K. Karunakaran (UDF) and E.K. Naynar (LDF) who were the scions of the two fronts in the 1980s and 1990s.
Since the Assembly elections in 1982, prompted by the resignation of K. Karunakaran, Kerala has experienced Left Democratic Front (LDF) and United Democratic Front (UDF) rule one after another. This ‘settled’ nature of politics has meant that vote shares vary only slightly among the two fronts, with the major constituents of the LDF and UDF staying intact. While factions of the smaller parties especially those of the Kerala Congress, have switched sides according to convenience.
The zig-zag of election victories can be evinced from the below chart that shows the seats won by the fronts in Assembly Elections since 1982:
While the results may indicate some sort of significant swing in vote share, this is not the case with both fronts being able to count a consistent vote share which has only been upset recently with the entry of the BJP. While the 2016 Assembly election results indicated that the BJP was primarily growing at the expense of the UDF, or more specifically Congress. The BJP has been able to lure the Hindu Congress vote significantly since the 2014 Lok Sabha Election. Only a fraction of the LDF vote has been channelised to the BJP. This allowed the LDF to win much more comfortably. If the trend of Congress losing their Hindu votes to BJP had held, the CPM would have achieved significant traction in the State. However, this trend was turned on the head by the Sabarimala issue.
The issue combined with minority consolidation for the UDF, led to a collapse in the vote share of the Left, as can be seen from here:
The percentage point difference between the UDF and LDF is an incredible 12 percentage points, compared to 4.67% in 2016. LDF was barely able to win one seat, and the UDF won the rest 19 with a convincing or stupendous margin. The Left won the majority of the vote in only 16 legislative constituencies. The Sabarimala issue as well as minority consolidation gave the left a double whammy. From top to bottom, the LDF’s electorate collapsed. Subsequent to the election, the party has attempted to allay the Sabarimala issue, and conducted a series of house visits meant to redress the grievances of cadre as well as left-aligned households. The actions seemed to have some effect, with the party able to wrest two seats from the UDF in the bypolls that followed.
Things looked for the upswing on the government as it slowly attempted to regain credibility on the back of welfare measures. Since then however, a bungled response to the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Gold Smuggling, Life Mission and a litany of allegations, conjectures and investigations by Central Agencies have put the Communists on the backfoot.
The Communist party’s pitch has long been that it would provide for the poorest sections of society without communalism and corruption. The Congress, according to it is an aggregation of elitist and bourgeois interests and was tainted due to its association with the communal Muslim League. The Congress after the formation of Aikya Keralam (United Kerala) first rose to power on the basis of the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle) which saw the Catholic Church, Nair Service Society and Indian Union Muslim league, along with the Congress and broader opposition militantly agitating against the reforms that the first Communist Government under E.M.S. Namboodiripad wished to carry out education and agricultural relations. The Congress’s stance, since then, has been based broadly on Anti-Communist themes rather than a patent ideology or vision of its own.
As a cadre party, the CPM has long had a leg-up on the UDF. The UDF’s organizational principles have long been faction or leader based, which can wax and wane based on skill and ability, while the CPM’s organizational setup provides remarkable on-the-ground presence.
Kerala’s politically active populace have mobilized on sectarian and caste lines, with a party or political faction representing in effect the exclusive interest of your group. While CPM and INC have long held themselves as representing the entire populace of Kerala, both give way in their fronts to those formulations that are remnants of the Janata Party, factional leaders that were once with the other, or exclusive social or caste groupings. Kerala’s electoral politics has therefore matured into an extremely close elections where a few thousand votes – or a few seats can make the difference between crossing the line and ending up in Opposition. The BJP’s growth in the State thus has upset this delicate balance, which initially benefited the CPM, and has now begun to harm them substantially. The rising communal polarization in the state as well as the overtures made by the Union Government will likely benefit the UDF and BJP more than the LDF.
The growth of the BJP will result in substantial reworking of the alliance politics in the State. The 2020 local body polls and the 2021 assembly elections may provide scenarios where both LDF and UDF will have to combine either avoid another election or to keep BJP out of the power. The former – the possibility of BJP winning enough seats in the Assembly or in any local body that precludes any front from getting a majority, is high. Take for example, Thrissur Corporation, which has 55 council seats. The BJP is expected to do well here based on the inroads made by Suresh Gopin in 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Here, BJP winning 15 or 20 seats will require either the LDF or UDF to win 26 out of the rest 40 or 35 seats, which is not an easy task. The BJP need not put up a remarkable performance for this result, even a mediocre performance can upset the calculations of either front.
Let me summarize a scenario for the 2021 Assembly election to extrapolate further: Suppose the elections are not a wave election against the LDF, which it will most likely be, and rather a close election with UDF in the lead. BJP winning 5 or 10 seats (5 in itself would be remarkable) could lead to a hung assembly:
If neither front is able to reach the magic number of 71 in the 140 member assembly, alliance switching by the smaller parties or by No.2 in either front – the Muslim League or CPI to LDF or UDF respectively is not beyond the realm of possibility. Exact scenarios will depend on the political developments, but this problem will likely be seen in the local body results this year. Neither front can afford to associate with the BJP in any way, shape or form lest any votes switch to the other side on that count. Considering demographics and factionalism, the BJP on its own will not be able to form a government in the state in the near future, and thus a viable third front is an illusion.
The 2021 Assembly elections, now just 5 months away will be fought on the planks that exist today: the involvement of State officials or even political leaders in Gold Smuggling, the scams alleged in the LIFE mission of the State Government, KIIFB and the counter allegations of the Solar Scam and Palarivattom bridge against the UDF. The BJP may make gains based on its ability to check factionalism within the party, but the UDF is poised to return. The only thing lacking for the UDF is a Chief Ministerial candidate, but it is likely that Rahul Gandhi, the irredeemable Wayanad MP, will gift us his close associate.
As an aside, the growth of the BJP has largely closed any differences between the LDF and UDF. Having almost similar positions at a national level, their planks in the state are increasingly identical. As the BJP inevitably grows in the state*, the two front governments that dictated Kerala Politics will likely die in two or three election cycles. The current political formulation in the state is unsustainable, and will have to lead to new configuration in the next 10 to 15 years, or sooner.
A brave new world awaits.
* if current trends in the state and nation hold.
Special Thanks to Aishwarya Ajayan for her Inputs and editing.