The Bihar election will be over and done with in the next few days, analysed to death, and all parties will get on the elections treadmill once again to fight the next round of state polls in 2016. Elections are due to the Tamil Nadu and Puducherry Assembly, West Bengal and Assam, all in the summer. The earliest will be Kerala where the election is due to be completed before the end of May. Arguably this is going to be the most interesting election of all because the outcome could be historic: a return of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in a state where no government has ever ruled for a second term and the balance between alliance partners is so fine that a tiny percentage swing of votes can lead to a major electoral upset.
First, the basic facts about Kerala: The Assembly has only 140 seats (Kerala sends 20 seats to the Lok Sabha and just nine to the Rajya Sabha). But alliance politics in the state extends not just to parties but factions within parties.
The current Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, is enormously popular although the slender majority of the UDF in the assembly (72 seats) belies this. In fact, his cabinet colleague and rival, Ramesh Chennithala, led a campaign that he must stop meeting people and attend to work in the secretariat: he just can’t say no to anyone. In this he is different from his erstwhile mentor AK Antony, who, while being in the public eye, is a much more private person. Chandy was Antony’s chosen successor and long-time lieutenant but later became a silent critic of Antony's unpopular and unpredictably idealistic political positions.
A former bureaucrat who worked with him wrote in his autobiography that Chandy is a details man. When he was finance minister, the two happened to travel together on the same flight and discussed details of agricultural financing. Three months later, a few days before the budget, Chandy called the bureaucrat to hold another few rounds of discussions on how this could be done.
As Chief Minister, Chandy has taken steps that have been controversial. The liquor policy – which involved shutting down more than 700 bars with permission to sell liquor accorded only to five star hotels - has led to loss of revenue, court cases, a crisis for Kerala’s lifeline industries such as tourism, and serious allegations of graft. Finance minister KM Mani from alliance partner Kerala Congress is still fighting off charges of corruption after a dilution of the policy, allegedly in return for financial contributions. But Chandy has stood firm, going on to say that Kerala will become a ‘dry’ state in the next 10 years while conceding that the revenue loss will amount to Rs 8,000 crore or more. Obviously, he has won tremendous support from the victims of alcohol, women.
But an equally important political intervention by Chandy has been the policy of the UDF towards the Ezhava (toddy tapper) community.
Traditionally the Ezhavas would always back the Left Democratic Front (LDF) – mostly the Communist Parties. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been wooing the Ezhavas aggressively. In fact, one of the first trips undertaken by Narendra Modi when the BJP campaign to launch him as Prime Minister began in 2013 was to a huge function to commemorate Ezhava spiritual leader Sree Narayana Guru at Sivagiri in Varkala district, where he spoke on the tragedy of untouchability – including political untouchability. The event set off alarm bells ringing in the Left parties because here was an effort to decamp with a part of its base, from right under its nose. Modi’s meeting drew unprecedented crowds.
Chandy saw all this and looked the other way. Ezhavas deserting the Left could only mean a boost to the UDF and the BJP is not strong enough to pose a challenge. Muslims account for 27 per cent of Kerala population while various Christian sects account for about 18 per cent. While large numbers from both religions back the LDF, the majority has always been with the UDF. What the BJP was doing was breaking the so-called Hindu monolith, much of which was with the LDF.
Just by way of numbers, in the 2011 elections, the UDF got 45.83 percent of popular vote while the LDF had 44.9 per cent vote. The UDF won 72 seats while the LDF’s tally was 68. The BJP had 6.03 per cent vote share. In about 35 seats the margins were less than 5,000 votes. These are potential swing seats. In 2006 a six per cent margin in vote share helped the LDF grab 100 seats in the 140 strong state assembly.
What does this tell us? That in the internecine quarrel between Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan, the two tallest Left leaders, the BJP is gaining ground. But the ultimate gainer is the UDF. That is why the Kerala election in 2016 could make history.