Five months, it seems, is a long time in politics, certainly long enough for the electorate in Kerala to forgive, if not forget, the Left Front’s decision to ‘desecrate’ the holy shrine of Sabarimala.
The Left Front has emerged as the undisputed and unexpected winner in today’s results of the high-profile Pala by-election, but it is difficult to figure out whether it is the Congress or the BJP who should be crowned the biggest loser.
Pala, which has been with the Congress-led front for nearly 50 years, has fell to the LDF, though by a modest majority of just 2.3%.
It was just five months ago that LDF had witnessed one of the worst performances in its history, losing all but one of the 20 Lok Sabha seats from the state.
In the general elections of May, LDF’s vote share in Pala had fallen to just 25.9% — half that of the Congress-led UDF, which came in with 51.9% of the votes. Just three years earlier, the gap between LDF and UDF had been just 3.4 percentage points (see chart).
The debacle in the Lok Sabha polls was attributed to a widely criticized decision to send in ‘activists’ to the Sabarimala temple to further the cause of gender equality.
The resulting tide of anger also lifted the BJP-led NDA to a 20.56% vote-share, up from 17.9% in the 2016 state elections.
As such, the UDF had expected a cakewalk in Pala this time: However, what they got was a shocker.
While the UDF can still blame factionalism for the poor results — a group within the ruling front were miffed by the way the candidate was selected — the BJP will find it harder to explain the 31.5% fall in its vote share. From 20.6% in May, the NDA’s vote share fell to 14.1%.
What is of note is that is that this is even less than the 17.9% vote share that the NDA had recorded in 2016, before the Sabarimala incident.
Easy answers are hard to come by, but a combination of national factors and local factors are likely to have driven voters away from the saffron front.
One of the biggest factors is likely to have been Ezhava voters.
It was the addition of Ezhava voters in 2016 that is credited with taking the NDA into double-digit vote shares in 2016.
In the state elections of 2016, BJP made an all-out move attract Ezhava voters by helping create BDJS, a new outfit that was largely positioned as an ‘Ezhava party’.
BDJS was formed with the blessing, and active involvement, of Vellappalli Nateshan, the long-time president of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam or SNDP Yogam, the most prominent of Ezhava community organizations in Kerala.
Ezhavas, who are estimated to form about 25% of the population, or about 50% of the Hindu population in the state, have traditionally favored the Left Democratic Front as the Congress-led UDF has largely represented the privileged sections of the society — Hindu upper castes, Syrian Christians and the well-to-do among the state’s Muslims.
The formation of BDJS was seen as a clever move by the BJP to try to bring Ezhavas within the saffron front, even as it kept its upper caste supporters happy by continuing with the largely upper-caste nature of its local leadership.
However, relations between BJP and BDJS soured soon after the 2016 elections, and today resemble those between BJP and Shiv Sena in Maharashtra — except for the fact that there are no compulsions of power to keep the two together.
On the other side, shocked by the unexpectedly harsh voter reaction to the Sabarimala episode, the CPIM too kicked off an effort to win back some of the angry Hindu voters, with CPIM state secretary even promising Rs 5 lakh each to poor Brahmins to rebuild their houses.
The outreach to the SNDP leadership, as a proxy for Ezhavas, was led by CM Pinarayi Vijayan, who has the advantage of being an Ezhava himself.
Meanwhile, the Ezhava-Upper Caste tussles were having some repercussions within the BJP as well, with some Ezhava leaders in the saffron camp openly questioning the ‘upper caste’ nature of the party leadership in Kerala.
As such, there is pressure within the state unit to make K Surendran, an Ezhava leader, the state president of the BJP in place of incumbent K Sreedharan Pillai.
In fact, just before the Pala bypoll, Surendran was forced to issue a clarification on Facebook, denying that there was any such move to make him state president.
For now, the party is fully focused on putting up a decent performance in the six bypolls being conducted for the state assembly on October 21, which will be conducted along with the crucial 15 seat bypolls in Karnataka. These six seats had fallen vacant after the MLAs got elected to the Lok Sabha earlier this year.
Another factor that may have contributed to the lower-than-expected polling turnout for the NDA may be fears of ‘cultural imposition’ by the central government.
A statement by Home Minister Amit Shah calling for the use of Hindi as a common language in India was met with much scepticism in Kerala, despite the state being one of the most cosmopolitan and culturally diverse places in the country.
The statement, which would hardly have been noticed had it come from a UPA Home Minister, furthered concerns in the context of a long-time suspicion in Kerala that the BJP is essentially a North Indian party that is ignorant of the cultural heritage of other parts of India.
A lackluster economy is unlikely to have swung any new voters to the BJP either.