Did ‘Hindu Consolidation’ cost Congress a solid majority in Kerala?

The state elections of 2011 has been remarkable for a variety of reasons — the fall of a 34-year old Communist government in West Bengal, the resounding signal sent by the Tamil Nadu electorate that corruption will not be condoned and the not-quite-there victory of the Congress in Kerala.

While the first two have been the subject of much discussion and analysis in national media, most outside Kerala have failed to grasp the communal under-currents — and the lasting significance — of the Kerala results.

Unlike on the national front, it has rarely been the case in the last four decades that Malayalees have delivered an ambiguous or indecisive verdict in a state poll. So why did they vote halfheartedly for the Congress led UDF this time?

The answer, to many, lies in the persona of the outgoing chief minister VS Achuthanandan. But to a seasoned observer of Kerala politics, the increasing communal polarization that has set in in the last few years has been unmissable. Has the state that boasted of having the most literate voters in the country — one that held the torch for the rest of the country in health and social indicators — too fallen prey to divisive communal politics?

Tellingly, one of the core arguments made by Ramesh Chennithala — a Nair leader — in favor of his own candidature to the Chief Minister’s chair was that Congress is fast losing the Hindu vote. This would rarely have been a worry for the United Democratic Front (UDF) even ten years ago, thanks to Karunakaran, the wily upper caste Hindu leader who held the scepter through the 70s to the turn of the century.

Karunakaran was a re-assuring presence for well-to-do upper caste Hindus, primarily Nairs, and the relatively prosperous Syrian Christians. Together with the Indian Union Muslim League — which could, with some justification, claim to represent a large chunk of Kerala’s 22% Muslim population — the Congress-led UDF had a winning Muslim-Christian-Upper-Caste-Hindu ‘formula’ that formed its ‘traditional base.’ The three blocks would comprise slightly in excess of 50% of Kerala’s population, with the Christians and Muslims alone making up around 40-45% of the total.

This was rivaled by the Communist parties’ strong base among the so-called middle and lower caste Hindus and the not-so-well-do Christians and Muslims. The Ezhavas (‘the Kingdom people’) — the mainstay of the Hindu population of Kerala and nearly 25-30% of the state’s population and the Scheduled Castes were the bedrock on which the Communist movement was built up, paradoxically by upper-caste leaders like EMS Namboodiripad and EK Nayanar. This block, comprising around 45% of Kerala’s population, formed the Communists’ own counter-weight to the Muslim-Syrian Christian-Upper Caste alliance of the UDF.

Add to the mix a 5-10% ‘discontent population’ who always voted against the incumbent and you have the right recipe for Kerala’s ‘pendulum politics’, with power alternating between the two alliances. This math is also what led the UDF to expect the usual 80-100 seats (out of a total 140) in the elections this time.

Unfortunately, since the defeat of the ‘Karunakaran faction’ and the ascendancy of the ‘Antony faction’ in Kerala politics a decade ago, things have moved more and more towards the ‘minority’ side, at least from the outside. As Chennithala’s advocates have been warning, the Congress is fast losing its upper caste Hindu vote base. A post poll survey done by Asianet showed that BJP was making its biggest gains in the Congress’ Hindu base.

While BJP got 17% and 20% of the votes of upper caste Hindus and the non-Ezhava ‘middle-castes’ (OBCs), BJP voters among Ezhava group was just 9%. While Congress’ Hindu base may not be as big as its Christian and Muslim vote-base, the erosion of these votes can still upset the apple cart for the party in a first-past-the-post voting system such as that of India.

The lack of ‘clincher’ Hindu votes has cost the Congress several seats outside the four minority dominated districts — Ernakulam (Kochi), Wayanad and Kottayam (Christians) and Malappuram (Muslims). Out of the remaining 10 districts, only the UDF could garner more seats than the LDF only in one. While the UDF swept 11 out of the 13 seats in Malappuram, it unexpectedly failed to win a single seat in Kollam, Idukki, Kozhikode (Calicut) and Kasaragod.

The ‘reddening’ of a district like Thrissur — an even mix of Hindu and non-Hindu votes — is a sign of what some in Kerala prematurely call ‘Hindu consolidation’ behind the Left. Ironically, the ‘Hindu consolidation’ is not happening behind the BJP — the self-appointed ‘champion’ of ‘Hindu rights,’ but behind parties that actively resist any attempt to project itself as linked to any one caste or community.

While the increasing communal polarization has helped the allies — Muslim League won 20 of the 24 seats it contested and the Kerala Congress (primarily focused on Christians & Nairs) won 9 of the 15 — it is hitting ‘big brother’ Congress particularly hard. The allies, thanks to their open acknowledgement of their vote base, are given seats in their ‘strongholds’ such as Malappuram and Kottayam, while the Congress is left to sweat it out in the ‘general class’ districts such as Kollam and Trivandrum. The Congress, not surprisingly, lost 49 of the 87 seats it contested, leaving only red flags flying in core districts such as Kollam.

That the Congress’ ‘image problem’ is not going anywhere is revealed by TV shots of the government formation ‘talks’ between the heads of the main constituents of the UDF alliance — Oommen Chandy, KM Mani and PK Kunhalikutty — two Christians and a Muslim.

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