Wednesday, May 05, 2004
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A couple of weeks ago, political analysts would refuse to be drawn into a detailed discussion of the electoral prospects in Kerala this time. The result, they would say, is not going to throw up a big surprise. It is all a matter of a couple of seats going this way or that. And in any case, no matter which way the verdict goes, it makes little difference to the numbers game in Parliament. All the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the State are bound to count against the NDA coalition. The last couple of weeks have seen a subtle change. With robust projections of both the leading alliances falling short of majority, and the possibility of a Congress-led alliance backed by the Left having a go at government formation, the exact numbers for the Congress alliance and the Left are no longer merely a matter of statistical interest. It may make a crucial difference, especially if the Left manages to touch a figure of 50 seats this time, a real possibility if it retains its nine seats in Kerala. Kerala would then decide the relative clout that the Left may be able to exercise in Delhi.
Unlike much of north India, elections in Kerala are not about a highly volatile electorate swinging from one pole to another. Every election is about fine-tuning a very delicate balance of social and political forces. Therefore it is first necessary to understand this balance of forces, before getting into how this electoral contest might change the balance and in whose favour.
The main contest in Kerala is between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) dominated by the CPI (M). Besides the Congress, the UDF includes the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) that commands strong loyalty among the Muslims in the Malabar region in the north and the two factions of the Kerala Congress that have represented the Christian interests. The LDF includes the CPI (M), the CPI, the RSP and a few Left supported Independent candidates in seats where the LDF has historically been weak. Both the alliances expand in the Assembly elections to include other smaller parties, but the line up remains fairly standard for the Lok Sabha elections. Between them, the two coalitions account for about 90 per cent of the total votes in the State, with each of these getting at least 40 per cent or so. That leaves a floating vote of about 10 per cent or less whose swing makes all the difference to the final outcome. Since 1989, the BJP has tried seriously to obtain a toehold in the State and has secured between five to eight per cent votes, but has not succeeded in winning a single Lok Sabha or Assembly seat.
Underlying this familiar and stable bipolar competition is a very carefully worked out and intricate pattern of political and social alliances. As in so many other things, Kerala was ahead of the rest of the country in anticipating political developments. Kerala experimented with seat adjustments and electoral alliances in the 1950s and came to have full-fledged fronts by 1960s. No doubt the State went through two decades of political instability and social turmoil, but this period also saw politics acting as an instrument of social transformation. The UDF and the LDF in its current shape came into being in 1980 and have continued thereafter with minor fine-tuning. The rest of the country is still struggling to learn how to run coalitions in the way they are run in Kerala. While much of the country went through a cycle of national electoral waves, Kerala's elections were very much bound by the State context. The rest of the country followed course in the 1990s as the State became the effective arena of political choice even in the Lok Sabha elections.
But there is one respect in which Kerala is not an exception to the rest of the country's politics. Notwithstanding the high literacy and the political awareness, caste-community identity of the voters in Kerala tells you as much about their voting behaviour as it does in, say, Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. In fact, the entire balance of UDF and the LDF hangs on the caste-community arithmetic. Kerala has two large religious minorities. Christians constitute about 19 per cent of the population, internally divided into several sects and churches. Among the `upper caste' and dominant Syrian Christians, the UDF bags more than three-fourths of the votes, while the other Christians are evenly split between the two fronts. The Muslims constitute about 23 per cent of the State's population and are concentrated in the northern districts of Malabar. The two Lok Sabha constituencies of Manjeri and Ponnani are among the handful of Muslim majority seats in the country. The Muslims too have their caste distinctions but they are more or less united in their disinclination to vote for the communists. The UDF gets anything between two-thirds to three fourths of their vote through its ally, the IUML. Following the demolition of the Babri Masjid, there was an attempt to create an alternative to the established leadership of the IUML, but it failed.
The Left's inability to win the confidence of the two largest minorities, a fact acknowledged by E.M.S. Namboodiripad himself, has meant that the LDF has to gather much of its support from the remaining 60 per cent of the electorate and that its perch is always more precarious than that of its counterpart in West Bengal. Historically, the LDF has drawn its principal support from the backward and Dalit communities among the Hindus that became politically conscious through a series of self-respect movements and were successfully mobilised by the communist movement. The biggest single group here are the Ezhavas, traditionally toddy tappers, who constitute about 22 per cent of the population and about two-thirds of whom vote for the LDF. Other OBC communities and the eight per cent Dalits too extend overwhelming support to the Left. The upper castes, mainly Nayars, constitute about 15 per cent of the population and have generally not favoured the Left. In the recent elections the BJP has drawn much of its vote share from this section of the electorate. That leaves the miniscule Adivasi population, concentrated in the Wayanad hills, whose numbers do not allow it to be a big player in this intense political competition. C. K. Janu, an Adivasi activist, is contesting the elections this time to draw attention to the plight of the Adivasis. It could be argued that the pattern of voting in Kerala is not principally along caste-community lines; there is indeed a strong class pattern to voting for the two alliances on the expected lines: the lower the class, the higher the vote for the LDF. But that is mainly because different caste-communities are placed differently on the class ladder.
This sociology of voting on caste-community lines is a stable and enduring fact of Kerala's political life. In this sense Kerala's electoral landscape is very similar to the voters alignment in many western democracies. This stability enables one to speak of `safe' and `marginal' seats in the State in a way that one does in Britain. This stable alignment has meant that both the Fronts have a stable and secure base to begin with. But this has not meant any complacency in political competition; if anything political competition is more intense in here than most other States in India. Since political competition is for a small proportion of unattached or floating voters and a few marginal seats, a small proportion of votes changing hands can make all the difference. Compared to any other State in India, Kerala is most sensitive to small swings in votes.
Paradoxically, the salience of the caste-community factor in the voting pattern does not result in the salience of caste as a factor in election issues and campaigning. Caste-community patterns merely form a familiar backdrop to electoral competition. The fierce competition for the unattached votes takes place on the basis of issues, national and local. The proportion of floating voters is the highest among the educated upper caste voters and the least among the Dalits. Another complicating factor is that the discerning Kerala voter tends to distinguish between the issues in the national and the State level polls. The UDF therefore always enjoys an edge in the Lok Sabha polls, since it can claim to be a player at the national level in a way that the Left is not.
This time the Congress opened the campaign on a defensive note, for the State unit was involved in unseemly factional fight between the Karunakaran and Antony factions, embarrassing even by Congress' standards. The Congress leadership managed to patch up matters finally by accommodating Mr. Karunakaran's son and daughter. Both of them are in the electoral fray this time: daughter Padmaja is contesting the Lok Sabha polls from Mukundapuram, while his son Muraleedharan is involved in a prestigious Assembly by-poll from the Wadakkancherry constituency. While their performance would reflect on the popularity of Mr. Karunakaran, it seems that the UDF may have saved itself from a major setback in this elections because of this conflict. At any rate the LDF does not seem to be succeeding in making an election issue out of this. The LDF is focussing more on the voters' disaffection with the functioning of the Antony Government that is more than half way through its undistinguished tenure. The Congress is trying to press its natural advantage in a Lok Sabha poll, that it represents a national alternative to the BJP. The LDF is trying to question the Congress' capacity to challenge the BJP in any effective manner.
The BJP is trying hard to open its account in the State and is enthused by the reception that L.K. Advani's Bharat Uday Yatra got in the State. Opinion polls indicate that the BJP may increase its vote share throughout the State and is set to cross its own record vote share of eight per cent in 1998. But it is not clear if the party can convert these into a seat. The BJP has done best in Kasargod and Trivandrum constituencies located at the northern and the southern tips of the State. In the Trivandrum constituency it had managed to secure 20 per cent votes in the last election. The party has put Union Minister O. Rajagopal in this prestigious contest and will be hoping that he will touch 30 per cent, so as to have a real chance of winning the first ever seat for the BJP. While the BJP is known to have transferred its votes to the UDF in some select cases, it is possible that the UDF and the LDF may resort to selective vote transfer to keep the BJP out.
All in all it is a very tough contest as usual. All the seats except Trivandrum and Muvattupuzha are witnessing a direct contest between the UDF and the LDF. Although both the fronts begin with a position of near equality in terms of their tally last time, the dice is loaded against the LDF.
A swing of one percentage point in favour of the UDF can take as many as five seats away from the LDF. A swing of only two percentage points can wipe out all the LDF seats and give them to the UDF. The UDF is also vulnerable to small swings, but is not so precariously placed. A swing of three percentage points will mean a loss of five seats for the UDF, while some of its seats can withstand even a five per cent swing. Only a brave man can forecast a contest as close as this.
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