP vote share has climbed to 12.93% but has won just one assembly seat in Kerala’s history. And needless to say these are votes which went traditionally to the Congress. While Christians have stayed with the Congress largely, a section of the upper rungs of Hindus have gone with BJP due to the Modi factor in the Lok Sabha elections. In this elections, there is no Modi factor. But if BJP retains its vote share, it is bad news for the Congress. A section of Christians too will back the BJP due to church infightings and the help they need from BJP in the never-ending fight over church properties.
If LDF wins again, what is the future of the Congress/UDF in Kerala?
The UDF has already suffered a blow with the Kerala Congress, a strong ally of the Congress for many years, going to the CPI(M) camp. The Muslims League and the Congress will stick together for they know the other option is to drown together. But not all Christian votes in central districts will shift away from the Congress, since Jose Mani, who leads the faction, does not have the clout that his father K.M. Mani had over the Christian population.
Jose Mani is likely to get finance portfolio, which his father held for many years, if LDF sweeps to power. Is that the reason CPI(M) kept the formidable Thomas Isaac from contesting citing a ‘two-time contest’ formula? Congress has projected a Hindu, Ramesh Chennithala, as the possible CM, to get rid of its minority tag. It has also made the popular leader Muralidharan, a sitting MP, contest in the Nair stronghold of Nemom to send out a message to the Hindus of two possible chief ministerial candidates. This is not to rule out the 77-year-old Oomen Chandy, who hovers above everything.