Kerala and BJP – the 2019 story

Among the 58 ministers of the new Narendra Modi government, there is 1 representative from Kerala. I think that is one too many and Modi is being too generous to a state that has decisively voted against him by electing all 20 MPs from the opposition parties. That I am disappointed is an understatement. Like almost everyone, I too believed BJP would open its account this time in Kerala. In fact I believed they would win at least 2 seats from the state. In the end, not only did the party not win anything, party candidates came 3rd in every constituency except Thiruvananthapuram.

So, what happened? How did we end up here despite the state yearning for a change and the political climate being ripe for the lotus to bloom? There are many narratives going around; many reasons being offered. But for me the only reliable story is the one narrated by the numbers. So I looked at the votes polled for each of the 3 alliances in each constituency in the state- NDA headed by BJP, Congress-led UDF and Communist LDF.

Vote % of each alliance in different PCs (Parliamentary Constituencies) of Kerala after 2016 assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For the 2016 data, votes obtained in each AC (assembly constituency) under a PC were combined to calculate the %. Yellow colored cells in the 2019 columns indicate the actual winner in that constituency and those for the 2016 columns indicate the probable winner going by the vote%. Data obtained from Election Commission of India results website.

Even a cursory reading of the data makes it very clear that there was a very strong anti-LDF wave throughout the state. They lost a significant % of their 2016 vote share in every single constituency in the state. The anti-wave was so strong that they lost by very large margins even in their traditional strongholds like Kannur (-8%), Alathur (-9%), Kollam (-15%) and Palakkad (-5%).  

The state’s electorate was so determined to punish the LDF that they ensured all the anti-LDF votes went to the party that was best placed to beat them, which in most of the state was UDF. In the bargain, BJP failed to reap the dividends of the sacrifices and hard work they put in during the Sabarimala agitation despite being the most ardent defenders of devotees’ rights.  

But in some constituencies where the BJP was deemed strong enough to challenge LDF, there was a very appreciable increase in the party’s vote share. In some of these constituencies, the LDF votes transferred en masse to BJP; like in Pathanamthitta (+10%) or Attingal (+7%). And in some other constituencies, they had to split the spoils with the UDF; like in Thrissur (+8.6% of LDF’s -14%) or Palakkad (+2% of LDF’s +5%) or Thiruvananthapuram (4% of LDF’s -12.6%). In almost all constituencies where BJP’s vote share saw a significant increase, the party had a low starting base, of about only 18%, as recently as 2016. This meant that the vote transfer was not big enough to ensure a victory.  

But the result in Thiruvananthapuram was an anomaly. Here BJP had a base of about 27% in 2016 and had come as close to victory as 15000 votes in 2014. Yet, the party not only didn’t win here but the margin of defeat increased to about 100,000 votes. There could be several reasons one can speculate on for this result.

  • After the events at Sabarimala, the Nair Service Society (NSS) vowed to defeat the LDF at any cost and, as per media reports, decided to support the best possible candidate that could help them accomplish this. Pursuant to that, it is possible that NSS considered Shashi Tharoor a better candidate than Kummanam Rajasekharan on that measure.
  • Another reason could be the massive consolidation of Christian and Muslim votes in favour of UDF seen across the state. In 2014, the only reason Tharoor survived was due to the consolidation of votes from these communities.
  • Wherever the BJP is strong in the state, LDF and UDF are known to collaborate and transfer their votes en masse to whoever is best positioned to defeat BJP. They had already done this against Kummanam in 2016 assembly election in Vattiyoorkavu constituency, as admitted later by the winning UDF candidate K Muralidharan.
  • A sabotage from inside is something that I don’t want to believe but is quite possible. The state BJP unit is known to be plagued by internal power struggle which on several occasions in the past had resulted in self-destructive outcomes.

  So, what is the way forward for BJP in Kerala? Is the state just insurmountable for the party? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe the results of 2019 election show that the party is now in a better position to mount a challenge to replace LDF as the 2nd pole in state politics. What these elections have shown is that the Hindu vote base of the LDF can be taken away if the conditions are appropriate. Because non-Hindu minorities are the main base of UDF, BJP is the natural home for these migrating LDF voters. However, these elections have also shown that before something like that can happen, BJP has to get its act together and start acting like a potential winner. Most importantly, they have to get their strategy and the leadership faces for the state right.

The current state leadership of BJP comes across as though they aren’t serious about defeating the LDF. They come across as jaded and give an impression that, having given up the fight, they are prepared to make “adjustments” with the opponents for personal gain. Worse, they just don’t seem capable of burying their personal ambitions and animosities for the larger good of the party and the people of Kerala.

There is a lesson for Kerala BJP leaders from Smriti Irani’s victory in Amethi. Voters like politicians who stick with them and stand by them and work for them despite a defeat. They don’t like those who run away in search of a safe seats at the first inkling of a defeat. There are too many ‘leaders’ in Kerala BJP who have not bothered to or were not allowed to nurture a constituency.

Take Sobha Surendran for example. She contested 2014 LS elections from Palakkad PC and came 3rd with about 15% votes. She then settled there and nurtured the constituency. In 2016 VS elections, she contested from Palakkad AC and came 2nd increasing the vote % to almost 30%. But come 2019 LS elections, she was packed off to Attingal PC far away from Palakkad. Despite that, she ran an excellent campaign and secured a 7% increase in BJP’s vote share. The right thing now would be to allow her to settle here, nurture an AC within Attingal PC and contest from there in the next VS elections in 2021.

Similarly, all the candidates who performed well in 2019 should contest from an AC within their respective PCs in 2021. This I think will increase the probability of greater BJP representation in the Assembly.

There is going to be byelections to at least 5 assembly constituencies in the state very soon and in 3 of these constituencies, BJP is capable of winning. In Vattiyoorkavu, Kummanam was a very close 2nd in 2016. In Manjeswar (Kasargod PC), K Surendran lost by less than 100 votes. Konni AC, which will fall vacant after Adoor Prakash became an MP, falls in the Pathanamthitta PC where BJP had the highest vote % gain in the state at 10%. If the party plays its cards right and doesn’t mess up candidate selection (one can always hope), the total NDA members in the Assembly could go up to 4-5 before the end of the year.

And that would be the perfect launchpad for a more assertive campaign in 2021 to take over the LDF’s vote base.

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