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In the just-concluded assembly elections, the incumbents in the two states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu saw contrasting results. In Tamil Nadu, a two-term All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government was voted out. However, for the first time in nearly four decades in Kerala, an incumbent government, the CPI (M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), was voted back to power.

At the same time, contrary to numerous exit poll projections, it was an honourable defeat for the vanquished that preserved the existing order in the two states.

The 2021 election results show that the party system in Kerala and Tamil Nadu remain closed for now
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The 2021 election results show that the party system in Kerala and Tamil Nadu remain closed for now

Elections allow voters to send signals about the performance of a particular party or a set of parties and also let challenger parties know their position. Besides the fate of the two pairs of incumbents, one can also ask why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has found it difficult to make inroads, despite its extraordinary rise and spread in the recent past.

The 2021 election results show that the party system in Kerala and Tamil Nadu remain closed for now. The BJP’s rout in Kerala and its numbers in Tamil Nadu underscore this point. Access to the government in both states is limited to a defined set of parties.

Challenger and outsider parties, notwithstanding their political reputation and governance experience elsewhere, will continue to find it difficult to make a mark here unless the dominant parties aid them. From this, it appears that voters still prefer established and home-grown parties who know the language of politics in the two states. The issues raised by the BJP have not been appealing or attractive enough to encourage voters to abandon traditional parties. Even the disgruntled voter has probably preferred the existing parties rather than any of the challenger parties.

The BJP’s mistakes

The BJP strategy of one size fits all clearly does not understand the “language of politics" in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The dimensions of party competition are different in these two states compared to many other parts of the country.

While there is a consensus in both states about the active role of government in providing public welfare, there are differences of degree between the two dominant parties around who should benefit, how much and so on. In the state assembly elections, the competition revolves primarily around these issues.

Societal and identity issues like religion and caste are almost settled with clear lines of voter alignments built over decades of mobilisation and representation. The dominant parties in both states have rarely allowed others to exploit such issues, leaving the BJP with very little space to manoeuvre.

Since 2014, the BJP has made a concerted effort to woo the Ezhava community in Kerala, who have traditionally aligned with the LDF. The Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple entry in 2018 provided the party with a rare opening in its comfort zone. The BJP claimed to defend sacred customs and traditions and attempted to consolidate Hindus and break existing social-political linkages.

However, the CPI (M) and the Congress had already occupied the liberal-conservative ends of the spectrum. Since 2019, the BJP has attempted to exploit differences within the Christian community as well. Here again, the CPI (M) was quick enough to address these concerns by opening space for the disenchanted Kerala Congress (Mani), which left the UDF.

In Tamil Nadu, at the risk of diluting its nationalist position, the party has not spared any opportunity to identify with the Tamil identity. The prime minister, for instance, has symbolically used Tamil couplets on numerous occasions. Simultaneously, the party has consistently portrayed the DMK as “anti-Hindu" and promised to defend the Hindu faith and temples in the state.

However, the BJP’s ignorance of the grammar of politics in Tamil Nadu has also got itself into a tangle on many occasions, exposing its lack of commitment. For instance, the party’s attempt to sideline and then subsequently appropriate Dravidian icons like Periyar and Thiruvalluvar backfired.

At the same time, in both states, the party has also attempted to sell the so-called development agenda of the BJP-led Union government. This involved pushing the theme of welfare, not based on votes but on “development for all", “Sabka Sath, Sabka Vikas aur ab Sabka Vishwas" and “development without discrimination", among others. The primary content of the development model included access to basic necessities like water, electricity, health and so on.

Here too, Kerala and Tamil Nadu are pioneers in universalising welfare and its provisioning; they offer models for other states to emulate. On many development indicators, they are far ahead of the states where this so-called development first agenda has worked. The BJP clearly got it wrong on both the content as well as the framework of the development strategy.

DMK vs AIADMK

It had begun to appear that the DMK’s long stints in power at the federal level and being out of power in the state had dulled its commitment to the Dravidian ideology. Sensing this weakness, a new challenger party, the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), took aggressive positions and encroached on traditional DMK territory. The NTK, for instance, revived ideas from the early Dravidian movement and even spoke of an independent Tamil Eelam as a moral goal. At the same time, the BJP’s nationalist position and “one-nation" thesis were also questioning the Dravidian cause. This dual challenge allowed the DMK to reboot its regionalist agenda.

The 2021 DMK manifesto reiterates its commitment to the regionalist agenda distinguishing itself from the rest of the pack. It reaffirms the party’s commitment to the restoration of state rights, including claiming policy spaces ceded to the Centre in the field of education.

At the same time, the party also underscored its commitment to the protection and development of Tamil language. While matching the social welfare agenda of the AIADMK, the DMK also laid down a long-term vision for the state’s development. Under Stalin, the party has also tweaked its organisational working, relying more on technology to collect information, keep track of the functioning of the party units and guide decision making. These changes have allowed the party to adapt to the new requirements and challenges adeptly while retaining its traditional image.

Moving on to the AIADMK, even though it was thrown into disarray and severely challenged after its leader Jayalalithaa died in 2016, the party has managed to stick together and put up a relatively decent performance compared to 2006 or the DMK in 2011. If the 2019 Lok Sabha elections were any indicator, one would have expected the party to be routed.

According to media reports, the AIADMK government in Tamil Nadu, like its counterpart in Kerala, has handled issues arising from covid-19 reasonably better than most other states. Furthermore, there has also not been any major corruption scandal that has tarnished the government in the state.

The main challenge for the AIADMK is the positional shift in the party system reviving traditional Dravidian ideas. The AIADMK’s support for the BJP-led NDA government and its alliance with the BJP has pushed the party to the wall. The opposition has not spared any opportunity to highlight the close linkages between the BJP and the AIADMK.

Consequently, the efficient governmental performance of the government in the state and its social welfare provisioning despite widespread economic hardship has gone unnoticed.

CPI (M) versus Congress

The skillful handling of a series of crises, including floods in 2018 and 2019, tackling the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018, and the covid-19 crisis over the last year and a half have not only enhanced the reputation of the CPI (M)-led LDF government but also added heft to its claims of protecting people and state’s welfare.

At the same time, one should not miss the transformation of the CPI (M) into a slick electoral machine. If we assume that parties want to win elections, then they must be able to reposition themselves quickly to assuage the angry and the hurt. The party realised that the mauling it received in 2019, notwithstanding its governance record, was due to the inept handling of the Sabarimala temple issue.

Not surprisingly, the party shifted its position and indirectly apologised for incidents after the SC order. The shift reduced the space for both the Congress and the BJP. It was also electorally credible because of how the government handled the Sabarimala entry both in 2019 and 2020. The aggressive attempts of the BJP to find space in Kerala has also pushed the CPI (M) to move away from its principled positions. For instance, the party criticised reservations for the economically weaker sections of society as communal. Subsequently, it adopted the same once it realised that there was a public demand for the same.

Similarly, as coalition-maker, it has welcomed community-based parties who it had previously branded as divisive and communal. At the same time, the party emphasised on issue agendas it owns, like equitable welfare provisioning.

Finally, the Congress is in many ways entrenched in a model that brought it success in the past. The Congress, it appears, assumed that the rhythmic pattern of change in Kerala would continue. The LDF government’s performance may have been praiseworthy but that does not mean that the Congress ceases to try.

Party studies inform us that parties’ fortunes do not depend on changes that have taken place but instead on what parties make of those challenges. The relative success of the other dominant parties in the two states who had faced defeats in the past underscores this point.

The second consecutive defeat should make the Congress realise parties cannot take things for granted and have to constantly work to maintain their links with allies, communities, and groups they seek to represent. The front has been leaking steadily and there is nothing being done about it. The organisation has been in shambles for many years and band-aid solutions have not worked.

Furthermore, the Congress should realise that issues become politically salient depending on how parties took them up and articulated them. The Congress attempt to discredit the LDF government on corruption issues did not find many takers.

Studies tell us that alleged corruption is unlikely to make a dent for two reasons. First, corruption is a valence issue and is unlikely to attract voters, especially given the Congress’ questionable reputation and credibility on the issue. Second, in societies that witness corruption routinely, the average voter is likely to believe that most politicians are corrupt, notwithstanding their claims to the contrary.

So, of all the four parties, the Congress in Kerala probably faces the greatest challenge. The party, unlike others, does not have an ideological glue or an agenda that encourages identification with the party. It depends a great deal on the use of state resources to attract votes and retain support. Therefore, being out of power for a long duration will be a severe test of its resilience.

KK Kailash is with the department of political science, University of Hyderabad.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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