The electoral success of the Congress-led United Democratic Front in Kerala always brings to mind a popular biblical saying — ‘Not by our merit but by His grace’. For the UDF, the grace of the biblical talisman is most needed in the upcoming assembly election, scheduled on 6 April. The UDF leadership has pretty much conceded that this election is going to be a do-or-die battle for it, perhaps because a defeat would mark the beginning of its end. But the Congress’ double game in the campaign may have already put the UDF on that path.
After sweeping the 2019 Lok Sabha election in Kerala, where it won 19 out of 20 seats, the UDF should have scored an easy win in this assembly election. And everything was hunky-dory for it — until the local body elections came along in December 2020. The Left Democratic Front (LDF) registered a thumping victory, leaving the UDF camp so demoralised that its leaders started their favourite habit of blaming each other. Since then, the tables have turned for the UDF and it seems that much further away from winning the election.
Looking at the lethargic UDF camp, it makes one wonder if the leadership has outsourced the formulation of its election strategy to Jamaat-e-Islami and the Sangh Parivar, led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). This may sound preposterous but the UDF’s two campaign themes seem to be carrying the stamp of the Jamaat and the Sangh.
Sailing on two boats
The UDF’s first campaign plank is its claim that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have struck a secret deal to make Kerala ‘Congress-mukt’ (free of Congress). The other battle cry is that the LDF government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is hurting the sentiment of Hindus by its decision to implement the Supreme Court’s verdict permitting the entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple. The patent for the ‘CPM-BJP secret deal’ plank allegedly belonged to the Jamaat-e-Islami. The outfit is eager to settle scores with the CPM, which had launched a blistering attack against it during the local body polls after the Welfare Party of India, a political party floated by the Jamaat, entered into a tactical alliance with the UDF. While the LDF leaders accused the Kerala Congress of having joined hands with ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ for the sake of garnering few votes, the UDF and the Jamaat hit back by saying that the CPM was showing the worst traits of Islamophobia and speaking the language of the Sangh Parivar.
The UDF’s latest charge of the CPM-BJP being in a secret deal received a boost when BJP leader R. Balashankar, former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, levelled the same allegation after being denied a ticket to contest the upcoming election from Chengannur. BJP and RSS leaders have rejected the charge, but Congress and UDF leaders have latched onto the controversy hoping to put the BJP and the LDF on the mat.
Sabarimala, the other major campaign theme of the Congress, has all the ingredients of a vintage Sangh Parivar propaganda blitz. The Vijayan government’s decision to allow women of all ages to enter the hill shrine has been projected as a ‘golden opportunity’ by some top leaders of the BJP. Many of them are clearly seeing it as the ‘Ayodhya moment’ for the Sangh Parivar in Kerala. The ineptitude of the state government, bordering on stupidity, in the handling of the court verdict has given a huge fillip to the Sangh Parivar, which has posed itself as the champion protector of traditional values and rituals through a series of street agitations during the 2019 pilgrimage season. The Congress was also at the forefront of this agitation.
In its election manifesto, the UDF has promised to bring legislation that bans the entry of women in Sabarimala with jail term for anyone found violating the tradition and rituals of the temple. They have also circulated a draft of the proposed legislation.
In a way, the Congress in Kerala is playing a dangerous double game of scaring the minorities, especially Muslims, with a ‘CPM-BJP secret deal’ and running a highly inflammable communal campaign on Sabarimala, which would warm the hearts of the Sangh Parivar zealots. The Congress and the UDF’s strategies are strikingly similar to the politics of appeasement practiced by Rajiv Gandhi in the late 1980s.
At the same time, the Congress’ national leadership, devoid of any coherent strategic vision and perspective, is unable to make any meaningful intervention. Rahul Gandhi, who initially supported the Supreme Court’s verdict on Sabarimala, soon backtracked at the behest of the leadership of the Kerala unit with some mumbo-jumbo on respecting tradition and faith. If the CPM and the LDF are successful in exposing the double game of Congress and the UDF, the fortunes of the alliance are certain to suffer irreparable damage in the coming days.
Shifting votes of the Congress
The major hurdle facing the Congress in Kerala is the erosion of its vote base and the emergence of the BJP as a contender for the Right-wing conservative political space. The Congress has been the fulcrum of Right-wing politics in Kerala ever since the Communists came to power in 1957. The Congress successfully gathered a broad spectrum of conservative forces, which included religious and community groups, into a political umbrella to checkmate the Communists. Since then, the electoral history of Kerala could be divided into two categories. The Congress-led UDF became the lynchpin of Right-wing politics and the CPM-led LDF a social democratic alternative with a progressive veneer. The two sides dominated the political scene with either front winning the election every five years.
The political scene has undergone a gradual change since the 1990s, especially in the electoral matrix of the UDF alliance. Its principal vote base comprised upper-caste Hindu votes plus Christian and Muslim minorities. The Congress’ support base was also composed of mainly upper-caste Hindu votes while various factions of Kerala Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League chipped in by bringing a substantial chunk of votes from Christian and Muslim communities. And then the Congress began to suffer incremental damages in its support base.
The BJP encroaching upon the Hindu upper-caste vote base of the Congress, especially of the Nair community, reached critical mass in the 2016 assembly election when the party increased its vote share to nearly 15 per cent from just 6 per cent in 2011. Apart from Nair votes, a section of Christian votes also started drifting away to the LDF and, to a lesser extent, to the BJP. Muslim voters are also seen dropping their inhibitions to vote for the LDF. The challenge before the Congress is to regain its traditional vote base and devise effective strategies to prevent the BJP from making further inroads into its support base. This is the only way to ensure electoral success and the survival of the UDF.
The author is a journalist and former senior editor at Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)