Local body polls held recently show the wind could be in favour of the state’s ruling alliance, even as the BJP eyes a role in upsetting the chances of both established alliances
For a state where voters switch sides every election, the next winning alliance should not be hard to predict. But Kerala’s current political climate seems to indicate otherwise. Results from recent local body elections appear to show that the alternating cycle of Left and Congress-led governments could be in for a surprise when the state goes to polls on 6 April.
The Left Democratic Front (LDF), an alliance of left-wing parties, returned to power in 2016 after winning 92 of the 140 Assembly seats. In the Lok Sabha elections held three years later, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) performed better, leading in 123 assembly segments. This was seen as the beginning of the changing mood of the people in the state, in line with the traditional see-saw pattern between the two fronts.
But in December 2020, the LDF ended up ahead in local body elections. The alliance led in 108 block panchayats and 10 district panchayats—not as good as its performance the last time, but enough to start shaping the atmosphere four months before the state elections.
The UDF led only in three districts—Ernakulam, Malappuram, and Wayanad—and trailed in almost all others.
An additional twist came from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which added five gram panchayats and a municipality to its 2015 tally, gaining 1.7% in vote share. Keen to move outside its area of dominance in northern India, this marked further success in the party’s continuing attempts to expand in the south.
Part of the gains for the ruling LDF may have come from the decision of the Kerala Congress (M), led by Jose K. Mani, to join the alliance. The UDF’s decision to align with the Welfare Party, a radical organization, may also have prompted its traditional Christian voters to switch sides to the LDF.
The impact of these shifts reflect best in the LDF’s victories across Kottayam and Ernakulam, which were virtually clean swept by the UDF in the 2010 local body elections. Other than the usual electoral arithmetic, the Left government may also have benefited from the improved coverage of the welfare pension scheme and provision of shelter through the LIFE mission, along with covid-19 management and flood response since 2018.
However, the ruling alliance’s superior performance in the local elections may not be enough to predict the Assembly results, though it gives the sense that all is not well for the UDF. After a poor performance in 2019, the LDF seems to have recovered, and the BJP has gained some ground, though still far behind the two major formations in the state.
The BJP had already made an entry into Kerala in the 2016 Assembly and the 2019 parliamentary elections. If it manages to expand its support base, the party could very well upset the calculations of the LDF and UDF. One source of hope this time is the entry of Metro Man E. Sreedharan, who is likely to be the face of the party in Kerala and could lead to a shift among the urban middle-class voters towards the BJP.
The BJP got around 15% of the total votes polled in the 2016 and 2019 elections. It even managed to open its account in the Assembly, with O. Rajagopalam winning the Nemom seat in Thiruvananthapuram district by a margin of 8,671 votes. But a 15% vote share is far below the threshold of making an impact in the assembly election.
Surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) also indicate a shift among upper-caste groups towards the BJP, especially the Nair community. There are some indications that such a shift could be more harmful to the UDF than to the LDF: the Congress-led front enjoys slightly greater support among the upper-caste communities that may now be moving towards the BJP. The Nair community in particular has always sided with the winning combination.
Some backward caste communities, especially Ezhavas, have also shown a similar shift towards the BJP. But the party will need to mobilize support amongst other communities too if it has to make any impact in the upcoming polls.
All in all, when the results are out on 2 May, the electoral math of Kerala may turn out to be different from how it has been for decades. The Opposition will hope that the alternating trend continues, the ruling party will be buoyed by recent successes, and the BJP will be keen to spoil the plans of both frontrunners.
Sanjay Kumar is a professor at the Delhi-based think-tank, CSDS, and a political analyst.