After the Assembly elections, what's next for the BJP in Kerala?
The BJP has to build up a strong team of leaders with a view to building up its strength over time. As of now, its ranks are relatively thin, and also geographically concentrated in Thiruvananthapuram, Kasargod and Palakkad districts
On the face of it, the performance of all parties in Kerala in the 2016 Assembly poll fit into the standard narratives.
The fact that the Left Front has won is normal (it happens every other election). The fact that the Congress' UDF has been decimated is also routine. The fact that the NDA has had a dismal showing is absolutely normal.
LDF: 85, UDF: 47, NDA: 1.
But behind business as usual, a number of things have happened: This may well be the communists’ last gasp, as there was the simultaneous drubbing they received in their other fortress — West Bengal. It appears that communism as a political path has no future in India, and doesn’t get many takers in the country (almost none outside Bengal, Kerala and Tripura). That is different from Communism as an ideology thriving in academia and among urban-guerilla-wannabes (as the film Buddha in a Traffic Jam demonstrates, and even more convincingly, the reaction in certain circles to the film demonstrates).
The mandate that the communists got in Kerala is flawed, and it may be a negative mandate, fuelled by disgust at the Oommen Chandy government, the incumbent.
Interestingly, his Congress government, in 2011, had a razor-thin margin of one or two seats. Which suggests that the electorate — even at a time when it was doing its five-yearly ‘bash-the-incumbent’ bit in 2011 — was not enthusiastic about the UDF. Perhaps the Congress is shrinking in Kerala as it is elsewhere, but it will remain a force to be reckoned with.
Furthermore, a determined and well-done campaign by the NDA seems to have damaged the UDF more than it did the LDF. The NDA made it a three-horse race, rather than the two-horse race it has always been in Kerala. It appears it led to an erosion of support for the UDF from its vote-banks. This is a bit of a surprise, as pundits had believed that the UDF had an unbeatable advantage because of its support from Christians and Muslims. Traditionally, the Christian clergy and landowners have been with the Congress, and have managed to turn their lobbying into benefits especially during the time of Sonia Gandhi at the Centre.
It is unlikely that Christians as a group have abandoned the Congress, except that issues, like the support price for rubber (low in synchrony with petroleum prices), have not been addressed to their satisfaction by Chandy.
But Muslims may have moved on. The Indian Union Muslim League has been part of the ruling UDF, but in the past it has allied with the LDF as well. Perhaps realising that the UDF’s days were numbered, many Muslims (and their clergy) may have shifted allegiance to the LDF, which anyway is strongest in Malabar, with large areas dominated by Muslims. The general calculation was that both communities would stay with the Congress, thereby giving them a big boost.
The communists, on the other hand, have traditionally depended on Hindu-born people, especially the large Ezhava/Thiyya community, who have been attracted to the radical egalitarianism and politics of protest professed by the Left. It was believed that the BJP allying with a pro-Ezhava party, the Bharata Dharma Jana Sabha (BDJS ), would cause a migration of their votes away from the LDF.
That does not seem to have happened on a large enough scale to create a tipping point in favour of the BJP. It appears as though the BJP retained a share of about 15 percent of the vote, which is what they had received in local body polls a few months ago. The vote share of the BJP and its ally the BDJS, put together, comes to roughly 15 percent, so they have not made much headway in increasing their base.
That must be a sobering realisation for the BJP.
Despite the high-voltage campaign on which they spent enormous resources — with senior leaders flying in, they were unable to create the Hindu consolidation (across SC/ST, OBC, FC categories) that they were counting on. If they are stuck at a 15 percent vote-share, there is no way they can attempt to come to power, except in a hung Assembly.
I projected just such a scenario, with the LDF getting around 70 seats, the UDF around 60 seats, and the NDA around 10.
Nobody would have had the magic number of 71. My forecast was that it would lead to a remarkable, ‘government of unity’ scenario with the LDF and UDF joining forces to rule, rather than allying with the ‘communal’, ‘fascist’ BJP! Alas, we didn’t get to see the tortured logic and entertainment value of such a situation. In reality, the LDF got 91, including the six Independents it supported, and the NDA only one.
There is a silver lining to this cloud for the BJP. They have finally broken the jinx, and even though it is true that Nemom may have given a sentimental ‘sympathy vote’ to the veteran O Rajagopal, he is in the Assembly. Thus, the question of the BJP being ‘untouchable’ in Kerala is moot: The party has proof of existence to the contrary.
The fact that BJP or NDA candidates came second in as many as nine constituencies is also encouraging. I also read somewhere that NDA candidates came third in as many as another 20 constituencies, which is a warning for the many smaller parties, such as the Kerala Congress (various variants), RSP, JDU etc. The fact that the brand-new BDJS got almost as many votes as the established Kerala Congress (Maani) is quite interesting. If there is consolidation, smaller parties may fall by the wayside, and it really becomes a three-horse race with the LDF, UDF and NDA.
There were also other lacunae in the BJP’s campaign.
Despite having a likeable and charismatic leader in Kummanam Rajasekharan, their seat selection lagged. He should have competed in Thiruvananthapuram Central, with a weak incumbent, rather than in nextdoor Vattiyurkavu, with a strong incumbent; he would probably have won. Similarly, the BJP has to build up a strong team of leaders with a view to building up its strength over time. As of now, its ranks are relatively thin, and also geographically concentrated in Thiruvananthapuram, Kasargod and Palakkad districts — the strong RSS network needs to be leveraged.
The second issue is that of endemic violence unleashed by the communists. A day after the results were announced, RSS activist Pramod was hacked to death, and there were 55 FIRs filed for attacks in the killing fields of Malabar. One of the BJP candidates was a legless man, Sadanandan Master, both of whose legs had been cut off by communists.
There is an opportunity, though.
Kerala has the highest rate of unemployment (around 7.4 percent) of all large states. This may partly be because of remittances — but that source is likely to dry up as Arabs retrench and try to employ natives rather than migrants. This is where the Narendra Modi government becomes a source of hope: After all, it has finally moved forward on the long-delayed Vizhinjam port, ambitious road-building projects, and other infrastructure.
There is a carrot: Development.
There is also a stick: Fear of epidemic violence from the LDF, and of large-scale theft by the UDF.
The BJP should be able to leverage these to vault to a position of strength over the next few years. But the big hurdle, of making a debut, has been crossed: Kerala is no longer BJP-mukt.
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