A day before counting in the Aruvikkara byelection, CPM Kerala secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said the BJP had split the anti-Congress vote. It was an indirect admission that a rise in the BJP’s vote share would be at the expense of the CPM. The final results were revealing. The vote shares of the winner, K S Sabarinathan from the Congress, and the runner-up, M Vijayakumar of the CPM, fell by 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively compared to the 2011 Assembly election. What stood out was that the BJP’s share went up by 17 per cent. A significant chunk of the anti-Congress votes went to the BJP, as Kodiyeri had predicted. BJP candidate O Rajagopal’s personal charm swung some votes his way, but clearly, the CPM had failed to benefit from anti-incumbency.
The BJP’s rise — it bagged 10 per cent of votes in the 2014 general election, up from 6 per cent in 2009 — seems to be hurting the Left. The CPM needs a consolidation of Hindu votes to win elections in Kerala. Whenever this consolidation fails to materialise, the Congress-led UDF gains. If the BJP manages to expand in the state, a pro-Hindu vote in favour of the CPM-led LDF would become unlikely. In recent times, the Sangh Parivar has been aggressively wooing Hindu community organisations. There are signs the SNDP, which represents the numerically strong Ezhava community, could respond favourably to the Sangh’s outreach. The bulk of the CPM cadre is drawn from the Ezhava community. If the BJP succeeds in winning over even a small section of them, the CPM base would shrink.
The dependence of the CPM — and of the broad Left — on Hindu communities to maintain political influence is a result of their failure to make inroads among Muslims and Christians, who constitute nearly half of Kerala’s population. The clergy, which wields substantial influence over the two communities, has always been suspicious of the Left. The distrust was mutual, and ideological. The clergy, and most of the laity, preferred parties that espoused communitarian agendas, like the Muslim League and the Kerala Congress. The Congress umbrella had space for such parties. By the mid-1960s, the Left realised the limitations of its secular politics and sought out ML and Kerala Congress factions. The situation changed in the mid-1980s when the CPM adopted a hardline secular position and refused to have alliances with “religious” parties. Communitarianism was now interpreted as communal. At a time when the BJP was an insignificant force in most parts of Kerala, the hardline secularism helped the Left to win over a large section of the Hindu vote. The growth of the BJP in the past two decades has fractured the “Hindu secularism” consensus. The Left would need the support of a section of the religious minorities to compete with the Congress-led UDF’s wider social base.
The Left had an opportunity in the 1990s and thereafter, when the moderate leadership of the Muslim League could not address the contradictions and aspirations in the community. New parties like the Indian National League (INL) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Abdul Nasser Madani represented sections among the Muslims, mostly the underclass, who were dissatisfied with the League politics that represented the community’s elite sections and focussed on political accommodation for the sake of office. All three were willing to engage with the Left, but the latter, bound by the 1980s’ tactical line on secularism, and worried over alienating the Hindu vote, would not dare respond to the overtures from the Muslim leadership. When it did in the 2000s, it preferred to do so surreptitiously. A tactical understanding with the PDP and the INL helped the Left Front in the 2004 general election and the 2006 Assembly election. But the understanding with the two parties was never formalised. The Left, it appeared, was only interested in making political capital of the class contradictions within the Muslim community. It was unwilling to offer a transparent and formal political arrangement, which could have addressed issues of wealth distribution and electoral representation. The Left leadership failed to rethink its secular politics in the light of the Babri Masjid demolition and the Gujarat riots, and repostulate it accordingly. Both formations lost out in the process. The Left could not expand its social base, while the political militancy of the non-ML Muslim outfits were blunted for a conservative and regressive identity politics.
The CPM has attempted to overcome the exhaustion of its “secular” agenda by emphasising on its organisational muscle and a managerial approach to politics. The protest map of Kerala is now dominated by small, local and focussed groups that are suspicious of the CPM’s tendency to dominate them. Factional fights, mainly petty power struggles that claim ideological overtones, have further sapped the energy of cadres. Any challenge to the party’s supremacy is met with brutal violence, further alienating cadres and sympathisers. It is this crisis within the CPM that the BJP is trying to exploit in its bid to grow. The BJP, with its polarising agendas, is unlikely to have it easy, but it could hurt the CPM grievously and upset the state’s delicate communal balance. The beneficiary in the short run, however, could be the Congress-led UDF. With local bodies elections due in September, the CPM leadership has a lot to mull over.