Election 2016: Beginning of a Tectonic Shift

Bindu Gopinath

The outcome of the Kerala assembly election underscores a rather disturbing trend: religion has become a decisive political factor in the state, more than ever.

It's not just the string of corruption scandals which rocked the Oommen Chandy government that helped the Left Democratic Front romp home. A shift in traditional vote banks, on the basis of religion, has also contributed to the massive defeat of the Congress Party. The emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party as a force to reckon with in Kerala, and the alliance it formed with the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena of the Ezhava community leader Vellappally Natesan, seem to have had a more damaging effect on the the United Democratic Front, though many had thought the BJP-BDJS pact would drain votes from the LDF.

Agreed that religion has always played a role in Kerala politics, irrespective of ideologies. Over the years, both the UDF and the LDF fielded candidates according to the caste and communal strength and sensitivities. While the UDF has sewn up a religion-based alliance of upper-caste Hindus, Muslims and Christians and wooed the votes of both Ezhavas and Nairs, the LDF, despite its Communist garb, has also chosen candidates according to caste-based demography.


But in recent months and during this election, issues such as the beef ban and the row in Jawaharlal Nehru University, though happened outside the state, evoked a fear factor among the Muslims who account for over a quarter of the population in Kerala. Perceptions that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's federal government is adopting a hardline Hindutva stance and right-wing fascist forces are being let loose added fuel to that concern. The choice of Kummanam Rajasekharan, a die-hard Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh man, as the chief of BJP in Kerala exacerbated the situation.

Meanwhile, Communist parties, led by the CPI (M), was at the forefront of waging an aggressive fight against the BJP on these issues, assuming the role of a messiah who stands up for minorities. (Never mind the party holds little sway anywhere outside Kerala.) Much to its undoing, the Congress was seen as lacking in vigor to mount an effective opposition to the BJP, as the party was almost already wiped out from the national scene.

The result of all this was that the the UDF lost some of its traditional voters among the Muslims, who found the LDF as a more acceptable and capable proposition that can take on the BJP. On his part, Chandy wasn't too vocal against the BDJS in the run-up to the polls, and this even led to some speculation that the Congress may have formed a clandestine deal with Natesan's new party in a few constituencies. So while the BJP-BDJS team may have lured some Nair, Ezhava votes, the LDF seems to have won many Muslim votes.

And yes, the never-ending corruption scams have also wrecked the UDF. As many as four ministers were defeated. Though the government had pitched development as its election plank, today's results show that the scandals and graft charges alienated voters. The much-touted liquor policy that saw the government shutting bars across the state also failed to win votes. The unexpected and substantial victory of P.C. George, who had eschewed both the fronts, has come as the twist in the tale.



On its part, the LDF did come together during the polls, with its leaders V.S. Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan burying their hatches for the time being. The LDF had reasons to be hopeful too: in last year's local body elections the front had bagged majority in 12 of the 14 districts. The LDF also had an edge during the hustings: they started their door-to-door campaigns and candidates' meeting with voters well in advance. They could complete two to three rounds of grassroots level work even before the UDF could start, which eventually worked in their favor.

With this election, the BJP deepened its roots in Kerala: the party won its first-ever assembly seat, came second in seven places, and significantly boosted votes across constituencies. Prime Minister Modi, who campaigned in the state, said in a Twitter post today that he salutes "all those who built the BJP in Kerala, brick by brick, decade after decade." For his party, this election is more than getting its first lawmaker in the assembly. It's a beginning that the BJP had been hankering after for many decades and one that chips away at the bipolar nature of Kerala politics. But when such tectonic shifts take place, there will also be side-effects that can be long-lasting and damaging.

(Photo credit: Premshree Pillai via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA ahrrrggh via Foter.com / CC BY Al Jazeera English via Foter.com / CC BY-SA)