Did the confused Christian demography and the fence-sitter Hindu votes cost the UDF a plausible victory?
In the 2021 Kerala Assembly election, the CM Pinarayi Vijayan-led incumbent LDF were swayed to victory in a historic deviation from a four-decade old trend of alternating power between the LDF and the UDF. As the UDF needs strict introspection into election strategies, it is important to understand what drove the second term for the Left. These are categorically 3-staged errors.
CM v. Alliance of Nobodies
LDF strategically ran the election with Pinarayi Vijayan as its undoubted chief ministerial face compared to an uncertain INC-led UDF which neither had a decisive candidate nor was any regional strongman put at the fore-front of election campaign. The latter is the least that is needed in election against incumbent governments. Good examples are the 2018 assembly elections of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where although the INC did not have a determined CM face, senior leaders in consideration for the post like Gehlot and Pilot in Rajasthan and Nath and Scindia in Madhya Pradesh were at the fore-front of such elections.
In absence of such a face, the LDF was able to build on the rhetoric of strong and effective leadership of Vijayan. They were further able to amplify to the image of Vijayan as an expert of crisis management based on his deft handling of the 2018 and 2020 floods, Nipah virus and the coronavirus. This repudiated anti-incumbency sentiments in the minds of the average voter, while the UDF campaign led only by the Gandhi’s and IUML’s Kunhalikutty was making it worse. Even BJP did not make this mistake and declared E Sreedharan its chief face, although victory was far for the saffron party. This trend has been a constant across states and it is a pertinent realization that there is a need for strong fore-front regional leadership to contest against an incumbent CM.
The Christian demography and Kerala Congress factionalism
It will be a gross miscalculation if we are to collate the UDF’s loss with only the absence of electoral leadership. The Christian demography too played a key role. The split in Kerala Congress, the local party with a strong hold on Christian voters, and the consequent joining of the faction led by Mani into LDF was just the starting point. Even the original faction led by Joseph of the Kerala Congress was in the NDA until 17th March 2021 when they finally joined UDF. All of this turmoil and factionalism indicated one outcome for the UDF, an uncertain support from Christian voters.
Such uncertainty was clear from December 2020 itself, when a significant Christian vote share eroded from the UDF, in favour of mostly LDF and to some extent the NDA. This was already bad news for the UDF, which heavily relies on its support from Christian and Muslim voters. The situation was further aggravated by the constant BJP efforts to woo Christian voters, by establishing a Christian outfit under RSS, announcing several government and party positions to the community leaders and specifically targeting the Jacobite and orthodox Christians.
Even with all these significant developments since December 2020 itself, the UDF took no efforts to revive support amongst the community nor did it increase the representation of Christian candidates. It presumed success with its Kerala Congress Joseph faction’s return and the IUML’s Muslim support. This ended up being a strong decider as LDF retained most Christian support in South Kerala, the Kerala Congress factions increased its outreach to more seats and BJP with its Christian candidates did steal some orthodox Christian votes. The result? All of this confusion amongst Christian demography benefitted the incumbent LDF gain an edge over the UDF. The lack of political astuteness of the UDF in undermining Christian votes in Kerala cost them the election significantly.
Hindu fence sitters, Sabarimala and BJP’s crucial impact
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision permitting the entry of women into the Aiyappaswamy Temple in Sabarimala opened doors for Hindutva politics in Kerala. This was particularly important as LDF committed itself to the implementation of the court’s decision. But the Ezhavas, who are 24% of Hindu population in the state, still did not turn to the UDF. They continued to support LDF, while a faction of the support slipped to BJP owing to its new-formed alliance with Bharath Dharma Jana Sena. This was a lost opportunity for UDF as it simply took an anti-LDF stance expecting electoral miracles, but did not dare to bolster support within Hindu voters owing to the fear that Muslim and Christian vote-shares may dip.
Even the Nair community which was critical of the LDF on its Sabarimala stance did not pledge its unequivocal support for the UDF, although they wished to. UDF’s diplomatic mute on Sabarimala issue created a divide in the minds of these voters on whether it was worth the shift. Results were clear. BJP increased its vote share owing to support from these fence-sitter Hindu voters, LDF retained the majority of Ezhavas vote and the INC dipped further in its margin. BJP did not win many seats because of its limited voter base, but played a decisive role in attracting most of the Hindu fence-sitters towards itself, indicating that the UDF must reassess its stance towards Nair and other Hindu voters.
Historic victories are a culmination of several outcomes. Similarly, the historic win of LDF is not just an outcome of the campaign of Left leaders but the unexpected and not-so-strategic electoral plans of the UDF and its lost opportunities to reaffirm support of its Christian voters and extend its outreach into the Hindu votes. Neither is the UDF strategy a utility-based, nor is it fair to the Hindu voters in Kerala who originally did not seek to become BJP electorates but are being left with no other option other than seeking refuge with the saffron juggernaut.
- – Bhargav Bhamidipati,
(ILS Law College) and
student rights activist in Pune
PS – The rights for the article are reserved by the author to be used for publishing only by ‘Bharat Bhagya Vidhata’ team.