The times are a changing. The irreverence of the Kerala voter that began with the Pala by-poll in September is more evident now—throwing up surprising but delightful results in the five by-elections. Even as the details of the voting patterns need to be examined in detail, it seems that Kerala’s discerning voter has gone for the best candidate in the fray disregarding the usual caste and religious factors that come into play.
The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) stormed Congress strongholds—Vattiyoorkvau and Konni—and chipped away at another—Ernakulam—reducing the UDF’s winning margins in the commercial capital. If the ruling LDF is gloating over these two wins, they have much to worry about, for they lost their fortress, Aroor, to Congress candidate Shanimol Usman. Aroor has been with the Left from 1967 except for a decade (1996-2006) when the Communist Party of India (Marxist) stalwart K R Gowriamma, thrown out of her own party, joined hands with the Congress-led United Democratic Front. As for the BJP, although it held on to its second place in Manjeshwar, its vote share declined considerably in Vattiyoorkavu, where it had finished a close second in the 2016 Assembly elections (and the 2019 Lok Sabha elections) on the back of the candidature of Kummanam Rajasekharan, to slip to the third place.
The result in the Vattiyoorkavu Assembly segment in Thiruvananthapuram makes for an interesting case study. Though the Nair Service Society (NSS), a Hindu social organization, openly campaigned for the UDF candidate K Mohankumar, the majority Nair community seemed disinclined to do the NSS bidding. The fact that LDF’s V K Prasanth, former mayor of Thriruvananthapuram, who is not from the Nair community, won by over 14,465 votes shows that caste arithmetic can be countered by the candidate’s individual appeal.
Vattiyoorkavu was nursed by K Muraleedharan since 2011 battling the LDF one on one, but ever since BJP’s Kummanam Rajeskharam challenged Muraleedharan in the 2016 Assembly elections, the Left had been humiliatingly pushed to the third spot. Just as the irrelevance of the Left in Vattiyoorkavu was being talked about, this must come as a sweet victory for them. The infighting in the state BJP unit and the scuttling of Kummanam Rajasekharan’s candidature, as written about in The Kochi Post, cannot be discounted for the BJP’s poor show.
Konni, another UDF bastion, was snatched away by the LDF’s K U Jenish Kumar. BJP’s K Surendran, who had polled 46,506 votes in this Assembly segment during 2019 Lok Sabha elections, saw a hemorrhaging of 6720 votes from his bank. Surendran, who had campaigned hard against the women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple (following the Supreme Court order), had tried to make it an issue once again during this election but clearly voters were no longer willing to bite the religious bait. Surendran also got the Malankara Orthodox Church faction, which make up a sizeable number in the constituency, to back him—or at least, create a smokescreen to that effect. In the end, neither Sabarimala, nor the backing of a faction of the Church, mattered. Still, if one were to take the BJP’s performance in the 2016 Assembly elections as the yardstick, Surendran has more than doubled the votes of the saffron outfit in this constituency.
The confusion over candidates and the sulking former MLA of Konni, Adoor Prakash, may have done some damage to the UDF campaign in Konni. Prakash had wanted his nominee, Robin Peter, to contest the poll but factional equations and caste calculations saw P Mohanraj emerging as the pick. Prakash, who has won every election from Konni from 1996 to 2016 and went on to win the Attingal Lok Sabha seat, was placated by his party but it seems he didn’t go all out to ensure the success of Mohanraj.
The bypoll in Ernakulam was a total washout with the rain hammering away and flooding the entire city. That the deputy mayor T J Vinod has managed to hang on is no consolation as the victory is marginal—by a mere 3750 votes –a drop of over 17,000 votes from the 2016 Assembly elections. In fact, a namesake of the losing LDF candidate Manu C Roy has won nearly as many votes as the victory margin and, the CPI (M) would be left wondering if they should change the strategy of fielding ‘Independent’ candidates in the constituency instead of putting up candidates on its own symbol.
The Manjeshwar constituency also throws up an interesting result. While the BJP has been coming second in this constituency for more than three decades, it held on to its votes once again and finished second. The CPI (M), which played the Hindu card in Manjeshwar, ended up a distant third—the voters rejecting the mutated Marxist candidate.
In fact, Shankar Rai, the CPI (M) candidate had made news for seeking the blessings and prostrating before Raveesh Thanthri Kuntar, his opposite number from the BJP. He had also burnished his ‘Hindu’ credentials by stating that he was in favour of the protection of customs in Sabarimala, going against the declared stand of his party. But the ‘Hindu’ voters seem to not have taken the mutant Marxist seriously enough.
The byelection throws up interesting lessons for both the UDF and the LDF. While the UDF thought they would be saved by the backing of the NSS, the voters of Kerala taught them a lesson to not take them for granted—by exercising their agency. Similarly, for the LDF, it only ended up alienating its core base in Manjeshwar by playing the Hindu card.
On the other hand, the CPI (M)’s bold move to field young candidates in the poll has been rewarded by the voters—the narrow losses of Manu C Pulickal and Manu C Roy in Aroor and Ernakulam notwithstanding. In fact, there is a lesson for the Congress to pick up here. As for the BJP, the party has been hamstrung by factionalism in the state unit and the non-cooperation of its alliance partner, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS).
That many a fence-sitting Kerala voter goes for the charisma of the candidate was also underscored in this election. Although Manu C Roy and K Surendran lost in Ernakulam and Konni respectively, their impressive vote shares suggest that charisma of individual candidates is indeed a factor. Ditto with Shanimol Usman. Apart from getting sympathy votes after losing from the Alappuzha Lok Sabha constituency encompassing Aroor in the preceding general election, her charisma and stature as a leader also propelled her victory in this traditional red fortress.
With the Sabarimala issue ceasing to be a factor, the BJP will have to find new ways of staying relevant in Kerala. Although the results of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in Kerala was generally analysed in the context of Sabarimala, it was more of an anti-BJP vote than anything else. The quicker the UDF and the LDF realise that, the easier it will be for them to strategize going forward.
Cover Image: Sukumaran Nair, NSS General Secretary