Will Kerala's electorate rattle its bipolar nature?

Mother of all suspense on counting day: BJP show or no show in Kerala
K Surendran, Kummanam Rajasekharan and Suresh Gopi.

No one has really been in doubt about the advantage UDF had enjoyed this Lok Sabha polls in Kerala. The exit polls were mere confirmation.

The Congress, and not the CPM, was seen by the secular and minority voters in the state as the best bet to stave off the Narendra Modi challenge. Rahul Gandhi's candidature in Wayanad might have worked as an additional prod. (But to take on the BJP locally, the Left perhaps would have been their choice.)

Pinarayi Vijayan
Not even chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan raised the 'renaissance' argument even once during the campaign.

Again, all through the campaign it was clear that progressive ideals sought to be revived by the LDF government mattered less than the need to stop the Modi juggernaut; not even chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan raised the 'renaissance' argument even once during the campaign.

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So even if certain 'liberal' voters were impressed by the way Pinarayi tackled the Sabarimala issue, there was a high chance that they would still have voted for a UDF candidate. But then, the LDF could still win four to five seats that could prove valuable either for a Congress-led front or a Third Front if the BJP and its allies fail to secure a majority.

Sabarimala protest
Kerala witnessed a series of protests following the Supreme Court order on Sabarimala.

Therefore, the only real suspense that will be broken on counting day is the performance of the BJP. Will the party finally make history by winning a Lok Sabha seat? Will its vote share, buoyed by the Sabarimala emotion, swell to 20 per cent or more, up from 11 per cent it secured during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and the subsequent 16 per cent the party gathered during the 2016 assembly polls?

End of bipolar politics?

Expecting a BJP win in more than two seats, however, would be utopian. The BJP can justifiably anticipate a win in Thiruvananthapuram because the constituency had always possessed an orthodox right-wing heart (its very history originates from a temple). It is also the only place in the state where the BJP had very nearly tasted success; it was the last-minute 'distress' voting in coastal areas that nixed O Rajagopal's chances in 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Tharoor, Divakaran, Kummanam
Main candidates in Thiruvananthapuram: Shashi Tharoor, C Divakaran and Kummanam Rajasekharan

Further, the RSS had taken absolute control over the campaign in Thiruvananthapuram like it had done nowhere else in the state. (Had the Congress not fielded Shashi Tharoor, who still retains his wide non-polarising appeal, it is felt that the contest would have been a cakewalk for BJP's Kummanam Rajasekharan.)

The BJP can hope for a win in Pathanamthitta, too, without raising eyebrows because the constituency was the epicentre of the Sabarimala agitation. Pandalam, where the 'namajapa' protests began, falls within the constituency. Moreover, pollsters feel that the minority Christian vote was split between the Congress and the CPM candidates, possibly ensuring a BJP win by default.

Pathanamthitta candidates

Even if the BJP snatches just a single seat, the win could dramatically alter the politics of the state. It would be seen as the beginning of the end of bipolar politics in Kerala.

Battle for Malabar

In this larger battle to sustain or reconfigure the national psyche, there is an interesting state-specific sub-plot. The battle for Malabar; for Kannur, Kasaragod and Vadakara. The UDF, despite Rahul Gandhi's sudden fraternal feelings for the CPM, has framed it as a struggle against the CPM's violent politics. The CPM, on its part, had vowed to get the stain democratically removed.

A loss in Kasaragod would utterly shatter the Congress. Rajmohan Unnithan was flown there to avenge the killing of two Youth Congress activists in Periya. Retaining Vadakara is as crucial. Here the Congress is up against P Jayarajan who the party says is the embodiment of CPM's murder politics. In both these constituencies the BJP is a fringe player, yet strong enough to sway the results one way or the other. But if the balance of power in Malabar has to shift, then Kannur has to be recaptured.

That the Malabar battle was bitterly fought, and no holds barred, was evident in the innumerable bogus voting cases that came to light. Both the UDF and the LDF cadres were caught red-handed. For the first time ever in the state, re-polling was ordered in certain booths in Kannur and Kasaragod.

Chief election idol

Besides individual wins, it would be equally or even more interesting to understand the psychology of the faithful in the state. Never before had an issue of faith so troubled the majority community in the state like the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages into Sabarimala.

Elections in Thrissur are dicey as voters have no favourites

The Hindu voter, deeply disturbed by the presence of menstruating women near Lord Ayyappa and the LDF government's perceived haste in implementing the Supreme Court verdict, could have felt either of two ways.

One, she could have found the Sangh Parivar's militant display of faith highly appealing, as if such an aggressive show of force was necessary to avenge the insult done to the community.

Or she would have been repelled by their tactics, especially the 'golden opportunity' blunder by the BJP leader and the resort to frequent hartals, and had therefore found comfort in the less showy but consistently pro-faith stand of the Congress.

Scenario One: Chaos

Now, what happens if the first feeling was dominant? The BJP candidates, especially the strong ones, would eat into the votes of both the CPM and the Congress. If so, candidates considered favourites in Sabarimala-affected constituencies, no matter which front they belong to, could find the ground slipping from under their feet: Shashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram, A Sampath in Attingal, T N Prathapan in Thrissur and M B Rajesh in Palakkad.

In seats where there are relatively weak BJP candidates, say in Kollam, the effect will not be as palpable.

Overall, the impact would be felt more by the Congress as it is no secret that the faithful form a large chunk of its support base. This is not to say that there are no faithful within the LDF ranks. It is just that they are relatively low.

A Sampath
Supporters lift LDF's Attingal candidate A Sampath.

Scenario Two: Congress gains

But if the faithful had largely found the Sangh Parivar agitation unacceptable, then the Congress will stand to gain in a big way. Here, there could be multiple gains. Those angered by Pinarayi's seemingly haughty approach and also taken aback by the BJP's aggression would vote overwhelmingly in favour of the Congress.

MB Rajesh
LDF candidate in Palakkad, M B Rajesh.

If on top of this, traditionally Left-leaning voters opt for UDF candidates in a frantic bid to see the back of Narendra Modi, the UDF could sweep the polls in the state, cornering even up to 18 seats leaving nothing for the BJP and crumbs for the LDF. Exit poll results hint at such a trend.

Minorities' bogeyman

There is yet another reason apart from the Modi factor why the minorities would have preferred the UDF over the LDF this time. They would have found the LDF's stand on Sabarimala scary and Congress's pro-faith stand a relief.

Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala
Oommen Chandy, Ramesh Chennithala

Though the BJP attempted to give the Sabarimala agitation an Ayodhya-like flavour, it was still not a divisive issue. It did not pit one community against another. It was only a pro-faith agitation. Given that no community would want their faith to be tampered with, however regressive others might find certain aspects of it to be, the minorities in the state could also have subtly chastised Pinarayi Vijayan for his apparent anti-faith deeds.

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