OPINION: Kerala: Congress, BJP set to gain as LDF struggles for survival

K G Suresh
Congress President Rahul Gandhi files nomination from Wayanad in Kerala. (File Photo)

Congress President Rahul Gandhi files nomination from Wayanad in Kerala. (File Photo)

After its debacle in West Bengal and Tripura, the Left parties are fighting an existential battle in their last citadel of Kerala, which is polling today (April 23) for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Though the state has only 20 seats in all, the stakes are high as all eyes are not only be on the Left’s performance but also on the Wayanad seat, which has suddenly acquired prominence with Congress party fielding its President Rahul Gandhi from the seat apart from his long-held Amethi constituency in Uttar Pradesh.

Congress is trying to strike a north-south balance with Wayanad. Whereas BJP is making an attempt to wrest the prestigious Amethi seat by fielding its high profile Minister Smriti Irani. BJP claimed that fear of imminent defeat had prompted Gandhi to fight from a Congress stronghold in the southernmost state.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan address a rally in Kerala on April 19, 2019. (Twitter Photo)

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan address a rally in Kerala on April 19, 2019. (Twitter Photo)

The CPI(M)-led Ruling Left Democratic Front has also taken umbrage at Gandhi choosing to fight the Left and thereby “weakening” the fight against ‘communalism’. But the move has certainly boosted the morale of the Congress cadres as its partners in the Opposition, United Democratic Front are also hoping to cash in on the anti-incumbency against the Pinarayi Vijayan Government. However, Gandhi has maintained that he would not utter a word against the Left.

The BJP-led NDA, on the other hand, is hoping to get its maiden Lok Sabha seat in the state with the Sabarimala controversy taking the centre stage in its campaign. The party has fielded prominent candidates including former Mizoram Governor Kummanam Rajashekharan (Thiruvananthapuram), Union Minister Alphonse Kannanthanam (Ernakulam) and actor Suresh Gopi (Thrissur) besides state party General Secretary K Surendran, as its candidate from the Pathanamthitta constituency, the Sabarimala flashpoint.

Pathanamthitta: BJP National President Amit Shah waves at party supporters during a roadshow ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, Sunday, April 21, 2019. (PTI Photo)

Pathanamthitta: BJP National President Amit Shah waves at party supporters during a roadshow ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala, Sunday, April 21, 2019. (PTI Photo)

P C Thomas, former Union Minister and an NDA ally is contesting the Kottayam Lok Sabha seat while another ally, Thushar Vellapally of Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) is contesting against Congress president Rahul Gandhi at Wayanad.

BDJS is a political outfit initiated by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalanayogam (SNDP), an organisation for the prominent Hindu Ezhava community in Kerala, which has traditionally backed the Left parties. Thushar is the vice president of the SNDP.

Kerala has all along been a stronghold of the RSS. However, its political affiliate BJP has not been able to take advantage of the same in the absence of dynamic leadership. Ironically, in Kerala, the CPI (M) has always been the ‘Hindu party’ with the sizeable minority population, who by and large, prefer to support the Congress and its allies such as the Christian dominated Kerala Congress and Indian Union Muslim League.

Therefore, political observers always saw the widespread violent clashes between the CPI (M) and RSS cadres, more as a turf war for the Hindu vote rather than any ideological battle.

The BJP’s vote share across the state was around 10 per cent in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, which went up to around 14 per cent in the 2016 Assembly elections. However, in 2019, riding on the Sabarimala sentiment, the party sees a realistic chance for itself in at least four seats, Thiruvananthapuram, Thrissur, Pathanamthitta and Kasargod, bordering Karnataka. To quote Kummanam Rajashekharan, BJP’s candidate against Congress’ high profile Shashi Tharoor in the state capital, “ our party stood by believers and (party chief) Amit Shah specifically spoke about Sabarimala when he came here. Lakhs of people have supported us. Innocent people have been jailed.

It’s for the first time in the history of Kerala that such a mass agitation has come up. The state government just wanted to crush it. The importance of the Sabarimala issue for the BJP got reflected even in its national manifesto wherein it stated, “We will undertake every effort to ensure that the subject of faith, tradition and worship rituals related to Sabarimala are presented in a comprehensive manner before the Hon’ble Supreme Court. We will endeavour to secure constitutional protection on issues related to faith and belief.”

In fact, during his campaign in Kerala, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself asserted, “after counting of the votes on May 23, we will fight in the court and the Parliament to ensure protection for customs and traditions”.

The party believes that its aggressive stand against the Left Front government’s move to implement the Supreme Court order amid widespread protests will yield political dividends in the upcoming polls. The state had witnessed frenzied protests by devotees and activists last year after the state government decided to implement the apex court order allowing menstrual age women into the hill shrine of Lord Ayyappa at Sabarimala setting aside a traditional ban.

The campaign saw Prime Minister Modi, BJP president Amit Shah, several Union Ministers, Rahul Gandhi, his sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and top leaders of Left parties addressing rallies in different parts of the state. Though a late entrant, the Congress also jumped into the Sabarimala bandwagon claiming the party had moved the Supreme Court on the issue way back and would protect the interests of the devotees.

Random surveys have shown that majority of the Ayyappa devotees, mostly belonging to the Upper Caste Nair community, want to defeat the Left Front. They will back the BJP where it is seen to be strong, mainly Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram but will vote for the Congress where the grand old party is the main challenger to the Left Front.

Among other issues, Rahul Gandhi in his public meetings in the state highlighted NYAY and attacked Modi over issues of Rafale deal, jobs among others. Another major poll issue was the devastating floods that hit the state in August last year with the Congress and the BJP holding the LDF Government responsible, alleging that it was a man-made disaster. They also alleged that flood reliefs were not distributed properly. However, facing anti-incumbency, a defensive LDF countered it was the central government which restricted the funds for the flood victims and alleged discrimination against the state by the Modi Government.

In this battle royale between LDF and NDA, the UDF may end up getting more seats but it should be seen more like a “collateral damage” rather than any revival of the Congress-led alliance. As for the BJP, apart from opening its maiden account, it would be looking forward to enhancing its seat share so as to emerge as the Third alternative in the state ahead of the next Assembly polls. Predictably, for the Left, it is a ‘do or die’ battle.

-KG Suresh, Senior Journalist & Former Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication