It would be simplistic to argue that the Kerala election results represent the common trend of the two alliances alternating in power — 2011 was the turn of the UDF and this time around it was expected to be the LDF. Two other factors make the Kerala verdict of 2016 distinctly different. The presence of the BJP, which was able to open its account in the state with one seat and more importantly managed a significant vote share (11% on its own and close to 15% with the BDJS) in a traditional bipolar state makes this election different. Secondly, the scale of the LDF victory in terms of seats is a departure from the past when one of the two alliances managed to secure a wafer-thin majority. The two factors merit deeper analysis and provide important insights into the cut and thrust of the emerging politics in the state.
Was the decisive mandate for the LDF a categorical vote against the UDF or simply the routine switchover from one alliance to another? Lokniti-CSDS data reveals that respondents had heard and benefited from some of the flagship programmes of the government including PDS, Pensions Scheme and Karunya Scheme. They also felt that electricity and water supply had improved as had medical facilities in government hospitals and law and order (Table 1). The outgoing chief minister got a reasonably high rating with close to two-thirds stating that he had done a good job. Close to one-fourth of the respondents preferred him as the chief minister.
Where then did the UDF take a hit? Close to eight of every ten respondents described the UDF regime as corrupt; more than one-third said it was very corrupt. In 2011, the proportion of those who had perceived the Achuthanandan government to be very corrupt had been just 16 per cent. Moreover, 54 per cent of the voters this time were of the opinion that the charges made by Saritha Nair against the CM in the solar panel case were either genuine or partially genuine and nearly two in five voters were of the view that Oommen Chandy should have resigned after his name came up in the case. Many voters (47%) also viewed the charges against UDF ministers in the bar bribery case as genuine. Not only did this factor result in a much higher percentage of respondents being highly dissatisfied than satisfied with the government in power, it also deterred a significant proportion of those satisfied with UDF’s overall governance from voting for it.
Lokniti CSDS’s pre-poll survey found that 14 per cent of those satisfied with the UDF government’s performance saw it as being “very corrupt” and among them only about 23 per cent ended up voting for the UDF while 60 per cent voted for the LDF (Table 3). A high media exposure among the voters of Kerala also seems to have amplified the corrupt image of the government. The survey found that three-fourths of the electorate had moderate to high exposure to media and the perception that the UDF government was very corrupt was much stronger among them than it was among the few who were not exposed to the media (Table 4). This is in contrast to West Bengal where Lokniti’s post-poll survey had found the numerous corruption charges against the Mamata Banerjee government could not affect her party’s performance as a large proportion of voters had low exposure to the media. Clearly, apart from the state’s tradition of changing governments every five years, the corrupt image of the UDF government appears to have been a major contributing factor to its defeat.
The emergence of the BJP merits a detailed analysis. The dent that the party has made in the bipolar competition in the state is likely to have long-term political consequences. There is a clear pattern in the nature of support for the BJP. The youth seemed to be more attracted to the party (nine percentage points higher support among those below 25 as compared to the average support across age groups) as were men (for every one women supporting the party, close to two men supported it) (Table 2). Urban and middle-class respondents tended to favour the BJP much more than those in rural and semi-urban areas and those from the less privileged economic segments. While the party drew some traction in the state, there were also strong reservations about it. More than half the respondents who took a stand that there was a party they would never support indicated that this party was the BJP.
There was tremendous speculation whether the UDF or the LDF would be adversely impacted by the rise of the BJP. Survey data indicates that the UDF has been impacted more seriously. The emergence of the BJP has also contributed to a shift in the social base of parties. The Christian and Muslim communities were largely seen as the vote base of the UDF while the Ezhava community had more often than not backed the LDF. A slight shift in the base of support is noticed with the rise of the BJP. There is a three-way split of the Nair and Ezhava vote with the LDF garnering close to half these votes. The balance was shared between the UDF and the BJP, with the BJP doing better among the Nairs and the UDF better among the Ezhavas.
What is interesting to note is the movement of the minority vote towards the LDF. Close to one-third of the Christian and Muslim vote went with the LDF. The BJP was able to garner ten per cent of the Christian vote, while its share of the Muslim vote was very marginal. It seems that not only did the BJP eat into the Nair support base of the UDF, but the pre-election discourse about its imminent rise also seems to have pushed some Muslims who had voted for the UDF in 2014 towards the LDF which was perceived to be the frontrunner by most opinion polls before the election. The UDF’s vote share among Muslim voters dropped by five percentage points since the Lok Sabha elections and all of it seems to have gone to the LDF, whose vote share among the community went up by 14 percentage points. In the past, support for the LDF was among the less affluent whereas the UDF found more of an appeal among the economically well off.
Thus, the decisive mandate in favour of the LDF is linked to corruption that tainted the UDF government as well as the shift in the traditional social bases of support of the two alliances. The LDF managed to garner a significant chunk of the minority vote as it was seen as being more capable of challenging the rise of the BJP even as it did not see a major erosion in the support it received from the Ezhavas and Nairs. Like in the past, the voter in Kerala has opted for a change in the ruling coalition but also widened the base of political competition by recognising the presence of an emerging third force even as the social base of the two alliances witnesses minor yet significant shifts.