Both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party in Kerala have reason to worry from the results of Chengannur bye-election conducted on Sunday.

With nearly all votes in — including those from areas considered strongholds of Congress and BJP — the Left Front candidate Saji Cherian was comfortably in the lead.

The vote share of the Left Front jumped to 44.5% from 37.1% two years ago, while that of the BJP fell to 23.3% from 29.9%. The vote share of the Congress-led UDF fell to 30.7% from 31.5% (see chart).

The electorate in Chengannur is divided into Hindu upper caste (about 30%), Ezhava (25-30%), Syrian Christian (25-30%) and others. The relatively high proportion of Hindu upper caste voters and minority voters is supposed to give an edge to the BJP and the Congress respectively.

TURN LEFT

The numbers so far indicate two broad trends.

First, the BJP has lost a considerably number of votes compared to two years ago — possibly around 25%-30%, while the Congress-led UDF has not been able to increase its tally compared to two years ago despite anti-incumbency against the Left Front government, and a vigorous campaign.

Worryingly for the BJP, the numbers seem to indicate that a substantial chunk of new BJP voters from two years ago seem to have gone back to their original preference, especially those who had come from the Left. Still, the continued poor performance by the Congress indicates that the BJP has managed to hold on to most of the Congress voters who voted for them in 2016.

Secondly, many Syrian Christian voters, a community that typically allocates about 70-80% of their votes to the UDF, seemed to have gone with the LDF this time. It should be noted that the LDF had fielded a Christian candidate (Saji Cherian), while the UDF had gone with a Hindu candidate D Vijayakumar.

The UDF alliance was also missing the support of Kerala Congress (Mani), a key state-level alliance partner which whose leader was ejected over corruption charges. It remains a matter of contention how much of an impact the constituent had on the results. In Thiruvanmandoor panchayat, which is under Kerala congress, UDF came third, BJP and second.

Thanks largely to the huge inroads made by the BJP into the Congress’ upper caste Hindu base, the Left was able to register a clear win with opposition votes divided between the BJP and the Congress almost equally.

BJP VOTES

The BJP has cause for concern in the numbers, even though the cloud does have a silver lining as the party seemed to have been able to hold on to many of the (Hindu) Congress Party voters who had shifted to it in 2016.

Historically speaking, the BJP had seen a tremendous surge in votes in 2016 Assembly elections in Chengannur, like in many of the other constituencies in Kerala, going from about 6,000 votes to 43,000.

The reason was not far to seek. Much of the momentum came from the leadership of Narendra Modi and the renewed vigor provided by Amit Shah to the cadre.

Another crucial factor that helped the BJP front in 2016 was its alliance with the BDJS, a party that draws its support almost exclusively from the Ezhava community.

Ezhavas traditionally give about 60% of their votes to the Left, 30% to the UDF and 10% to the BJP.

However, in 2016, a large number of voters of this OBC community shifted to the BJP because of the Modi factor as well as BDJS, which was formed just before the election, and had allied with the BJP.

Going by exit polls, the percentage of Ezhavas going for the LDF fell to 51% in 2016 from 57% in 2011, while the percentage of Ezhava voters going for the UDF fell even more — to just 15% from 33%.

Most of these voters seemed to have moved primarily to the BJP. The percentage of Ezhava voters who chose the BJP jumped to 28% in 2016 from 9% in 2011.

All this enabled the BJP to increase its tally in Chengannur to about 42,700 votes in 2016 from just about 6,100 votes in 2011 assembly elections.

This also resulted in a massive decline in Congress votes, which fell to just 44,900 in 2016 from 65,200 five years earlier. Even though the Left Front’s votes did not change much (52,900 vs 52,700 in 2011), the party was able to register a win 2016 due to the fragmentation of the opposition votes.

STRATEGIC MISTAKES

Both the BJP and the Congress seemed to be paying for strategic mistakes.

For the Congress, the decision to overlook the influence of the Kerala Congress Mani party seems to have played a part in the defeat. Another factor was the decision to field a Hindu candidate in an attempt to win back some of the Hindu upper caste voters who had ditched the party in 2016 and shifted their allegiance to the BJP.

However, in so doing, the Congress seemed to have succeeded in only creating an opening for the LDF to field a Christian candidate and siphon away some of Congress’ Syrian Christian vote base. Meanwhile, the Congress’ strategy of trying to win back Hindu upper caste votes seems to have fallen flat as BJP continued to poll strong in areas dominated by such voters.

Similarly for the BJP, the decision to keep BDJS at arm’s length seemed to have led to considerable number of Ezhava voters ditching the party for the LDF. BJP and BDJS have had a public falling out in recent months over the former allegedly failing to keep promising given to BDJS on allocating positions in central government bodies.

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