With Focus on Sabarimala and Thiruvananthapuram, Will BJP Get Its Debut Win in Kerala?
About 500 people were killed and 8 lakh were displaced. The United Nations pegged the cost of rehabilitation and reconstruction at Rs 31,000 crore. The 2018 Kerala Economic Review report estimated that crop loss alone was worth Rs. 3,500 crore.
This was in August, 2018, when Kerala was hit by devastating floods. Barely seven months and a few days later, all 20 of Kerala’s Lok Sabha seats are going to the polls. But the ‘century’s worst flood’ barely resonates in political narratives.
This is despite the fact that voters fro m the most affected districts are still reeling from the after-effects of the loss of lives and livelihood.
What forms the core of the political discourse, at least on the national level, is Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad—one of the worst affected in terms of landslides.
Voting Pattern in the State
Politics in Kerala is dominated by two coalitions, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
The LDF alliance includes the CPI, Janata Dal (Secular), Nationalist Congress Party, and a host of smaller parties, while the UDF has the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the Kerala Congress (M), and a few other smaller parties.
At the national level, the Congress-led UDF has largely held the most number of seats and at the state level, each of the alliances have held the state alternatively for the last couple of decades.
In the 2014 elections, the UDF won the most number of seats, with the Congress winning 8 and the IUML winning 2. In the 2009 elections too, the UDF won the most number of seats, with the Congress gathering a considerable 40% of the vote share and 13 seats.
In 2004, the LDF had come to power with the CPI(M) winning 12 seats and the CPI winning three.
Given this manner of coalition fronts contesting elections—rather than individual parties—there’s no doubt that a voter too would consider alliance-dynamics before voting.
Experts suggest that whatever impact the floods would have on the voter conscience, it would be positive for the current LDF government led by CPI(M)’s Pinarayi Vijayan as the general consensus is that it adequately handled the relief measures.
As news18 had reported earlier, the office of the state’s revenue and disaster management secretary became the “epicenter” of the state government’s efforts at saving its residents. At the peak of relief works, about 4000 relief camps provided shelter to about 14 lakh people. The efforts were also thoroughly coordinated between the state government, the police and fire departments and central forces.
The voters also aren’t displeased with the rehabilitation measures put in place, despite what political opponents might claim.
Strategising the Fight
For the 2019 polls, the LDF is contesting in all the 20 seats - the CPI(M) on 16 seats and the CPI on four.
The UDF is also contesting all the seats - Congress on 15 seats, IUML on two and the Kerala Congress (M), the Socialist Janata (Democratic) and the Revolutionary Socialist Party one each.
As is widely known, Rahul Gandhi is contesting from Wayanad, a constituency that was carved out in the 2008 delimitation exercise and the Congress has held in the two elections conducted since then. At the time of the announcement, the party stated that the decision was meant to send a “message to the southern states that they are deeply respected and valued.”
But the move antagonized the Left parties, with which the Congress has formed a broad coalition on the national stage.
Prakash Karat ,who was the General Secretary of CPI from 2005 to 2015, told reporters that the decision “goes against the Congress' national commitment to fight the BJP, as in Kerala it is the LDF which is the main opposition force against the saffron party.”
Gandhi’s principal opponent in Wayanad is CPI’s PP Suneer. In the 2009 and 2014 elections, the CPI was the runner-up on the seat with a vote share of 31.2% and 38.9% respectively.
For the NDA alliance, the Kerala election is a truly testing one considering that the BJP has not won a single seat in all the Lok Sabha elections that have been held in the state.
The BJP has allied with the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) and is contesting in 14 seats. The RSS is also strongly backing the BJP, going so far as organising campaigns and conducting Baithaks with BJP workers.
BJP’s key fight in Kerala is concentrated in two seats—Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta.
Thiruvananthapuram is currently held by Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who is a two-time incumbent. In 2009, he won by a margin of about a lakh votes against CPI’s candidate. The BJP candidate came in fourth. In 2014, Tharoor won the seat by a margin of about 15,000 votes and the BJP’s candidate came in second.
The BJP has recorded a steady growth in its vote share in Thiruvananthapuram since 1998, when its candidate, Kerala Varma Raja, managed to secure 12.39% of the votes polled. In 1999, this vote share rose to 20.93%. It increased further to 29.86% in 2004.
The vote share in the constituency, however, dipped to a mere 3.8% during the 2005 by-election. In 2009, this share in total votes increased marginally to 11.4%. The party witnessed its highest vote share in 2014 when O Rajagopal got 32.32% of the total votes.
In the 2016 state elections, the BJP recorded its first assembly win in the state in Nemom, in the Thiruvananthapuram district, by defeating a CPI(M) candidate.
Thiruvananthapuram has a considerable upper-caste Nair community population, and overall, Hindus constitute about 65-70% of the population, according to 2011 census.
Although it should also be specified that neither the Nair community nor the lower-caste Ezhava community that also has a substantial presence in the constituency can be termed traditional BJP voters.
As for Pathanamthitta, the ‘Sabarimala seat’, BJP president Amit Shah has been campaigning excessively in the constituency considering that the fight is a tough three-way one between Congress’ two-time MP Anto Antony, Veena George of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and K Surendran of the BJP.
In their manifesto too, the BJP has stated that they would “endeavour to secure constitutional protection on issues related to faith and belief”.
According to 2011 census, Pathanamthitta has about 50% Hindu and 40% Christian population. And while some suggest that the Christian vote in the constituency could split between the two Christian candidates, Anto Antony and Veena George, thereby giving the BJP an upper hand, experts on the ground say that voting patterns in Kerala do not adhere to such strict religion and caste-dominant sentiments.
Ground experts also suggest that the Sabarimala issue barely resonates with voters in view of larger issues concerning development, the economy and flood-related rehabilitation.