Small swings usually make a big difference in Kerala. Among India’s most politically conscious States, Kerala is polarised between the Left Democratic Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the United Democratic Front led by the Congress, and one’s loss is almost inevitably the other’s gain. Mistakes in candidate selection or campaign management at the level of constituencies could often make the difference between victory and defeat. Indeed, going by recent history, any result is possible in the 2014 Lok Sabha election: a landslide for the UDF or for the LDF, or a close finish. In 2004, the LDF swept the polls winning 18 of the 20 seats; five years later, the UDF won 16. But only a count of two seats separated the winner, the UDF, and the loser in the 2011 Assembly election. The swings in terms of vote percentages are not as dramatic as the big differences in the number of seats seen in some elections. In any case, these are not indicative of any serious long-term shifts in voter preferences. As with many small States, the floating voters, who are also those most desirous of change, play a decisive role in Kerala. With coalition politics firmly entrenched here, the choice before the voters is limited. There are any number of community-based parties, but none of them can survive for long outside either of the two fronts. Thus, while there is a polarisation between the two fronts, the constituents of the two fronts are of varied hues and ideologies. Some communist stalwarts expelled from the CPI (M) for one reason or the other have been accommodated in the UDF; in the same manner, smaller parties such as the factions of the Kerala Congress, ideologically closer to the Congress, are often accommodated in the LDF.

The latest switch is by the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a long-time constituent of the LDF in Kerala and the Left Front in West Bengal, which joined the UDF almost as soon as it walked out of the LDF. Since any accretion in vote percentage could mean a quantum jump in seats, the UDF was willing to take in constituents of the LDF, including parties such as the RSP, which used to be a strong critic of Congress politics. Smaller parties thus continue to make themselves relevant within the limited elbow room allowed by the LDF-UDF polarisation. While the rest of the country is focussed on the front-runner in this election, the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kerala is unlikely to give it much space. The BJP usually fares better when the Congress and the UDF do badly, but even so it is nowhere near opening its account from Kerala. The party managed more than 10 per cent of the votes in 2004, only to slide back to just over 6 per cent in 2009. Since the Assembly election held three years ago, the UDF seems to have widened the gap between itself and the LDF, but small swings in the voter mood are possible as always. And, in Kerala, the big picture is made up of little pieces.

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