Hindutva, which had experienced decades of electoral drought in Kerala, struck pay dirt when in last week's elections the Bharatiya Janata Party won a seat in the 140-member State Assembly for the first time, came close to snatching a second, and ended up as the first runner-up in six other constituencies.

Since the early 1980s, Kerala has been under a two-front system, with the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front alternating in power. No party which isn't in one of these fronts has been able to win a seat.

True to pattern, the LDF replaced the UDF in power this time, but the two fronts couldn't make a clean sweep. Apart from the BJP's old warhorse O. Rajagopal, who had earlier lost election after election, P.C. George, an independent who was not backed by either the UDF or the LDF, also won. George had won previous elections as a part of one front or the other.

The BJP's breakthrough doesn’t necessarily mean the two-front system has collapsed. But it does indicate that it can be brought down. Its fate now hinges on how the Congress and the CPI (M) respond to the emergence of the BJP as an electoral force.

Hindutva had been in electoral politics in Kerala since the Jana Sangh days. At an early stage, it set its eyes on the Ezhavas, an OBC community which is the largest Hindu caste group. The violent conflicts between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the CPI (M) in northern Kerala, which has taken a few hundred lives in the past half a century, are, in fact, part of a fight to dominate the community. The only portrait that adorned the dais when the Jana Sangh held its National Council meeting in Kozhikode in the 1970s was that of Sri Narayana Guru, the social reformer who had radicalized the community and placed before Kerala in the late 19th century the ideal of a society free from caste differences and religious hatred.

The strategy didn't succeed until recently, as the secular ethos created by the Guru's ideal proved a stumbling block.

Soon after becoming the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi visited the state at the invitation of the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham, founded by the Guru, to inaugurate its annual pilgrimage. He paid another visit to attend a function organized by the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha, an organization of the largest Dalit community. Ahead of the elections, the RSS, which has the largest number of sakhas in the state, took direct control of the BJP. It made Kummanam Rajasekharan, who had headed the Hindu Aikyavedi for decades, as the state party chief.

For the first time, the BJP entered the electoral arena with an alliance. Its main partner in the National Democratic Alliance's state unit was the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, formed, with Modi's blessings, by Vellappalli Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, founded by the Guru to propagate his ideals. It was allotted 36 seats to contest.

Although the BDJS claims to represent all Hindus and its candidates included leaders of the Yogakshema Sabha of the Namboodiris and the KPMS, most of its nominees were office-bearers of the Yogam. The other NDA partners included the P.C.Thomas faction of the Kerala Congress, a predominantly Christian party, and a new party floated by adivasi leader C.K. Janu. Thomas was a minister of state in the A.B. Vajpayee government. Janu has been leading the tribals' agitation for land.

Personal popularity seems to have played a part in Rajagopal's victory. The BJP had brought him into the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh and Vajpayee made him Minister of State in his government. Many in southern Kerala give him credit for improving railway facilities when he was minister. In 2011, he had lost to V. Sivankutty of the CPI (M). This time his vote share in the constituency rose from 37.5% to 47.7% while Sivankutty's declined from 43% to 41.6%. The UDF's candidates in both elections were from small parties and its vote dropped from 17.4% in 2011 to 9.8% this time.

The increasing appeal of the BJP among the members of the powerful Nair community must have also helped Rajagopal. The shift in the community's preference had manifested itself in last year's local body elections in which the BJP replaced the UDF as the main opposition in the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation.

As it happened, none of BJP's partners, including the BDJS, could win a seat or even claim the second position in any constituency.

Preliminary data indicate that the BJP/NDA raised its vote share from 6.06% in the 2011 elections to 15.01% – an increase of 8.95 percentage points.
The LDF secured a comfortable majority in the new Assembly, but its vote share actually declined, from 45.19% in 2011 to 43.31% -- a drop of 1.88 percentage points. It could still win because the UDF lost even more votes, its share falling from 45.83% to 38.86% -- a steep fall of 6.97 percentage points.

The combined loss of the LDF and the UDF corresponds to the gain of the BJP/NDA. One may therefore feel tempted to conclude that 1.88% of the voters switched from the LDF to the NDA and 6.97% from the UDF to the NDA. This line of thought will lead to the conclusion that the BJP is gaining ground at the cost of the UDF.

Within the UDF, the Congress is clearly the worst sufferer. Its main partner, the Muslim League, could get 18 of its 24 candidates elected -- a success rate of 75%. Its second largest partner got six of its 15 candidates elected – a success rate of 40%. However, the Congress could get only 22 of its 87 candidates elected -- an extremely low success rate of just about 25%.

Yet it's risky to conclude that the BJP has gained mainly at the expense of the Congress. The NDA’s vote share of 15.01% includes the BDJS's 3.9%. Since the Ezhavas form an estimated 23% of the state's population, this figure suggests the BJP's bid to piggy ride the Sree Narayana movement has met with only a modest success.

Religious minorities account for 45% of the state's population. But they form only about 20% of the CPI (M) membership. In this election, the Left continued the tactical line it has been following for some time of trying to broaden its base among the minorities. As part of this line, it outsourced more seats to them than ever before. The success of many of these candidates indicates that the LDF has been able to attract new voters from among the minorities.

According to the CSDS post-poll survey, details of which are not available yet, the LDF attracted one-third of the Christian votes this time. In the last two Assembly elections, its share of Christian votes was 27%. When the minority votes gained this time are worked in, the loss of Hindu votes to the BJP may amount to more than the straight drop of 1.88 percentage points cited above.

The BJP has finally been able to make some headway as Kerala's secular ethos has weakened. Both the Congress and the CPI (M) have contributed to this development by repeatedly compromising with caste and religious forces for electoral gains. How they assess their losses and plan to reverse the trend and how the BJP plots to build up on its gains will determine the course of Kerala's politics in the immediate future.

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