How the Bhartiya Janata Party will fare in Kerala

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS), the Nagpur headquartered socio-cultural outfit that has spawned numerous religious and political fronts in the Hindu right, including Bharatiya Janata Party, the most famous one, has had a long history in Kerala. The outfit has been active in the Southern state of India since the 1940s and its cadre based organization has marked presence in a number of pockets of the state. This has also come to highlight recently in the number of violent clashes that have taken place between the workers of RSS and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), another party that primarily relies on strong grass roots level organization and a massive cadre base.

It is thus a major surprise that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s impact on the electoral politics of the state has been almost negligible so far. The party is yet to win a single assembly or parliamentary constituency in Kerala. It has had a few successes in elections of local bodies (panchayats and municipalities) but even then it has not been able to achieve victory in any of the major corporations in the state (It did win the Palakkad municipality in the 2015 local body elections).

Since Kerala started voting in 1957, the vote share of BJP has mostly been stuck at below 10%. It has mostly been an afterthought in the bitter fights between the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Left Democratic Front (LDF) over the political spoils of Kerala. The fortunes of BJP have, however, shown some improvement in the last few election cycles. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party registered vote share of 10.82% and came extremely close to winning the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat where O Rajapolan, the BJP candidate fell short of Shashi Tharoor, the sitting MP of Indian National Congress (INC) by a margin of just 15470 votes. O Rajagopalan also led in four out of the seven assembly segments that formed part of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat, thus fuelling hopes that the party shall finally be able to break through in the 2016 Assembly elections. To add to that, BJP also posted much improved performance in the local body elections of 2015 winning in 933 out of 15962 Gram Panchayat wards, 236 out of 3078 municipal wards and 51 out of 414 corporation wards.

This has led a number of analysts and BJP supporters to become bullish about the party’s performance in the upcoming assembly elections in Kerala.

But will the BJP finally be able to break the jinx and post their first entry into the vaunted chambers of the Kerala Vidhan Sabha. There remain a number of factors on account of which we are still sceptical of a resounding success for BJP in the coming elections.

  • The politics of Kerala has remained stringently bi-polar, split between the left leaning Left Democratic Front and the more centrist United Democratic Front. Since 1957, when Kerala conducted its first ever assembly election and elected the first communist government of a state in India, no third party or front has been able to come close to wresting control of the state assembly house. This bipolar nature of Kerala politics has led to some strange bedfellows – parties with names like Communist Marxist Party (CMP) and Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) are part of the UDF, whereas some factions of the Kerala Congress routinely contest elections as part of the LDF. The combined vote share of the two blocks in the last few elections demonstrate the vice like grip they have on the state.

UDF LDF & Others

 

  • The primary reason that has led analysts to optimistically look forward to BJP’s performance in the 2016 Assembly elections is its performance in the 2014 parliament elections where BJP has managed to post a relatively impressive vote share of around 11%. However, it is wise to keep in mind that the vote share of BJP in Kerala has always higher in the parliamentary elections compared to the state level elections. This is reflected in the comparative chart below.

BJP Vote Share

Note – The vote share in 2004 Lok Sabha election was high partly on account of the party’s alliance with PC Thomas’s India Federal Democratic Party.

This difference is primarily because of the fact that national parties like BJP have realistic chance of forming a government at the centre, compared to smaller fronts like the Left Democratic Front. The reverse is true in case of assembly elections where a party like BJP has hardly any shot at winning a majority in the state and forming a government of its own. Thus a voter who had voted for BJP in the Lok Sabha elections may be tempted to vote tactically in the Assembly elections and instead of wasting her vote by voting for BJP, may instead vote for the second best choice available to her.

The same hypothesis tells us that it will be difficult for the BJP to replicate or improve on its voting share from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in this year’s assembly elections.

  • Although Bharatiya Janata Party has performed creditably in terms of voting share in the recent Lok Sabha elections, apart from certain pockets of the state, its performance has badly lagged that of the UDF and the LDF everywhere. The BJP is competitive in the two northern most assembly constituencies (Manjeshwar and Kasaragod) and in the southern extreme of the state (mostly in the district of Thiruvanathapuram) apart from a certain number of heavily urban constituencies. But in vast expanse of the state, the party is still an afterthought (although to the credit of the party it must be said that the BJP is expanding fast into hitherto unchartered territories). Even in the district of Kannur, where the RSS has been engaged in a litany of deadly clashes with the CPI(M) cadres, the BJP is yet to register itself as a strong enough political outfit in the ballot box to pose a reasonable challenge in any of the assembly constituencies.
  • One of the recent near successes that made headlines for BJP was it managing to come close in the Aruvikkara Assembly segment by election held in 2015. Aruvikkara is a suburb of Thiruvananthapuram city, but is part of the Attingal Lok Sabha constituency instead of the Thiruvananthapuram one. Although UDF won by the by-poll comfortably with the LDF candidate running second, BJP finished a close third and managed to increase the number of votes polled by around five times (from 7694 votes in 2011 to 34145 votes in 2015). This led a number of analysts to become gung ho about the prospects of BJP in the 2016 Assembly elections in Kerala and predict a three way fight for the majority.

But before we get reach conclusions on the basis of just one by-poll result, it shall help to bear in mind that the candidate contesting the election on BJP ticket was O Rajagopal, a former Rajya Sabha MP and minister of state in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Mr. Rajagopal is an 86 year old veteran BJP leader who commands a reservoir of goodwill, especially in the Thiruvananthapuram district, mainly on account of the work done by him for the district during his stint as a Union minister. This is reflected in the fact that every time Mr. Rajagopal contests an election, the voting share of BJP shoots up in that particular seat.

Constituency Election Year BJP’s Vote Share Increase in BJP’s Vote Share
Aruvikkara Assembly By-poll 2015 23.90% 17.29%
Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha 2014 32.32% 20.92%
Neyyattinkara Assembly By-poll 2012 23.60% 17.50%
Nemom Assembly 2011 37.44% 31.85%
Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha 2004 29.86% 8.93%
Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha 1999 20.90% 8.60%

However, many of the gains that have come with fielding Rajagopal as the candidate have proved ephemeral in nature. For example, in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency, the BJP’s vote share increased consistently in the period between 1996 and 2004 – 10.4% in 1996, 12.3% in 1998, 20.9% in 1999 and 29.86% in 2004. Most of these gains came in 1999 and 2004 when Rajagopal contested for the seat. However, in 2009, when Rajagopal was not on the ticket, the BJP fared miserably in the election, getting 11.40% of the available votes and finishing fourth, even behind BSP. Similarly, in the 2005 by-election, Mr. CK Padmanabhan, the BJP candidate, just ended up getting 4.83% of the votes cast, a huge reversal from the election in 2004 when Rajagopal was voted by 29.86% of the voters. But in 2014 when Rajagopal was brought back to the ticket, BJP increased its vote share to 32.32% and came within a couple of percentage points of winning the constituency.

So the pundits who are quoting BJP’s impressive performance in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha election in 2014 or the Neyattinkara by-poll in 2012 or Aruvikkara by-poll in 2015 need to be taken with a pinch of salt. All of these seats were part of the Thiruvananthapuram district and contested by Rajagopal and hence it is not a given that BJP shall perform similarly well in the seats outside the district and contested by lesser known candidates. This drop in support was also evident in the local body elections held in 2015 where the BJP could capture only 15 of the 135 gram panchayat and municipal/corporation wards of the Neyattinkara Assembly segment and 10 of the 141 wards of the Aruvikkara Assembly segment.

But does it mean the BJP is again destined for a drubbing in the 2016 Assembly elections? Will it again fail to secure a single seat?

Not quite.

Fortunately for the BJP, although it has small base of support in the state, the support is not spread thin across the state but is rather concentrated in a few assembly constituencies. In a first past the post system followed for assembly elections in India, this might just enable the party to capture a few seats in the upcoming Assembly elections. The BJP can do worse than focussing on the handful of assembly constituencies listed below and hope to score victories in a few of them.

Nemom:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 20248 (17%) 32639 (27%) 26942 (24%)
Left Democratic Front 50076 (43%) 31643 (26%) 42520 (38%)
BJP and its allies 20248 (37%) 50685 (42%) 36034 (32%)
Total 116474 121005 112754

 

O Rajagopal contested this seat in 2011 and narrowly lost out to V Sivankutty, the CPI (M) candidate by a margin of just 6415 votes (i.e. 5.50% of the total votes cast). Mr. Rajagopalan while contesting the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency in 2014 had a huge lead from this assembly seat, of around 18000 votes.

It will be fool hardy to expect BJP to win by similar margin in the 2016 Assembly election. This is because unlike in the Lok Sabha election where the seat had a triangular contest, the UDF is not expected to post much of a fight in the Assembly election. In 2011, Indian National Congress had in fact left this seat for Socialist Janata (Democratic) party, a breakaway faction of Janata Dal (S) and ended up getting only around 17% of the votes. This time also, the fight is expected to be mainly between the sitting CPM MLA and the BJP candidate.

Even then, considering the presence of Rajagopal in the ticket, the commanding performance posted by the candidate in this seat in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha election of 2014 and how close he came to defeating  Mr. Sivankutty in the 2011 Assembly election, this has to be one of the best pick up opportunities for the party.

Kasargod:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 53068  (45%) 54426 (44%) 71
Left Democratic Front 16467  (14%) 22827 (18%) 16
BJP and its allies 43330  (37%) 41236  (33%) 63
Total 117031 124942 156

 

Manjeshwar:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 49817 (37%) 52459 (39%) 62
Left Democratic Front 35067 (26%) 29433 (22%) 30
BJP and its allies 43989 (33%) 46631  (34%) 42
Total 132973 135958 148

 

Manjeshwar and Kasaragod are the two northern most assembly constituencies of Kerala. They are quite unlike the rest of the state. To begin with, they are an extended part of the Dakshina Kannada region located in the south-west of Karnataka centred on Mangalore. In fact, Mangalore is located only around fifty kilometres from Kasaragod. The Malayalam spoken here is heavily influenced by Tulu, Kannada, Beary and Konkani which are also spoken heavily in this region.

As a result, this region is also politically quite different from the rest of Kerala and even the rest of the Kasaragod district. Thus, the LDF which has a strong presence in the remaining five assembly constituencies of the Kasaragod Lok Sabha constituency (which it in fact frequently uses to build up huge leads and win the Lok Sabha seat) often ends up finishing third in these seats. Further, BJP which has a strong presence in Karnataka, especially in the South Kannada region, also extends its influence in the region even when it has hardly any electoral presence in the rest of North Kerala. This has been reflected in BJP’s performance in these seats; it has finished second to the UDF candidate in both the seats in both the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2011 Assembly elections.

The BJP thus has a reasonable chance of winning these two seats. It also fared credibly in the local body elections, again finishing ahead of the Left and within touching distance of UDF, especially in the Kasaragod assembly segment.

The main problem for BJP is that this area has a strong Muslim population which has solidly backed the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidates so far. Hence, the BJP candidates have routinely picked up more than 30% of the vote share in both the seats but have been unable to unseat the IUML candidates who end up with close to or more than 40% of the vote share. The best case scenario for BJP will be if the anti-incumbency factor sways a few percentage of minority voters to switch their allegiance to the LDF while at the same time, it picks up a few of the Hindu votes currently going to either LDF or UDF. Anyway, both the seats promise to be close contests between the IUML and the BJP.

Palakkad:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 47641 (42%) 37692 (32%) 40
Left Democratic Front 40238 (36%) 45861 (39%) 28
BJP and its allies 22317 (20%) 25892 (22%) 28
Total 112347 (100%) 116251 (100%) 104

 

BJP has been doing well in Palakkad in the last few election cycles and in the 2015 local body elections, it produced a stunner, winning the Palakkad Municipal Corporation, registering victories in 24 out of the 52 seats. This has now resulted in an interesting three way contest for the seat. The importance of this seat is demonstrated by the fact Mr. Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, held his first rally in Kerala in Palakkad. BJP is strong in the Palakkad municipality; however, it is also weak in the surrounding rural areas which are part of the Palakkad assembly constituency. Given the strength of UDF and LDF in parts of the segment, this is one of the seats where a genuine triangular contest is on the cards.

Thiruvananthapuram:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 49122 (46%) 39027 (34%) 27511
Left Democratic Front 43770 (41%) 27385 (24%) 37805
BJP and its allies 11519 (11%) 40835 (36%) 35793
Total 107092 (100%) 114059 (100%) 114449

 

Kazhakoottam:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 50787 (46%) 34220 (30%) 22614
Left Democratic Front 48591 (44%) 31799 (28%) 30802
BJP and its allies 7508 (7%) 41829 (37%) 20094
Total 109498 (100%) 112999 (100%) 10098

 

Vattoyoorkavu:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 56531 (50%) 40663 (34%) 24434
Left Democratic Front 40364 (36%) 27504 (23%) 29199
BJP and its allies 13494 (12%) 43589 (37%) 24892
Total 112637 (100%) 118352 (100%) 82700

 

Kovalam:

  2011 Assembly Elections 2014 Lok Sabha Elections 2015 Local Body Elections
United Democratic Front 52305 (42%) 51401 (38%) 37
Left Democratic Front 59510 (48%) 42112 (31%) 50
BJP and its allies 9127 (7%) 36169 (26%) 31
Total 125008 (100%) 136814 (100%) 127

 

These four seats have a lot in common. All of these are assembly constituencies where BJP has struggled historically in assembly elections including the elections held in 2011. However, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Mr. O Rajagopal posted impressive performances in all of these constituencies, including finishing ahead of his UDF and LDF rivals in Thiruvananthapuram, Kazhakoottam and Vattoyorkavu. It remains to be seen if the BJP can replicate the success of the 2014 elections without Mr. Rajagopal on the ticket. Leaving no stone unturned, it has fielded S. Sreesanth, former Indian cricketer and a major celebrity in Thiruvananthapuram, Mr. V Muraleedharan, former state Party President in Kazhakoottam and Mr. K. Rajasekharan, current Party President in Vattoyorkavu. However, winning in any of these seats would not be easy as UDF has strong incumbent MLAs in Thiruvananthapuram and Vattayorkavu whereas both UDF and LDF   will be in reckoning in Kazhakoottam and Kovalam.

Apart from these segments, BJP may also focus on Kattakada, Parassala, Kozhikode North, Kanjirapally, Aranmula, Kodungallur, Chengannur, Thiruvalla, Aranmula and Neyyattinkara as the constituencies where they can target coming second, if not finishing in the pole position.

No matter how impressive the recent results of the party has been in Kerala, it is almost impossible to shake off the impression that the party is largely an urban party and has only scattered presence outside Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram, the northern most and southern most districts of the state. A staggering 26% of the votes obtained by the party in the 2011 Assembly elections and 27% of the votes obtained in the 2014 Lok Sabha election came from these two districts alone. The corresponding numbers for UDF and LDF varied between 11% and 13%. The BJP’s relative strength in the big cities is also demonstrated by the fact that the party ended up with around 20% of the votes cast in the various corporations but with only 12.76% of the votes cast in municipal elections. The BJP also won only around 1% of the block panchayat wards but it was able to win in around 8% of the municipal wards.

A lot of pundits belief that even if the BJP is not able to post blockbuster results on its own, the incremental gains it is expected to make in the state may upset the reigning political hegemony of the UDF and the LDF. But no one is quite sure which block it is going to disproportionately affect. In the current political scenario, UDF gets a larger share of the Muslim and Christian votes as well as a significant portion of the upper caste Hindu Nair votes whereas the LDF is supported primarily by the Ezhavas and other lower caste Hindu voters. While the BJP is expected to draw its vote share primarily from the Hindu voters, it is not yet clear if they will draw larger percentage of Nair voters from the UDF or the Ezhava voters from the LDF. BJP is primarily supported by upper caste voters in many North Indian states; however, it has in this year’s election tied up with the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena, an Ezhava party.

But what does the data tell us? If we look at the vote swing in each and every assembly constituency in Kerala between the 2009 Lok Sabha election and 2014 Lok Sabha election as well as between the 2011 Assembly election and 2014 Lok Sabha election, we get the following charts:

UDF 2014 vs 2009LDF 2014 vs 2009

UDF 2014 vs 2011LDF 2014 vs 2011

The charts definitely suggest that the loss in vote share of UDF has had some relation with the gain of BJP. However, the incremental change in vote share of LDF and BJP has had hardly any relationship with each other.

One can draw two interpretations from this. Since the UDF lost support in both the elections, part of the loss of support of UDF was on account of the BJP gaining votes. But, at the same time, many of the voters disillusioned with the UDF voted for BJP rather than the LDF, resulting in the loss of some crucial votes for the Left.

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