Goutham KA and Bhavya Bhardwaj
The oft-touted “Kerala model of politics” has largely been seen as a deviation from the Indian mainstream politics for a number of reasons. It is the last standing bastion of Left politics in India. The political will displayed by the leadership over the years to deliver on the development agenda has been remarkable and can be traced from different social indicators where the State performs much better than its counterparts (Kerala is the best performing state on the SDG India Index 2019-20) and the syncretic political culture of Kerala even with a sizeable religious minority (Muslims and Christians constitute around 45 per cent of the population of Kerala) is widely acclaimed. While at the outset the above parameters seem to set Kerala apart, a microscopic view of Kerala politics reveals that, like the rest of India, religion and caste do play a crucial role in the State.
Kerala election is largely a bipartisan contest with power alternating between the LDF (Left Democratic Front) — an alliance of the left-wing parties, and the UDF (United Democratic Front) — led by the Indian National Congress (INC). While professing commitment to secularism, both the political fronts have been guilty of ‘minority-appeasement’ and contriving alliances with minority political groups to strengthen their vote base.
Religion is the most potent plank of political mobilisation in the Indian society, given how deeply religious beliefs are embedded amongst the people of the subcontinent. Consequently, the issue of representation is important for people of all sects and this provides easy fault lines for the political parties to exploit them. It also influences the whole process starting from election campaigns to selection of candidates. Kerala is no exception to this and the compulsions of religious demography have translated into considerable number of political constituencies catering to sectarian demands.
An in-depth analysis of the State’s election history substantiates this claim as there have been many instances where the political fronts opted for a candidate from the minority community to secure their votes. The candidate selection for Guruvayur Assembly Constituency is a classic example of this. In spite of the constituency comprised of approximately 60 percent of Hindu population, the candidates of both the major political fronts over the years have been from the Muslim community which is deliberately done to cater to the minority sentiments.
Given Kerala’s religiously diverse and heterogeneous society, minority politics occupies a central place in the electoral calculations of all the major political fronts. Other than community-based political parties, there are organisations like Samastha Kerala Jamiat-ul-Ulema (Samasta), a Sunni-Shafi’i scholarly body, which indirectly plays an important role in Kerala politics, especially in Northern Kerala. It is the unconditional support of Samsata (EK Group) that helps the IUML (Indian Union Muslim League) hold its fort in Malappuram District. On the other hand, the pro-LDF attitude of Samsata (AP group) has proven to be effective for the Left front in the districts of Kozhikode, Kannur and even Kasaragod.
As we move towards the Central Travancore region, the power-equation shifts from the Muslim minority to the Christian minority. The elections to Local Body institutions in 2020 gave a clear indication of the shift of the Christian minority votes towards the LDF and the return of Oommen Chandy (former Chief Minister of Kerala and senior Congress leader) to lead the Assembly Election campaign is clearly a strategy to check the erosion of Christian vote bank. The general trend followed by the political fronts in areas where the minorities can impact the election results is to choose a candidate who can cater to the minority sentiments. Assembly constituencies like Chengannur, Ranni, Aranmula, Muvattupuzha are some examples. This has provided a strong negotiating position to the minority groupings that constantly shift and re-align their allegiances with the UDF and the LDF.
The UDF has been traditionally in close alliance with regionally dominant parties such as the IUML and different factions of the Kerala Congress(KC) which has helped them to attract the minority votes in Malappuram and the Central Travancore over the years. With the Kerala Congress(M) shifting alliance to the LDF and the IUML gaining a greater influence within the broader UDF alliance, given its strong performance in 2016 and 2020, it has led to alienation of the Christian minority groups from the UDF. This is evident from the 2019 Local Self Government (LSG) election results when the long-standing UDF bastions of the Central Travancore opened their gates to the LDF. Another important turf where the religious denomination of the Latin Catholic Church holds sway over election verdict is Ernakulam. An analysis of the candidates chosen by the LDF and the UDF in Ernakulam constituency gives a clear picture of how the Latin Catholic community influences the electoral process from start to finish, especially in Assembly constituencies of Kothamangalam, Perumbavur and Kochi.
The NDA (National Democratic Alliance), which yet remains as a distant third-front in Kerala politics, is slowly but surely making its presence felt in the political circles of the State. While the overtly communal tone of its central leadership and the controversies regarding CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act) and NRC (National Register of Citizens), Love-jihad, Anti-cow slaughter Bill, etc. have not been well-received in the Kerala society, the Sabarimala judgment did provide the party considerable takers for its position regarding “faith-matters”. This has helped the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)/NDA to make inroads into more districts as the number of constituencies where the NDA has garnered more than 35,000 votes have increased from 13 in 2016 to 19 in 2020 (Local Body elections). Also, the BJP is privy to the strong minority presence in Kerala and the recent meetings of the Catholic leaders with Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised speculations of them moving to the right-fold. The BJP also fielded around 500 Christian candidates in the local Panchayat elections. There is a common grievance among the Keralite Christian community that Muslims are given more benefit of minority welfare schemes and this might well provide a ground that may be exploited by the BJP to bring Christian voters into its fold, and break the traditional UDF and LDF vote banks.
It is quite evident from the above picture that the secular superstructure of the Kerala politics is built on a complex base consisting of caste, community and religion. Even though the Left front seems to have an upper hand in the prevailing political climate, considering its stellar performance in the recently concluded LSG elections, it is still early to conclude as the State’s election history has not been favourable to the incumbent. Thus, the electoral engineering of Kerala politics is very much done on religious grounds. Ironically, Mahatma Gandhi probably correctly noted that those who believe that politics and religion are not connected, understand neither.
Goutham KA is Associate Projects and Bhavya Bhardwaj is Research Intern (Election Studies) at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
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