Today’s elections to the Kerala state assembly creates an unusual dilemma for supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Kerala — their long-term interest is in ensuring a Congress win to keep the Left out, but doing so will come at the expense of the BJP continuing to look like a promising new car that just never starts.
There are two reasons why NDA has a ‘soft corner’ for the Congress-led United Democratic Front.
First, the overwhelming majority of the people who are now in the NDA camp come from traditional backgrounds that have formed the solid foundation on which the Congress Party was built. While the rising clout of Christian leaders in state Congress may have pushed them to seek greener pastures in the NDA; by sensibilities, they are still very much ‘Congressmen’ and carry an inherent revulsion towards the ‘violent’ politics of the Left.
Secondly, the current brand of ‘communal minority politics’ of the UDF is exactly the kind of stuff that has helped the BJP build its brand among the Hindus and another term for the UDF will do it a great deal of good. Besides, by failing to come back to power, the Left would have proven itself incapable of countering UDF’s brand of communal politics — a charge that the BJP makes constantly.
FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
This also means that today’s polls in Kerala are a fight for survival for the Left parties. If they fail to achieve majority when the results are declared on Thursday, there is almost zero chance that there will ever be a Left-led government in Kerala.
The BJP, not surprisingly, is acutely aware of these facts, and there are unconfirmed reports that it could even help the Congress-led front beat the 71-seat-mark in the ongoing elections.
While the BJP could help the Congress-led UDF come back to power by helping them win 10-12 seats, the UDF could return the favor by allowing the BJP to open its account for the first time in Kerala’s state assembly.
Even without any such give and take, it would make strategic and tactical sense for the NDA to ensure a win for the Congress Front.
FISHING FROM THE HINDU POND
The reason why the Left parties and the BJP see each other as mortal enemies in Kerala has to do with the common pool of voters from which both draw their support.
Around 46% of the state’s population comprises Christians and Muslims. Among these groups, it is estimated that 65% support the UDF and only around 25% support the Left.
As a result, the BJP thinks it is will be easier to dislodge the Left and capture its Hindu voters than to discredit the UDF and win over the Muslims and Christians to its side.
However, BJP’s task is complicated by the internal division among the Hindus.
In Kerala, the Hindu population is divided into the ‘Savarnas’ (caste Hindus) and the Bahujans or ‘avarnas’ (cultural Hindus).
The Savarnas comprise about 15% of the total population of Kerala. The remaining 38% or so of the state’s population are the Hindu Avarnas — primarily Ezhavas (21% of the population) and Dalits (14-15%).
In terms of voting behaviour, the Savarnas closely resembled the minorities — with about 70% supporting the Congress and only 20% going with the Left. However, over the last five years, with the sidelining of Hindu leaders in the Congress, their voting pattern has undergone a sea change.
It is estimated that as of now, about 50% of Savarna voters in the state support the BJP, with the Left and the UDF splitting the rest more or less evenly.
When we come to the Avarnas, about two-thirds of votes traditionally found their way to the Left parties and the remaining third to the Congress.
Over the last years, and for the reasons already mentioned, Congress’ support among Avarnas has fallen from about 33% to about 15% — with the 18% going directly to the NDA.
However, when it comes to Avarnas, and in particular Ezhavas, it is not just the BJP that is benefiting from this vote shift.
Vellappalli Nateshan, a prominent leader among Ezhavas, floated his own party — the Bharatiya Dharma Jan Sena — earlier this year and joined the NDA. He is now supposed to have the backing of around a third of this populous community, boosting the NDA’s overall vote share by around 7% (one third of 21% Ezhava votes.)
In conclusion — going by anecdotal evidence and trends from recent local body polls — among Hindus as a whole, support for the BJP-led NDA has reached an all-time high of around 35% — well ahead of the Congress’ 15-20%, and only slightly behind the Left Front’s 45-50%.
If the Left fails today’s elections, the BJP is confident that the electoral equation among Hindus will reverse after another five years under the UDF and it will command 50-55% or more of the Hindu votes, with the Left replacing the BJP as Kerala’s ‘unwinnable’ third front.
The NDA could, at that point, bring in Christian votes using the same strategy that it used for Ezhavas — by bringing in a party with deep roots in the target community.
On the other hand, a victory for the Left in today’s elections will force the BJP to soften its Hindutva ideology and try to attract minority voters by targeting the Congress on planks such as corruption and sycophancy — a task that is much more difficult that attacking the Left parties for their ‘outdated ideology’ and ‘violent politics’.