Ahead of Phase 3 of Lok Sabha election, Kerala gears up for crucial three-way battle between LDF, Congress and BJP
The Sabarimala women's entry issue and Congress president Rahul Gandhi's candidature in Wayanad have altered Kerala's political landscape
BJP hopes to win at least three seats and increase its vote share in the remaining constituencies substantially this time
The UDF is also hopeful of winning back the votes of the minorities that went into the LDF kitty following the entry of Rahul Gandhi in the fray in the state
While the Congress is looking for maximum seats from the state to strengthen the party's bid for power, it is the national tag that is at stake for the CPM
The Sabarimala women's entry issue and Congress president Rahul Gandhi's candidature in Wayanad have altered Kerala's political landscape. Strong triangular contests forced by these factors in most constituencies have made any prediction difficult in the election to the 20 seats to be held on Tuesday.
While the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is pinning its hopes on a Hindu consolidation to realise its as-yet-unfulfilled hopes of winning a seat in the Lower House from the state, the traditional rivals led by the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are banking on a division of Hindu votes and minority polarisation in their favour.
An improved showing in the Lok Sabha polls by the BJP has aided the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the past. For example, the LDF won 18 seats in 2004 when the BJP secured its highest vote share of 12.11 percent in the Lok Sabha polls. The LDF tally came down to just four in 2009 when the BJP vote share dropped to 6.32 percent. The LDF tally went up to eight in 2014 when the BJP increased its vote share to 10.33 percent.
This phenomenon was also evident in the Assembly elections. The LDF captured power in 2016 by winning 93 of the 140 seats when the NDA votes share saw an all-time high of 16 percent. The UDF could just scrape through by winning 72 seats in 2011 when the BJP marginally increased its vote share from 4.75 per cent to 6.03 per cent.
The increase in BJP vote share in the past decade was due to its natural growth and also on account of the expansion of the NDA by forging an alliance with Bharth Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political arm of the Hindu Ezhava lower caste, and a few other minor Hindu and tribal outfits. However, the party is expecting its best performance this time as it has a powerful Hindutva plank to unite the Hindus — the Sabarimala issue. With the help of the well-oiled Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP has done everything possible to reap maximum electoral mileage from the issue.
It hopes to win at least three seats and increase its vote share in the remaining constituencies substantially this time. The party has pitched for a win in three Hindu-dominated constituencies of Pathanamthitta, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur, where it expects to get maximum dividend from the Sabarimala issue, by fielding formidable candidates.
The best bet is Pathanamthitta, where the temple is located. The party, which secured nearly 16 per cent votes in the constituency in the last election, has fielded K Surendran, who was in the forefront of the struggle against the entry of women in the Lord Ayyappa temple. There has been a groundswell of support of faithful, especially the women in Pathanamthitta for the BJP candidate.
The party is banking on the RSS credentials of Kummanam Rajashekharan and the star value of actor Suresh Gopi as an extra push for victory in Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur respectively.
The saffron party had secured 32.32 percent of the votes in Thiruvananthapuram and 11.15 percent of the votes in Thrissur in the last election. The two candidates have been trying to mobilise maximum votes of the faithful by invoking the name of Lord Ayyappa besides their appeal to a cross-section of the electorate.
The UDF is also expecting a major share of the votes of the faithful as it has been championing their cause from the beginning. Senior Congress leaders say they are the true claimants of the votes of the faithful since they had opposed the petition for women's entry in the Supreme Court while it was in power. They argue that the BJP has no right to project itself as protectors of faith as their government at the Centre had taken no steps against the 28 September Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the temple.
Most of the pre-poll surveys indicate that the benefit of the Sabarimala will go more to the UDF than the BJP. Some of these surveys have predicted even a sweep for the Congress-led coalition in the election. Political analysts like Jacob George supports the findings since the faithful among the LDF supporters may find it difficult to vote on the lotus symbol if at all they decide to cast their votes against the LDF over the Sabarimala issue.
A number of traditional LDF supporters, especially women, in places like Pathanamthitta, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur asserted that their vote this time will not be for the LDF. However, they appeared confused in choosing between the saffron party and the UDF.
The UDF is also hopeful of winning back the votes of the minorities that went into the LDF kitty following the entry of Rahul Gandhi in the fray in the state. Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala claimed there was huge enthusiasm among minorities, especially Muslims, after Rahul and his sister Priyanka Gandhi campaigned in the state. He exuded confidence that the UDF would win all 20 seats this time due to the Rahul effect.
"The minorities want a secular government led by the Congress at the Centre. They know only the Congress is capable of upstaging the Narendra Modi government. The CPM and its Left allies do not have the strength to play any major role in the formation of a government in New Delhi. Therefore, people will not waste their votes by voting for the LDF in Kerala," he claimed.
"The lack of unity in the Congress has many times marred the party's electoral prospects. The entry of Rahul in the fray has forced leaders of various factions to close ranks and unitedly fight the election. This will be the major benefit to Rahul's candidature for the party in the state," said Joseph C Mathew, a Left-leaning political analyst.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan say the politically enlightened people of Kerala want a Left-backed government at the Centre to work as a corrective force. They claim that the electorate will give maximum seats to LDF in the current political situation, where no single party is expected to get the majority to form a government.
Parties are also scared of strong undercurrents this time. There have already been speculations about crossing voting. While the BJP has expressed fear that the UDF or LDF may transfer votes to the frontrunners to deny them a victory in their prospective seats, the other camps say that the propaganda being unleashed by rival camps may cause confusion among voters denying them valuable votes.
The election in Kerala is critical for all the three fronts. While the Congress is looking for maximum seats from the state to strengthen the party's bid for power, it is the national tag that is at stake for the CPM. The BJP wants few additional seats from the state to compensate for the loss it may suffer in the Hindi heartland. Therefore, all the three players are not leaving any stone unturned to ensure their victory.
What makes the electoral battle a tight one this time is the big presence of winnable and publicly acceptable candidates from all the three camps in the fray.
Chidambaram added that the 'dismembering' of Jammu and Kashmir into two UTs has been challenged in the Supreme Court, and that the cases are pending for almost two years
Apart from Sibal, G-23 leaders Shashi Tharoor and M Veerappa Moily have also slammed Prasada for switching to the BJP
Maharashtra deputy chief minister and senior NCP leader Ajit Pawar and senior Congress leader Ashok Chavan also accompanied Thackeray during the meeting with the prime minister