The Bharatiya Janata Party’s attempt to take its electoral breakthrough in the Assembly elections in Kerala to the next stage has suffered a jolt with the party failing to maintain its momentum in the Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency.
The party came a distant third in the by-election held on 12 April. When the votes were counted on Monday morning, party candidate N Sreeprakash got only 65,675 votes, a disappointing increase of just 970 votes from the 2014 polls. The party could not even get a proportional share of the 50,000 new voters added to electoral roll.
PK Kunhalikutty, national general secretary, Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a key ally of the Congress, won the election by a margin of 171,038 votes. Kunhalikutty netted 515,325 votes as compared to his nearest rival, MB Faisal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who pulled in 344,287 votes.
When the IUML and the CPM wooed the Muslim community, which accounts for 70 percent of the votes, by fielding prominent Muslim candidates, the BJP had hoped to increase its vote share by six-fold by consolidating the Hindu vote, which account for 27.6 percent of the total 13.12 lakh votes.
The BJP candidate had also made an attempt to woo minorities by promising quality beef from air-conditioned slaughter houses. The poll results show that the electorate was not impressed. On the contrary, the threat of the BJP’s communal agenda weighed heavily in the minds of the voters.
The electorate also did not take the CPM's claim that they are more potent in fighting communal forces seriously. They apparently felt the need for a larger force to fight the BJP nationally. Political observers attribute this as a major factor for the thumping victory Kunhaikutty got in the bypoll.
Party veteran and former chief minister VS Achuthanandan tried to turn the tables against Kunhalikutty, a former minister, by raking up the Kozhikode ice cream parlour sex scandal, which played a major role in his defeat in the 2006 Assembly elections in the district.
Though CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, tried to turn the election as a referendum on the Pinarayi Vijayan government, the failures of the government in various spheres, especially in the law and order front, drowned out whatever little meager the government made in the last 10 months.
The LDF, which has been witnessing a steady increase in its votes in the district in the elections since 2014, had expected a surprise victory. However, the party could not even reduce the victory margin of the IUML candidate. The party had won the 2014 election by a margin of 194,739 votes.
The conditions this time were considered favourable for the LDF, with anti-IUML parties like Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the Popular Front of India (PFI), the Welfare Party of India (WPI), the political offshoot of Jamaat-e-Islami and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) keeping away from the contest.
The SDPI and the WPI received over 80,000 votes in the 2014 election when they had fielded their own candidates. The CPM candidate was in a position to attract a major chunk of these votes since the two parties had called for conscience votes.
However, the IUML sought to offset these disadvantages by winning over several outfits and fringe groups that supported the LDF in the 2016 Assembly polls. These groups had helped the CPM increase its vote share from 242,775 votes in 2014 to 373,881 votes and helped it win four Assembly seats in the district in 2016.
The setback is bound to deepen the feud within the LDF. The Communist Party of India (CPI), which is already critical of the functioning of the government, has already called for an impartial evaluation of the result and course correction.
The CPI (M) secretary does not consider the defeat a setback. He attributed the UDF victory to a communal polarization. Kodiyeri said that the IUML had canvassed votes by evoking communal sentiments.
“Despite this, the IUML could not match its 2014 victory margin. On the contrary we have increased our vote share by 1 lakh votes. We have been able to give a good fight to the UDF,” he added.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan rejected the interpretation of the UDF victory as a verdict against his government. He said that the LDF could check the margin of the UDF victory and contain the votes of the BJP. This is a political victory of the LDF, he added.
Political analysts consider the election verdict as a big setback for the BJP at a time when the party’s national executive has identified Kerala among states to be conquered next. Party chief Amit Shah sees the party winning at least 12 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Noted political analyst Advocate Jayashankar said that the BJP gameplan will remain as a dream that will never be fulfilled. He said that the Hindutva agenda that the party follows at the national level will not work in Kerala, which has a strong secular fabric.
The BJP has been trying to expand its base in the state by wooing parties representing minorities after it won one Assembly seat in the 2014 election and increased its vote share to an all time high of 14 percent.
State leaders have been making overtures to Kerala Congress (M), which quit the UDF in the wake of the Assembly election. The party, which has a strong base in the Christian belt in Central Kerala, has been non-committal so far.
The BJP leaders have also been trying to rope in some senior Congress leaders. There were rumours that three leaders, including diplomat turned politician Shashi Tharoor, would switch over to the BJP. However, political analysts think that they may reconsider their position in the wake of the Malappuram verdict.
Shashi Tharoor, who denied the rumours, has ascribed the Malappuram result as a strong message to communal forces. Many who joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) camp are already disenchanted.
In fact, the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political outfit of the numerically strong Ezhava community, which joined the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) prior to the 2015 local body election, is said to be exploring other political options.
If the party quits the NDA, it will be hard for the BJP to maintain even its current vote share. This may also force other Hindu organisations that the BJP is wooing to stay away, rendering its attempt to cobble together a third front a tough proposition.
Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 18:47 PM