On the face of it, things went well for the Bharatiya Janata Party yesterday in Kerala.
After decades of efforts at break into a two-party system, the saffron outfit finally managed to win its first seat in the state legislative assembly this time with party veteran O Rajagopal finding luck, and votes, in Nemom constituency near the capital Trivandrum.
Rajagopal trounced his nearest rival V Sivankutty of the CPIM by polling 67,813 votes against Sivankutty’s 59,142. V Surendran Pillai of the Congress-led UDF polled just 13,860 votes — by far the lowest total of any UDF candidate in any of the 140 assembly constituencies.
The results have proved that Congress High Command Sonia Gandhi severely misread the impact of rising BJP influence in the state.
Under the counsel of state chief minister Oommen Chandy, the Congress High Command was reportedly inclined to believe that the BJP’s rise would hit the Left parties more as they got about 70% of their votes from the various Hindu communities in the state. The BJP’s rise would leave the Congress — it was assumed — largely unscathed as it got only about 40% of its votes from Hindu segments.
However, as should have been obvious from local body election results last year, this was a brilliant miscalculation. The BJP managed to make big inroads only into the upper caste and rich Hindu segments, while leaving working class Hindus — mostly OBC Ezhavas and Dalits — largely untouched.
This was terrible news for Gandhi’s party as it was the upper castes and richer segments of Ezhavas who supplied Congress’ 40% traditional Hindu votes.
While five years ago, 33% of Ezhavas voted for the Congress, this time, the proportion has fallen to a mere 12% according to exit poll results.
This has been accompanied by a proportionate shift of Ezhava votes to the BJP.
Five years ago, only 9% of them voted for the saffron party, while this time, a full 30% did according to exit polls.
To make matters worse, all through this churn, the Left parties’ share of votes among Ezhavas have remained unchanged at about 57%.
Similarly, while 46% of upper caste Hindus voted for the Congress last time, the proportion fell to about 25% this time. At the same time, the BJP raised its stake in this section from 17% five years ago to above 40%.
Add to this an anti-incumbency factor that affected Congress’ minority vote base at least slightly, and the Congress was set up for the perfect storm.
DARK LINING TO BJP’S SILVER CLOUD
All this shifting and swaying may sound very positive for the BJP and ominous to the Congress Party, and it is too. But these headlines hide a disturbing fact for the BJP — it has only been able to tap into Congress’ Hindu vote base, and has practically left the Left’s votes untouched.
As a result, while the BJP raised its vote share from about 5.6% in 2011 to almost 15% in 2016, the LDF’s vote share hardly declined — moving from 43.6% to 43.1%. However, the real damage was borne by the Congress alliance, which saw its share fall to 38.8% from around 45.8%.
THE COLOR OF VOTES
So, the question now arises – does it really matter where the BJP gets its votes from as long as it does?
The answer is yes.
A failure to attract the powerful Ezhava community — even after the Prime Minister himself gracing their holy Mutt ahead of the election — has to unsettle the top brass of the party.
Without winning over the Ezhavas — twice as big as any other Hindu group in the state — there is zero chance for the BJP to destroy the Left front in Kerala or to create a Hindu front.
The Ezhavas — also known as Thiyya (Kshatriya) — have been the driving force behind the Left movement since it took hold in Kerala starting about 100 years ago.
Even for the RSS, a section of Ezhavas comprise the majority of the street-level cadre in Kerala.
Their dedication and willingness to make sacrifices in the name of ideology and organizations — coming from their martial past — make them the ideal ‘party workers’.
When RSS activists in Kannur butcher an CPIM activist, it’s almost always a Thiyya mother who loses her son, and the same holds true when a CPIM gang hacks an RSS worker.
WHY EZHAVAS SUPPORTED LEFT
It has surprised pundits that the Ezhavas continued to vote for the Left front in huge numbers even after Vellappalli Nateshan, head of SNDP — the top Ezhava organization — floated his own party and joined the NDA alliance.
Both the Congress and the BJP — who were banking on a shift in Ezhava votes — were sorely disappointed.
Though Vellappalli’s new outfit managed to win substantial number of votes — going as high as 33,000 in some constituencies — the votes seem to have come from the Congress’ ranks.
This was surprising given that other groups similarly targeted by the BJP reacted as per NDA and Congress’ calculations. A case in point is the Sulthan Bathery (Sultan’s Battery) constituency in Kerala’s tribal district of Wayanad. Here, the NDA fielded influential tribal leader CK Janu. She attracted a large section of scheduled tribe voters — who traditionally favored the LDF — and ensured a Congress victory despite widespread poverty and corruption in the area (see chart).
It is perhaps one of the only two constituencies where the UDF’s majority actually increased this time compared to five years ago. The Congress candidate won with a majority of 11,200 votes over the Left candidate even as BJP-supported Janu scooped up nearly 28,000 votes. Five years ago, the NDA candidate could only manage 8,800 votes.
Both Chandy and the BJP were hoping to repeat this success across the Ezhava belt, which is practically the entire state of Kerala, but the community stood solidly behind the Left this time, upending the calculations.
The reason is not far to seek. VS Achyuthanandan, the 92-year-old former Chief Minister of Kerala who led the Left campaign, endeared himself to the Ezhavas not just because he was one, but also because he had demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to take on corrupt interests in the state.
Achyuthanandan also proved himself to be an iconoclast and a rebel — two traits that define the Ezhava identity in the state.
The ex-trade union leader’s uncompromising, straightforward approach — which had almost won the Left an unprecedented consecutive second term in government five years ago — seemed all the more attractive after half a decade filled with allegations of corruption and nepotism under the Congress.
In short, the Ezhavas seemed to have voted for an Ezhava Chief Minister, while giving the go by to the newly formed Ezhava party.
ROAD AHEAD FOR BJP
The latest results have thrown a wrench into BJP’s plans to emerge as the Hindu alternative to the Christian- and Muslim-dominated (Congress-led) United Democratic Front in Kerala.
Pitching itself as the savior of Hindus came naturally to the BJP as the position fit well with its Hindutva ideology.
However, without Ezhavas, there can be no Hindu front of any consequence in the state.
The BJP, therefore, is left with two options in Kerala.
First is to wait for the Left Front to alienate the Ezhavas, and the second is to try and become what the Congress Party used to be — the party of the ‘haves’ — the upper caste Hindus, the Nazrani Christians and the richer sections among the Ezhavas and the Muslims.
To do the latter would require the party to totally reorient its campaign in the state, though a small beginning has already been made.
However, it could also wait for a few months to see whether the LDF ultimately is able to fulfill the expectations of its Ezhava support base, especially with regard to delivering VS as the Chief Minister.
VS, being a sort of ‘perpetual rebel’, does not enjoy great equations with his party’s big wigs, who suffer him only because of his immense popularity among Ezhavas and non-Ezhavas alike.
If the CPIM goes for a non-VS chief minister today — as is likely — it would give a chance for Vellappalli and the BJP to say ‘I told you so’ to the Ezhava voters.
However, the CPIM could dent this attack by appointing Pinarayi Vijayan, a Thiyya, as the Chief Minister. Vijayan, though not half a popular as VS, comes from the family of a toddy tapper and has excellent credentials as a self-made leader.
However, he also faces some unproven corruption charges, and is seen as being too soft on — and willing to compromise with — all sorts of non-Hindu extremists. VS, on the other hand, is seen as a blunt talker who takes on extremists — whether from the minorities or from the Hindutva side — with equal vigor.
Depending on whether Vijayan continues to be ‘extra soft’ on extremists of a particular hue and how well he handles the administration, the BJP could have a chance (or not) at reviving their ‘Hindu Unity’ plank in the state.
Otherwise, to continue to grow, it would have to undergo a severe image and course correction and pitch itself as a development alternative to a corrupt Congress Party — something it has successfully done in the North.