As news on counting day began to confirm the grim reality of the Congress’ performance across the country, a rare silver lining was on offer in Kerala, where from the commencement of the counting of votes, the Congress-led local alliance, the United Democratic Front, opened up early leads across all 20 parliamentary seats in the state.
The day-long soaring trend eventually concluded with the alliance securing 19 seats, including 15 for INC candidates directly—and in doing so, the Congress managed to better even its recent best of 13 seats which it got in 2009 at the height of the UPA years. In contrast, its principal opponent in the state, the Left Democratic Front, was, with its sole victory in the Alappuzha constituency, confined to its worst showing since 1977, when it had drawn a blank during the elections for the Sixth Lok Sabha.
But what makes this feat of the Congress in the state truly commendable has less to do with the demise of the Left and more to do with the manner in which it bucked a national wave in support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. There are several reasons why this was so, of which three are worth highlighting.
The issue of temple entry for women of all ages at the Ayyappa shrine in Sabarimala was a key factor going into the election. The BJP, which fielded candidates in 13 seats including their strongest candidate in my constituency of Thiruvananthapuram, went into the polls hoping to capitalise on the immense distress among believers in the state (their own state party president referred to it as a ‘golden opportunity’). But their strategy overlooked two vital aspects that ended up having a disastrous effect on their campaign.
By parading leaders who claimed to stand for the rights of the believers and who urged their supporters to create bedlam in the streets for the cause, they made the callous assumption that the voter would overlook their own hypocrisy in handling the issue. For one, despite having a clear majority in Parliament, the party failed to bring in a law to overturn the Supreme Court decision; nor did it issue an ordinance, despite having a President from its own ranks.
Subsequently, when other civil society organisations as well as the Congress party submitted a series of review petitions in the apex court, neither the BJP nor the central government did so. A review petition by the government would have carried weight with the Supreme Court; a law or ordinance would have eased the pain of the believers. But the BJP really had no intention of resolving the problem; they only wished to exploit the problem.
In an ideologically virile and highly literate state, their doublespeak on the issue was abundantly clear and the bulk of these aggrieved voters, including many Hindus, migrated to the Congress, resulting in the immensely favourable trend that we had on counting day.
The BJP also banked on a strategy that sought to employ a polarising communal rhetoric that had made gains for them elsewhere in the country, hoping that would result in a swing in support from the bulk of the 55% strong Hindu population in the state to their side.
In doing so, they alienated the other 45% comprising minority communities, which led to an unprecedented consolidation in favour of the Congress, who these communities saw as the most capable force to counter the communal agenda of the BJP nationally. Even many traditionally Communist-leaning voters from these communities voted for the Congress out of their desire to thwart the BJP’s gains.
In cosmopolitan Kerala, BJP's communalism profoundly overlooked a historic reality of the state, one that is fundamentally rooted in the fact that Keralites see the best guarantee of their own security and prosperity in the survival and success of a pluralist India. The Malayali ethos has always been the same as the best of the Indian ethos – accepting, inclusionist, flexible, eclectic, absorptive. Our most widely celebrated festival, Onam, unlike any of its contemporaries such as Id, Christmas or Diwali, is a celebration that has no explicitly religious connotations and is celebrated equally by people of all faiths and castes--in fact, Christians and Muslims feel as much "ownership" of this festival as Hindus do.
A local RG wave
While much has been said recently impugning the Congress president, the fact remains that in Kerala, a significant portion of the wave that the party gained stemmed from his decision to contest from the state. By choosing Wayanad, his decision produced a galvanising effect on the party machinery, energising the grassroots Congress supporters and ultimately ensuring that the party fought and executed a well-coordinated and animated campaign across the state.
Ultimately not only did he win by a hugely credible margin but at a time when the rest of the country was in the throes of a saffron wave, the local Rahul Gandhi wave helped the party wrest seats that were traditional strongholds of the Left. It also led to a ripple that one could argue contributed even to the creditable performance of the party in neighbouring Tamil Nadu.
There were other factors as well that together helped arrest the national saffron wave when it came knocking on the doors of the state—from a rather unimpressive local leadership, a substantive anti-incumbency wave generated by the failures of the BJP-helmed central government to fulfil any of their promises in the last five years and their complete disregard for promoting any credible development agenda.
Ultimately, the NDA garnered 15.5% of the vote share in the state (a meagre improvement from the 10.8% they got in 2014 and barely 1% above the 14.9% it secured in the 2016 Assembly elections) and, barring Thiruvananthapuram, all its candidates in the state could only come third in their respective constituencies.
Capitulation of the Left
The reasons for the capitulation of the Left and its candidates across the state are similar. For one, the aggrieved Hindu faithful in the state felt further alienated by the Left-led state government’s attempt to go out of their way to implement the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala (and in the process convert a sacred shrine into the platform for an unseemly political drama).
At the same time, minority communities, who the Left hoped to woo through these ‘secular’ positions, rightly recognised that their growing concerns with the majoritarianism of the BJP, were best likely to be resolved by supporting the Congress, the most viable national alternative. This trend of en masse minority consolidation in favour of the Congress has been reflected in a recent Hindu Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, where among those surveyed, over 70% of those from the Christian community and 65% of those from the Muslim community revealed that they had voted for the UDF.
And finally, the tipping point came in the form of widespread frustration with the Left’s inability to deal with the spectre of political violence and related killings in their own backyard—resulting in even traditional Communist strongholds like Kannur shifting to the side of the Congress.
The weeks ahead are likely to be a time for harsh introspection for the Congress party as it begins to take stock of the grim reality offered by its performance on the national stage. But this is not a time for us to sit back and lick our wounds. We have to revive ourselves. We absolutely must recover because we are the only viable national opposition party in the country and the revival plan must start today.
It is in this context that the performance of the Congress in Kerala offers manna to the party as it figures out how to leave the wilderness it finds itself in.
If we can get our core messaging right, strategically align ourselves with the interests of the people and the causes that concern them, whilst simultaneously offering a credible commitment to represent these interests to the best of our capabilities, the people will recognise the utility we have to offer in catering to their aspirations. Kerala has shown the BJP the limits of its appeal to the electorate. It is now up to the rest of India to follow