Local body elections in Kerala are due on 2 November, and as I write this, campaigning is in full swing. Even though we have had a damp month or two – normally, after Onam, there is bright sunshine, but this year September and October have been rainy – there is a lot of energy on the streets. Every corner, it seems, hosts a small election meeting when I drive home after work, and you have loud, earnest-looking men (and a few women) proclaiming loudly that their party is the one you must vote for.
Kerala is obviously highly politicised and highly polarised. In years past, it has generally alternated between the Congress and the Marxists in the Assembly elections (which are due shortly), and it votes contrary to national trends. But the next Assembly election might be a watershed, and the local body elections will give the best predictions — this is truly a semi-final, and therefore observers are keenly watching what happens.
Shashi Tharoor, MP, who has been busy campaigning for Congress candidates in Thiruvananthapuram and vicinity, feels his party is going to win in a landslide. He thinks that the BJP will be a damp squib.
Of course, Tharoor is a good observer of the political scene and has his ear to the ground. He may well be right. But the key is in his observation about the BJP. For, after having been an also-ran, and never having won a single seat in the Kerala Assembly ever, the BJP is now on the verge of becoming a force to reckon with in Kerala. They cannot be written off any more.
When the dust settles, it may remain a duopoly between the Congress’ UDF and the Marxists’ LDF, and these two parties may well remain the ones in power. But the fact is that the BJP is making both of them rethink the electoral calculus. And the BJP may or may not be satisfied with being the swing bloc that decides which of these two alliances forms the next government. They may ask for their pound of flesh.
Despite much talk about the political maturity of the Kerala voter, my sense is that the place remains mired in considerations of religion and jati. It is quite possibly the most communal part of the country, but people are clever enough to hide it in conversations, especially with observers. Covert communalism, on the other hand, is widespread.
It is a peculiar setup, where, according to the 2011 Census, 54 percent are Hindus, 27 percent Muslims, and 18 percent Christians, although the reality is that a lot of the Hindus are Communists, and there is over-counting of Hindus due to large-scale conversions, so the actual Hindu vote is lower. Among the Hindus, there are several groups: Ezhava (OBC) 20 percent, Nair (FC) 13 percent, Pulaya (SC) 2 percent, and so forth.
Almost all these groups tend to vote in blocs. Thus the Congress has traditional voters concentrated among Christians and Nairs; the Muslim League, Muslims; and the Marxist vote has been dominated by Ezhavas. This pattern has been stable for a long time and may account for the razor-thin margins by which candidates win.
There are also regional imbalances. Northern Kerala (Malabar) is dominated by Muslims; Central Kerala by Christians, and Southern Kerala by Hindus in terms of numbers and influence.
This stable equilibrium has been disrupted by two things this year: a Hindu consolidation contemporaneous with the arrival of Narendra Modi on the national stage and the estrangement of the Ezhavas from the Marxists.
There has traditionally been bad blood between the numerically dominant Hindu groups, the Ezhavas and the Nairs – and they generally have not voted for or with each other. The result has been that a consolidated Hindu vote never emerged, whereas there are dependable Christian and Muslim votebanks.
This year, two things happened: the BJP’s Kerala cadres are working towards a united Hindu vote. In fact, most of their collateral seemed to have a triumvirate of 19th century leaders, thus symbolising a pan-Hindu movement. From the Ezhavas, Sree Narayana Guru; from the Nairs, Chattampi Swamikal, and from the Pulayas, Ayyankali. It is widely believed that such a positioning will bear fruit for the BJP.
The Ezhava organisation, Sree Narayana Darma Paripalana Yogam, has been in the forefront of this consolidation, with its leader Vellappally Natesan hobnobbing with the BJP. This will hurt the Marxists and there is a non-trivial possibility they will be routed.
The Nair Service Society demurs, and prefers the Congress, but it appears individual Nairs are being attracted to the BJP, thus hurting the Congress.
The Pulaya Mahasabha has also been openly supportive of the BJP, reasoning perhaps that as an OBC, Modi is more sympathetic to their needs.
Thus the situation is fluid. Tharoor may be right: the Congress, with its trusty Christian votebank, may not be affected very much. But they will face anti-incumbency, especially because of big scams. Just today as I write this, a Vigilance Court startled them by declaring their sitting Finance Minister would be investigated in a large and contentious alcohol-related scam. (This is important, because Keralites are the biggest consumers of alcohol on a per capita basis, alas.)
The Marxists are also vulnerable. That is partly because of pure demographics and partly because of their own missteps. Marxists hurt Ezhava sentiments by taking them for granted, and also through insensitivity. They created, in a parade, a tableau of Sree Narayana Guru being lassoed and then crucified by upper caste Hindus. The idea was that OBCs were being oppressed by upper jatis, but it came across as arrogant and sacrilegious. Besides, a series of bloody murders of RSS activists by Marxists (and vice versa) has tarnished their image.
The BJP has a problem with name recognition: few of its top echelons are household names, but the general trend supports them. The award-return circus and Kerala House beef circus may help or hinder the BJP, it is hard to tell. Encouragingly for them, the most recent by-election, in Aruvikkara showed them gaining a number of new voters.
Thus, the overall situation in Kerala remains murky, but chances are that the Congress and the Marxists will lose some of their support, the Muslim League will retain its, and the BJP will gain.