How Religion Determines Political Support in Kerala

The population of Kerala, the tiny southern state of India, has unique religious composition. Hindus constitute the majority of the population as in the country as a whole, but the percentage of Hindus in Kerala is only 55% compared to 80% for the entire country. Both Muslims and Christians form significant minorities with around 27% and 18% of the population respectively. In no other state in the country, two different religious minorities constitute more than 15% of the overall population.

Kerala Map

Map of Kerala obtained from

The religious minorities of Kerala are concentrated in separate parts of the state. The Malabar region (North Kerala) has a high percentage of Muslim population. Malappuram may be considered to be the nerve centre of the Muslim population of Kerala, with around 70% of the people living in the district practising the Islamic faith. The other northern districts of Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Palakkad and Kozhikode also have Muslim population ranging between 28% and 40%. None of the districts south of Thrissur has Muslim population exceeding 20%.

The Christian population, on the other hand, is mainly concentrated in the Travancore region (i.e. South-Central Kerala) in the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, Ernakulam and Thrissur. Wayanad is the only district in Northern Kerala which has more than 10% of its population as Christians.

This staggering religious diversity in the geographically small state provides an interesting case study on how the demographics of an area influences the political parties it traditionally supports. It is considered conventional wisdom that in Kerala, the United Democratic Front (UDF) is the favourite of the religious minorities, both Muslims and Christians. This is partly because of the fact that Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress – Mani (KCM), two parties with appeals primarily to Muslim and Christian voters respectively, are part of the UDF. The Left Democratic Front (LDF), the bitter rival of UDF, is believed to enjoy stronger support among the Hindus, especially among the lower castes and Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

The politics of Kerala has remained stringently bipolar in all these years, with small splinter parties finding refuge in one of the two main contesting fronts. But the BJP has, in the last few years, become a potent force at the ballot box. Its recent performances, especially in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and in the 2015 local body elections, have been impressive. In 2014, it managed to get around 11% of the vote share and came agonizingly close to winning a seat at Thiruvananthapuram. In 2015, it did well across a number of pockets of the state, especially in municipal and corporation elections, including winning the Palakkad municipality.

It is well accepted that the BJP draws its voters primarily from the Hindu population. However, it is not clear whether the incremental support of BJP will primarily come from the UDF leaning upper caste voters, like in the major states of Northern India, or the left leaning lower caste Ezhava voters which it can appeal to through its alliance with the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena, an Ezhava party.

To understand the relation between the religious make-up of an area and the support it extends to a particular political party, we may look at the religious census data of various towns and urban areas and plot the same against the percentage of votes won by various political fronts in the 2015 local body elections. The local body election data is being used as it provides a granular look at how each and every municipal town has voted.

Before looking at the charts, it may be worthwhile to note that the census definition of towns in some cases vary from the ones used in drawing the boundaries of municipalities. Further, a number of census towns are too small to qualify as municipalities; as a result, the voting records of a number of small census towns are not available. Anyway, the towns for which both the religious composition and voting records are available have been plotted in the following charts and we believe, it gives us a fair, representative idea of how the various towns in the state are inclined to vote.

On the basis of this. the percentage of Hindus in various towns and the percentage of votes obtained by various political parties in those towns in 2015 have been charted below:

UDF Vote Share Towns

LDF Vote Share Towns

BJP Vote Share Towns

The three plots shown above mostly confirm what we have stated earlier – UDF fares better in areas with low Hindu population and LDF performs strongly in areas with high Hindu population. The relationship is, however, not very strong. The percentage of votes obtained by BJP, on the other hand, is strongly dependent on the religious make-up of the area and it does much better in areas with low minority population.

We can also plot the votes obtained on a district level against the percentage of Hindus in that particular district. The drawback with this analysis is that the data points become severely restricted in this case since there are only 14 districts in Kerala. The quality of data, however, improves as both the census bureau and election commission have the same definition of districts. The district wise charts have been mentioned below:

2011 Election:

UDF 2011

LDF 2011

BJP 2011

2014 Election:

UDF 2014

LDF 2014

BJP 2014

In 2011 election, the religious make-up of the districts had a strong relationship with the voting percentages of UDF and LDF. The relationship persisted in 2014, but in much weaker form. This is easily observed in practice as some of the strongest districts of UDF are ones with strong minority population and vice versa. For example, UDF has generally performed better in districts like Malappuram, Kottayam and Ernakulam which have significant minority population whereas Thiruvananthapuram, Kannur, Thrissur and Palakkad, the districts which have been traditional strongholds of the Left, all have higher percentage of Hindu population than the state as a whole.

Plotting the figures of BJP at district level does not make much sense as it is still a small party with localized presence in a few districts, primarily in Thiruvananthapuram, a few pockets of Kasaragod , Palakkad and some other urban areas. As a result, the district wise support for BJP when plotted against demographic factors of that district provides a misleading and incomplete picture.

It will be interesting how the equation changes in this year’s election. There are chances that a strong performance by BJP may upset this entire relationship. It is also probable that these preferences of voters along religious lines shall harden with the entry of a party with overtly religious overtures like the BJP. Nevertheless, a tri-partite contest with the emergence of BJP as a credible third league is expected to have far-reaching consequences on the stable vote banks of the parties.

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