Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of the LDF-led Kerala government, Congress' Rahul Gandhi and BJP president J P Nadda.
The Election Commission of India on Friday announced the schedule of Assembly elections in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Assam and West Bengal and the Union Territory of Puducherry.
Voting for the Kerala Assembly elections will take place in a single phase on April 6, the Election Commission said, adding that the counting of votes will take place on May 2.
In that context, we take an overview of the political situation of one of those states — Kerala — how the major parties fared last time in the state in 2016 and how they are positioned this time.
Kerala’s political backdrop
The three major political coalitions in the state are the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the CPI(M), the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress party, and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the BJP. There are also parties with a minuscule base in the state like the BSP, SP, RJD and the Janapaksham which do not associate with any of these fronts.
The Election Commission announced the polling dates for four states and 1 UT.
All governments in Kerala since its formation in 1956 have either been led by the Left parties or the Congress. This phenomenon has given the state a largely bipolar political character. In 1980, the Left parties and the Congress built coalitions — named LDF and the UDF respectively — when they realised the need to stitch alliances with smaller parties to form governments. Since 1980, both LDF and UDF have ruled the state alternatively.
In recent years, the BJP-led alliance has projected itself as a third alternative with an aim to form a government in the state. But its best performance in Assembly elections was in 2016 when it opened its account with one seat out of 140.
The three fronts and its current constituents
The LDF is headed by the CPM which contests on the most number of seats in the Assembly. It is the senior-most partner in the alliance and has the last say on most decisions. The candidate for chief minister also belongs to the CPM. The second-largest party is the CPI which shares an ideological affinity with the CPM on most parameters. Other parties in the LDF are the Kerala Congress (M), Janata Dal (S), Loktantrik Janata Dal (LJD), Congress (S), Indian National League (INL), a faction of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Kerala Congress (B), Janadhipathya Kerala Congress and Kerala Congress (Skaria Thomas).
The UDF is headed by the Congress, which contests the maximum number of seats and has the right to the chief minister’s chair. The second-largest party in the alliance is the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the oldest ally of the Congress in the state. Other parties in the UDF are Kerala Congress (Joseph), Kerala Congress (Jacob), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), Communist Marxist Party (John), All India Forward Bloc and a faction of the NCP led by Mani C Kappan.
The NDA is led by the BJP, which fights on a majority of seats in the state. Its allies are Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) and Kerala Congress (Thomas).
The 2016 Assembly election
The LDF rode to power in the 2016 Assembly elections, winning 91 of the 140 seats. Longtime CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan took oath as the chief minister on May 25, 2016.
The UDF, which governed the state between 2011 and 2016 under the leadership of Oommen Chandy, fared badly, winning just 47 seats. The Congress especially was decimated, winning 22 out of the 87 it contested. Its ally IUML had a good strike-rate, winning 18 of the 24 it fought on.
The LDF rode to power in the 2016 Assembly elections, winning 91 of the 140 seats.
The BJP created history by winning its first-ever Assembly seat with its senior leader O Rajagopal emerging victorious in the Nemom constituency. The party came second in 8 other constituencies.
The LDF had a combined vote-share of 43.48%, followed by UDF with 38.81% and the NDA with 14.96%. The LDF did phenomenally well in districts like Kollam where it won all 11 seats, Thrissur (12 out of 13), Kozhikode (11 out of 13) and Alappuzha (8 out of 9).
Bye-elections since 2016
Bye-elections have been held in eight constituencies in Kerala since 2016 due to reasons such as death of an MLA or the election of the MLA to Parliament. The LDF and the UDF were evenly-placed, winning four bypolls each.
While the UDF won bypolls in Vengara, Aroor, Ernakulam and Manjeswar, the LDF won bypolls in Pala, Chengannur, Konni and Vattiyoorkavu.
2020 local body polls
The elections to the three-tier self-governing institutions at the local level in November, 2020 were seen as the semi-final to the Assembly elections. The trend in recent elections has been that the party/coalition having an upper hand in the local body polls tend to do well in the ensuing Assembly elections as well.
In the 2020 elections, results of which were available in December, the LDF emerged on top, winning a majority of the panchayats, block panchayats, district panchayats and corporations.
The CPM and its allies won 514 of the 941 panchayats, 108 of the 152 block panchayats, 11 out of the 14 district panchayats, 43 out of 86 municipalities and 5 out of 6 corporations. It had a combined vote-share of 40.18%
The UDF emerged second overall, with wins in 321 panchayats, 38 block panchayats, 3 district panchayats, 41 municipalities and 1 corporation with a combined vote-share of 37.92%
The NDA won 19 panchayats and 2 municipalities with a vote-share of 15.02%.
Opinion polls for 2021 election
Two pre-election surveys conducted by Asianet-CFore and 24 News in the first two weeks of February predicted an upper-hand for the LDF.
The Asianet-CFore survey gave the LDF 72-78 seats, UDF 59-65 seats and NDA 3-7 seats. The half-way mark is 71.
The 24 News survey predicted a tight election with the LDF getting 68-78 seats, UDF 62-72 seats and NDA 1-2 seats.
The 2021 election and the major talking-points
Needless to say, this election is extremely important for all three fronts.
For the Left parties, Kerala is seen as its last bastion in the country, having already lost power in West Bengal in 2011 and Tripura in 2018. It is hoping to break the 40-year-old jinx of incumbent governments being voted out of power in the state. If it manages to do that, it can also position itself as the ideological alternative to the BJP at the Centre and regain its mass base.
The LDF is riding this election on its achievements in governance — such as strengthening welfarist policies like increasing social welfare pension and distributing free food kits during the Covid-19 lockdown, guiding the state through multiple tragedies like the 2017 Ockhi Cyclone, 2018 floods, 2018 Nipah crisis, 2019 floods and the 2020 Covid-19 crisis. It has also claimed to push thousands of crores of rupees from KIIFB to renovate government schools and hospitals, build roads and bridges and open more tourist avenues. With the entry of Kerala Congress (M) into LDF, the CPI(M) senses an opportunity to make inroads into the Catholic Christian vote bank.
This election is certainly a do-or-die battle for the Congress. It cannot afford a second defeat as it fears its space being usurped gradually by the Left and the BJP from both sides. For the past five years, the Congress played an effective opposition, training its guns on what it claims is a ‘corrupt and nepotistic’ government. It intends to run a campaign focused on throwing light on allegations of corruption against LDF in cases like Sprinklr, the gold smuggling and money laundering detected at Trivandrum airport last year and the ‘backdoor appointments’ into government jobs. It will also play up its stand on the issue of women-entry at Sabarimala temple, having already promised a law to punish women of menstrual age if they enter the temple. The Congress is betting high on the IUML doing well in the latter’s Muslim-majority strongholds in the northern Kerala region.
The BJP is driving its campaign in the state with an eye on consolidating the Hindu votes by flagging issues like Sabarimala women’s entry, the theory of ‘love jihad’ and a promise of freeing temples from government control. Even though it talks of forming a government in the state, political analysts have cited such claims as ‘unrealistic’. The BJP organised feverish protests in the backdrop of the 2018 Supreme Court order on Sabarimala, but could not make political dividends out of it in the 2019 LS elections or even in the bye-elections. However, it does remain as a force to contend with in at least three dozen constituencies and can tilt favour for the winning party.