In the 2008 comedy Swing vote, Kevin Costner plays the role of Bud Johnson, an alcoholic, whose vote is cast by his daughter in the US Presidential election. For some reason, the machine registers the vote without indicating which candidate gets it. And when, in the final count, there is a tie between the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challenger, the result hinges on Bud’s single vote. The candidates then beg, kneel and crawl before Bud and even do policy flip-flops to grab his single ‘swing vote’.
The Americans who watched the comedy didn’t miss the point.
The burlesque that is being played in Kerala for the upcoming assembly election is no less comical for the voters. But there is one problem, the ‘swing’ voters may run into a few lakhs. These are the voters who shift loyalties from election to election, while ‘core’ voters remain faithful to their respective parties.
Any election is all about ‘swing’ votes. But what appears to be on the cards in Kerala is not one swing but a series of them, which will take in their sweep a score of parties in three fronts. The ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is expected to lose plenty of votes to both the CPI(M)’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the BJP. Even as the CPI(M), BJP and their allies gain some votes, they will lose some, probably to each other.
These possible back-and-forth swings, largely on considerations of religion and caste, are confounding pollsters and politicians.
And parties and candidates are tying themselves in knots to get these ‘swing’ or ‘unattached’ or ‘floating’ voters any way they can. So you have candidates and leaders of the BJP paying obeisance to the numerous bishops — of which Kerala has no dearth, since Kerala Christians have as many ‘denominations’ as Hindus have castes. Even the LDF candidates, supposedly not susceptible to religious sentiments, are suddenly discovering the dargas in their constituencies and visiting them. And several Muslim candidates are making a beeline to attend Hindu festivities.
Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) candidate in Tanur, Abdurahiman Randathani, announced happily, “I have attended many temple idol reinstallation events and a dozen temple festivities and rituals ever since the campaign started.”
All of them have one motto: have a go at anything and snatch any vote you can. Of course, the ‘swing’ voters are the ones who are up for grabs.
On their part, the voters are bored with the election-time tropes that run on expected, tiresome lines. The UDF harps on its “achievements”, and the LDF insists that the government has failed on all fronts. The UDF talks about the murders committed by Marxists, who reply with a litany of scams involving Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and his ministers. Both fronts take pot shots at BJP’s “communal” politics. The saffron leaders hit back to say that both have failed the state and like stuck records, talk about “development”.
Adding further to the comedy are the Facebook wars—the fiercest one is between Chandy, 72, and CPI(M)’s veteran VS Achuthanandan, 93, who had once frowned at computers. In one Facebook post, Achutanandan alleged that there were 31 cases against Chandy and 136 against his ministers. Calling this utter rubbish, the Chief Minister slapped a defamation case against the CPI(M) leader.
Kerala’s discerning voters suffer all this verbal diarrhoea, made worse by the gruelling summer heat. But they get their entertainment from the antics that the parties are indulging in to woo the ‘swing’ voters.
In the 2012 book ‘The Swing vote: the untapped power of Independents”, author Linda Killian explains why as many as 40 per cent of the American voters are the swinging type. “One of the things I heard most often from them (the swingers who are neither Democrats nor Republicans),” she says, “was their disgust about the influx of money into politics and the undue influence of special interests and lobbyists.”
The reason why they exist and the key role they play in the polls are no less important in India in general, and in the current Kerala election in particular.
While in Western democracies, voters may swing between two main parties or from the ruling party to a third player if there is one, the swings can come from and go in multiple directions in Kerala.
Hindus (54.73 per cent of Kerala’s 3.3 crore population, according to the 2011 census): A significant number of upper-caste Nairs (14 per cent), who have always voted for the UDF, are expected to switch to the BJP. Dalits and backward Ezhavas—most of them have anyway been backing the LDF—too may ditch the Congress-led front. On the other hand, the LDF is likely to lose some support from Ezhavas (23 per cent) to the Congress, the BJP or their allies.
Muslims (26.56 per cent): In recent elections, more than half the Muslims swore by the Congress, largely through the party’s alliance partner Indian Union Muslim League (IUML). The rest of the Muslims backed either the Left or smaller parties that espouse their cause. Now the indications are that many Muslims are either disenchanted by the UDF’s corruption or convinced that the Left offers them a better buffer against the Hindutva onslaught. A small number of 0.7 per cent voters swung away from the IUML in the 2006 election, compared with the previous 2001 poll. This led to a fall in its seat tally from 16 to seven, contributing to the Left’s victory.
Christians (18.38 per cent): More than half the state’s Christians too have always backed either the Congress or the many factions of the Kerala Congress that claims to protect the community’s interests. But some Christians feel let down by the UDF’s scams and infighting in the Kerala Congress. Hoping to wean them to its side, the LDF has fielded Christian candidates in key places and has been chasing bishops.
So the BJP’s support largely comes from a sizable chunk of Hindus fleeing the UDF, which they see as a front cushioned by minorities. Realising this and to broadbase its support, the BJP leadership has been talking less about the “Hindu unification” in Kerala and more about “development” for some time now. The party has also been courting Christians.
These possible multi-directional swings make the prediction of vote shares of parties hard and translating them into seat-shares even harder.
Rajeeva L. Karandikar, psephologist and director of Chennai Mathematical Institute in this article says, “...a good survey can yield surprisingly good estimates of vote shares of main political parties across a nation or a state or a constituency. One needs a reasonable sample size at the level that one needs the vote estimate. And one needs to follow sampling methodology strictly.”
Karandikar says, “...a good estimate of vote percentages does not automatically translate to a good estimate of the number of seats for major parties. So in order to predict the number of seats for parties, we need to estimate not only the percentage of votes for each party, but also the distribution of votes of each of the parties across constituencies. And here, independents and smaller parties that have influence across a few seats make the vote-to-seat translation that much more difficult.”
Backed by a series of opinion polls and other visible trends, the Left is confident of a victory, but is aware that the swingers can send the result in any direction.