The 2016 assembly election in Kerala was historic for the BJP which opened its account winning the Nemom seat in Thiruvananthapuram. That win was a personal vote for BP stalwart O. Rajagopal who fought a long drawn battle to bring the BJP to Kerala and had lost eight previous elections in and around Thiruvananthapuram. Till then BJP was a non-entity in Kerala, but the Modi wave in the last two general elections has helped the party improve its vote share in Kerala to 15 per cent in the last general election where Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wyanad gave the Congress front 61 per cent votes to sweep the elections and win 19 out of 20 seats.
The situation is different in an assembly poll. The BJP hopes to win three seats, spread from the northernmost Manjeshwaram to the southern Nemom. In between stands Palakkad where Metroman E. Sreedharan hopes to pull it off using his bureaucratic credentials as a modern-day builder. In all three seats the BJP stands a fair chance of winning going by electoral data.
In all these three seats, it is the high caste Hindu Nair votes which are going to be crucial. Nair votes swing effortlessly among three parties — the Left, Congress and the BJP in Kerala — in what can be called strategic voting. In these three seats, Nair votes are likely to remain largely with BJP, considering winning chances of the BJP. In other constituencies, the Nair votes will consolidate with the Left to prevent a powerful Muslim League from coming to power as part of the UDF. As a block, Nair votes form the biggest barricade against Muslim consolidation in Kerala.
Here is how it will pan out:
Nemom: This constituency has a mix of urban and semi urban voters. BJP’s veteran Rajagopal scored his historic first win by 8,900 votes getting 47 per cent of the votes polled. The second-placed CPM candidate V. Sivankutty, who is contesting this time, got 41 per cent votes. Rajagopal won because the UDF candidate from JD-U was weak and secured only 9 per cent votes. But this time, the Congress has put up heavyweight V. Muralidharan, MP, to stymie chances of the BJP retaining the seat. How will it play out?
In a tough three-cornered contest when all three candidates are strong, the situation changes drastically. Will two strong secular party candidates eat into each other’s vote and let BJP’s Kummanom Rajasekharan, former governor of Mizoram who lost to Shashi Tharoor in 2019, retain the 47 per cent votes and win? But that is too ambitious a target because some of those votes, mostly of the Nair and Nadar, are likely to shift to Congress’ Muralidharan who has an ominous task of getting 30 per cent more votes than UDF polled last time.
Murali won from the neighbourging Vattiurkavu in the 2016 assembly elections. He could have stopped BJP’s ambitions in Nemom in a straight fight. If CPM’s Sivankutty retains anywhere close to his 41%, then BJP will win the seat as Murali will not get the necessary 30 per cent more votes he needs. So is one man’s personality enough to swing 30 percent votes his way? Murali is poised to take away close to 10 per cent Nair votes each from Sivankutty and Kummanom, making Nemom a unpredictable battle. In such a scenario the Nadar votes are extremely crucial.
Pallakad: The constituency in north Kerala has a Brahmin presence which makes it ideal for the BJP, which got a creditable 29 per cent votes in 2016. So E. Sreedharan has to get about 10 per cent more votes to win the seat. But like Nemom, it is a tight three-cornered contest with the Congress with 41 per cent and CPI-M with 28 per cent are all counting their chances. The Congress sitting member Shafi Parambil got 41 per cent votes which will be tough to retain as some of Hindu high caste votes will move to Sreedharan.
Votes which the CPI-M would have gained due to Pinarayi’s acceptance or popularity may not come its way since Sreedharan stands on the way with a railway guard’s flag in hand. No one in Pallakad believes that Sreedharan will be chief minister, but he is an upper caste darling, a symbol of their national standing and service and fits into their narrative of upper castes driving national ambition. Also his candidature revived, if only briefly, the forgotten Malayali upper caste dream of an RSS chief minister who can chant the Vedas.
Manjeshwaram: This northernmost constituency bordering Karnataka which has a Kannada and Tulu-speaking population has been an RSS bastion for a long time. Yet the BJP has not managed to win, often pipped to the post by the other two secular fronts by mutual understanding. Last time the winning IUML candidate got 35.79 votes to BJP’s 35.74 per cent, winning by just 89 votes. BJP’s Surendran who is state BJP president will be hopeful since his vote count is likely to remain steady and the Muslim League will have to get votes from the CPI-M which has 26 per cent vote share, to retain the seat. Strategically the effort to keep the BJP from winning has succeeded due to this arrangement between the UDF and LDF. Surendran believes that this transfer of votes will happen this time too since the CPI-M has put up a weak candidate.
In the absence of a CPI-M wave or a Pinarayi wave, or a Rahul Gandhi wave (like 2019), the situation is very difficult in Kerala where with the polarized electorate, the BJP has an even chance of winning at least one of these three seats by a thin margin.