An Analysis of the 2020 Kerala Local Body Elections
A jubilant Chief Minister Pinrayi Vijayan with other LDF leaders: Communist Party of India State Secratery Kanam Rajendran, CPI Leader Panniyan Raveendran, Former State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and other LDF leaders including Jose K Mani are visible. (Credits: TNM)
The results of the Local Body Elections in Kerala have undoubtedly shocked everyone, including the Left Democratic Front who emerged as the overwhelming victor in an election that marked the collapse of the Congress vote. The LDF’s win over its perennial rivals, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) was empathetic: It won a majority of grama panchayats (514), block panchayats (108), district panchayats (11) and outright won three corporations and will form the ruling majority in two more with support from UDF rebels. The UDF only led in the number of municipalities won overall, winning 39 compared to the LDF’s 35.
A side-by-side comparison of the standing in the 2015 and 2020 Elections:
The local body elections held mere months before the Assembly elections, have traditionally been considered to be its prelude. The state has experienced a see-saw between the two fronts since 1982. Expectations were that the UDF & NDA would make significant gains, but the LDF has achieved a stunning victory. In these Local body elections not only did they overcome incumbency, they also overcame an unfavorable narrative.
A Resurgent Left
M. Shivashankar, the former Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, who has been arrested for his links to Gold Smuggling and other illegal activities by Central Agencies. (Credits: TNIE)
The Chief Minister’s Office, the Higher Education Minister K.T. Jaleel and CPM State General Kodiyeri Balakrishnan’s son were all mired in interconnected controversies. This is not to mention the controversy over the implementation of the LIFE mission by the State Government and the raid of KSFE, a public sector chit fund and loan company operated by the State Government being raided by the Vigilance. Political narratives surrounding those issues had reached a crescendo in the state, which in fact led to Kodiyeri stepping down from this position due to ‘health concerns’. The ‘temporary’ relinquishment was quite obviously due to the political compulsions following his son Bineesh Kodyeri’s arrest over money laundering and other charges. Mired under accusations, conjectures, half-truths and obfuscations, the CPM was not expected to have an impressive performance in the polls.
(For Further Reading on some of the Allegations: Communist Green, Gold and Red )
Yet despite or overcoming the accusations, the CPM and the front it leads has been hosted to victory. It is no doubt an impressive feat; it has managed to recover from the historic low vote share that it had in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when it faced the consequences of the Sabarimala issue.
As can be seen here, the LDF has comprehensively bounced back from the 2019 results:
(Note: Assembly Constituency calculations, combined votes at local level for 2020 numbers) (Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
A table for those who have trouble following a rather detailed history:
*: Please note that a substantial vote share goes to independents, and only a relative calculation should be applied. (Note: Assembly Constituency calculations, combined votes at local level for 2020 numbers) (Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
There are many caveats in these vote share comparisons, considering that local polls involve a significant number of independents contesting with the support or tacit understanding of some fronts or may be members of marginal parties such as SDPI. The gulf between the two major fronts as can be seen above, is around 4.5 percentage points, similar to the 2016 Assembly elections.
There is only a limited scope in analyzing these numbers in indicating the possible results of the 2021 Election, especially considering the dynamics of the 2021 Assembly Elections, the results will differ substantially. Local Body Elections are generally advantageous to the Left due to its unparalleled organizational structure and cadre.
Vote shares in Kozhikode Corporation that the LDF retained. The City has been under the LDF for the past 45 years. (Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
The Left is expectantly enthusiastic over the results that indicate a continuation in power. Since the beginning of two front politics in the state, this has not been achieved. V.S. Achuthanandan, the last LDF Chief Minister (2006-11) came closest to this feat, with the LDF only three seats short of the majority mark in the 2011 Assembly Election. Ten years on, Chief Minister Pinrayi Vijayan expects to achieve this feat. It is with that aim that he starts a tour of Kerala or ‘Kerala Praydnam’ in the model of an earlier yatra he had conducted during the 2016 Assembly Election.
The Decimation of the Congress
Congress, on the other hand appears to be in complete disarray: Many Senior leaders are pointing fingers at each other, while the State Congress President, Mullappally Ramachandran declares that he is being attacked on all sides without any reason. The issues are multitudinous for any reasonable list to be produced, but blame for the Congress failure lies in its inability to prevent factional sabotage as well as rebels. The one that has been the cornerstone according to every Malayalam News Media discussion is its association with the Welfare Party, which is sponsored by the Jamaat-e-Islami, a fundamentalist Islamic Movement.
The association of the Welfare Party of India with the UDF in Malabar has been a great political tool for the LDF in these narratives. The Welfare Party, supported by the Jamaat-e-Islami had earlier cast its lot with the LDF in local body elections in 2015. This time around, its decision to support the UDF has been utilized further in the narrative of communal forces hijacking the UDF.
Puthupally, the sitting seat of former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy, a veritable fort for the Congress. The substantial movement of votes to CPM may indicate the support of Chirsitans to the LDF. The Constituency is dominated by Chrisitan and Nair voters. (Note: Assembly Constituency calculations, combined votes at local level for 2020 numbers) (Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
This alliance with Welfare, combined with the support by Muslim League Leaders to the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque by Turkey, and heightened fears over ‘Love Jihad’ had sparked Church’s condemnation. Questions over the allocations of the minority budget, which overwhelmingly favours Muslims, also apparently raised their ire. The State Government’s decision to introduce a 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections that would include major Christian denominations was opposed by the League and Muslim Organizations. More sour taste followed with the Jose K. Mani faction of the Kerala Congress officially being thrown out of the UDF and gaining entry in the LDF. This pushed Christian votes from the Congress and UDF broadly. Coupled with the long established flow of Hindu votes of the Congress, especially the Nairs to BJP, the Congress was doomed.
The gain/loss chart for the three fronts in Kozhikode Corporation compared to the 2015/2020 Local Body Elections. The 2020 elections witnessed a lower turnout-despite this, the loss of UDF votes is clearly associated with an uptick in votes for the NDA and LDF. Kozhikode has a significant Muslims Population (35-40%) but closely concentrated in certain locales.(Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
In many ways though, it was the Congress’s own political and organizational structure that led to its defeat. The Congress’s two factions – ‘A’ and ‘I’ in the State have continued their cannibalizing nature with many Congress rebels being elected into office. Most notably in Pattambi, where a rebel Congress leader and his supporting councilors will be supporting an LDF ruling council. The constant interference of ‘faction managers’ in candidate selection led to defeat in Corporations like Kochi, which has long been their fort. Contrast this to the CPM, whose ‘party discipline’ is enforced with a rigorous militaristic sense that sometimes even leads to physical violence.
The ‘Communal’ Question
The dynamics of Kerala politics is today primarily concerned with ensuring ‘secularism’ and preventing, upsetting, or opposing the BJP and the Central Government at all costs. The other major theme of course is development, but that has taken a sidestep in recent years. The communal question animates Kerala politics in more ways than one. The CPM and the LDF’s consistent positioning has been that they are ‘truly secular’ whereas the UDF, which has the Muslim League. is a ‘communal force’. While there is a huge back-and-forth on this issue, the pendulum for the CPM has now fully swung to one side: the League is communal.
Pala, a UDF fortress and a seat that KM Mani won. With his son joining the LDF, there is a marked rise in the LDF vote. (Note: Assembly Constituency calculations, combined votes at local level for 2020 numbers) (Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
The Chief Minister’s Facebook post on the issue has raised this plank: Stating that the League would take over the leadership of the UDF since the Congress has been weakened by the recent results. The rise of the IUML in the form of its strong performance unaffected by the Congress’s failure will lead to the ‘erosion of secular values’ within the UDF as per the CM. The CPM’s swing is firm and meant to attract more Christian votes that led to its victory in the Travancore region in Southern Kerala. In other words, it is borrowing a plank from the BJP to polarize votes on communal lines. Morbid denial of this ‘communal plank’ abound by Marxist luminaries, though everyone with two ears and something between them know otherwise. The portrayal plays into the themes stated earlier: The Congress is weak, and besieged on one side by the BJP plundering its votes, with the almost equally sinister League and the more fundamentalist Welfare Party by its side, hollowing it from the inside while the Congress leaders tear itself apart.
In an earlier post, I had highlighted that the rise of the League is the future of Kerala one way or another with the rise in Muslim Population in the State. That a UDF Government will give Kunhalikutty, the preeminent League leader the Deputy Chief Ministership is a fear that many have in the 2021 elections.
The BJP has latched on to this narrative with V. Muraleedharan, Minister for State for External Affairs not only agreed with the Chief Minister, but stated that the BJP is ‘anxious’ about the growth of the League. The BJP after all is finding its great ‘Hindu-Christian’ Unity plank being co-opted by the CPM. The Central and State Leadership of the BJP had long nursed their hopes of success on this plank in a state which does not have a favourable demography to achieve power.
A Narrative Fraught with dangers
Jose K. Mani who entered the LDF after factional differences with P.J. Joseph. He is the son of K.M. Mani, the veritable legend of Kerala Politics. His entry has likely pushed more Christian votes into the LDF from UDF. (Credits: Manorama)
The CPM believes that courting the Christian vote is a worthwhile effort and reading into signals sent by Church leadership on these issues. The gain of the new ‘Christian’ ally Kerala Congress (Mani (Jose))) obviously aids its hopes and estimates. This does not come without any complications however. The CPM had in the past 10 years (especially after Modi rose to national prominence) aimed to wean a broader section of Muslims to its side. Prompted in part by changing demographics as well as the new found wealth of many Muslim businessmen from the Gulf States. The cultivation of Muslim votes through K.T. Jaleel, the earlier mentioned Higher Education Minister and former League leader and through its own League rebel faction (the Indian National League or INL) and its own outreach to the community is now going for a toss. Don’t forget that the then State Secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan had accused the opposition of being ‘anti-Quran’ in the controversy related to ferrying of religious material in Government vehicles just a few months ago.
The attack on the League and its apparent rise to prominence would lead to questions of the CPM’s own history with the League that can easily be raised, as can the questions on whether the BJP is gaining by the narrative. ‘Would questions over the League’s communalism not result in polarization ultimately helping the BJP?’ will and is a common refrain. All this entails a significant movement of Christian votes from Christians to the CPM and a section of Muslims that vote for the party staying put. This narrative cannot and on its own to hoist the CPM to power: It is fraught with dangers and too many preconditions. The growth in the party’s votes vis-à-vis 2019 General elections is illusory: the minorities of the State had voted the UDF in hopes that it will lead to Modi’s defeat, and similarly disaffected Hindus voted against the party as well. Neither theme is present in the local elections.
The Left’s success might have more to do with organizational unity, candidate selection and the widely popular ration kits distributed as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic. The LDF has recognized this with the decision to continue the distribution of kits.
But more than anything, their success has to do with the BJP.
BJP’s uninspiring yet persistent growth
The BJP Cadre has over the past six years, hosted itself with great hopes, but been satisfied with small, and sometimes meaningless victories. In the run up to the 2019 elections, it had great hopes over the Sabarimala issue, but had a muted, yet respectable performance in the State though it failed at winning the vaunted Thiruvananthapuram seat yet again. This time around in the Local body elections, the focus was on the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. However, yet again it failed to capture power, and the LDF achieved a simple majority while the UDF barely crossed to double digits.
The NDA had high hopes in Thiruvananthapuram, where it only finished with 35 seats, while LDF won 51.
(Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
In Palakkad Municipality it was able to retain power, and captured Pandalam Municipality as well. It almost reached power in Kodungallur Municipality where it won 21 seats, the LDF 22 and the UDF one. The growth is unmistakable in many respects – it has won more of everything than last year, ward-wise. But there was no great wave. The BJP is still a ‘rising force’.
The rise is being contained by both fronts through strategic vote displacement that gains significant credence once the Local body elections are analyzed. There are many wards where the fronts combined to keep the BJP candidate out of victory’s grasp. This is overall beneficial to the LDF and costly to the UDF, however. Agreements to limit the BJP would conversely lead to the UDF and LDF cadre and local leaders moving to them when limited by party establishments.
Nemom, the only Assembly Constituency where the BJP has been able to consistently perform. (Note: Assembly Constituency calculations, combined votes at local level for 2020 numbers)
(Credits: Author, All Rights Reserved)
But as I pointed out in an earlier post, the balance of political forces in the State have been upset by the BJP’s forces enough for it to lead many municipalities and panchayats to an inconvenient alliance between LDF and UDF or their rebels in one form or another. The BJP is rising on the top of the Congress, suffocating it. There are places where it is affecting the CPM as well, but it is by and large a menace for the Congress. It is primarily the Nair vote of the Congress that is deserting it for BJP, a trend that began in 2014. If it continues, the Congress continues to be doomed, sans the freak election of 2019. The party’s growth may continue for the next assembly election as well, but it would be stymied by a demographic ceiling which it will have to overcome.
The NDA overall is a dud for the BJP in the State. It’s must vaunted ally, the SNDP-supported Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) winning a single ward, while the Lok Janshakti Party has also curiously won another seat. The Kerala Kamaraj Congress, an outfit of Hindu Nadars has most predictably won zero wards. (They were curiously given three wards to contest in Kozhikode Corporation, where there may be a hundred members of the Nadar community).The efforts to secure the PC George’s Kerala Janapaksham (Secular) has failed. The BJP is unlikely to find any ally worth its weight; and the BDJS experiment has comprehensively failed. It should also be noted that the BJP had spent substantial amounts in this election, with only LDF matching its ability. The Congress was quite short of funds, with candidates having to raise amounts themselves.
The BJP’s own internal factional feuds between the PK Krishnadas and V Muraleedharan factions defeats its own rhetoric in the State and will further delay its rise. In the meanwhile, the party’s prominence is upsetting both fronts, which will have consequences for the 2021 elections as well.
(For Further Reading: The Inevitable Death of Two Front Politics in Kerala)
The Stage for 2021
K.C. Venugopal, the AICC General Secretary whose increasing presence in Kerala Politics is being seen as a possible aspiration to Chief Ministership. (Credits: The Hindu)
As Assembly elections near, there are questions that face Congress, the Muslim League and UDF will need to answer. The issues of leadership, ‘secularism’ and ‘communalism’ will need proper resolution. For the time being, the AICC (read: Sonia Gandhi) is unlikely to change leadership dynamics. The questions of who the Chief Ministerial candidate will be, the position and influence of the League, the association with the Welfare party, and the stymying the Nair vote leakage are pressing problems that UDF needs to solve.
All is not well in the LDF, either. Victory has hastened the growth of issues between the smaller parties: the Communist Party of India and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) are both against the Kerala Congress (Mani(Jose)), while Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), NCP and the Janata Dal Secular (JD(S)) is engaged in its own fight. The factional issues between CK Nanu and Mathew T. Thomas in the JD(S)- which has led to an effective split and in the NCP between Mani C. Kappan and A.K. Sassendran in the NCP is also worrying for the front.
The results of the elections have confounded many, and it means that the 2021 Assembly Elections will not be a boilerplate see-saw election but will be extremely competitive. It is unlikely to be a washout like the 2001 or 2016 elections. The campaign has truly begun with the controversy over the CM’s comments. Would it end with a historic win for the Communists? Or would it host an AICC General Secretary? My advice: Project Rahul Gandhi as the CM candidate.
Credits to Jaansiva for his inputs.
Additional Charts for those Interested: (All Rights Reserved)