I was wrong.
In my column on the Kerala state Assembly elections, I confidently predicted that the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) would be back in power. The voters have taught me that I should drop any hope of pursuing psephology as an alternative profession.
Reflecting on the drubbing the UDF received as results came in on 19 May, however, I have tried to make some lemonade out of the lemon the voters have handed me. There are useful lessons to be learned amid the debris of my hopes and predictions, some of which may have wider implications for electoral politics in the years ahead. Here are seven:
1. Factionalism Matters
The Congress in Kerala is notoriously riven into two groups, which even bear official names, Congress (A) and Congress (I), have recognised leaders (Oommen Chandy and Ramesh Chennithala respectively), meet separately and run the party as a confederation of allied groups rather than an organic unit.
The appointment of a “neutral” KPCC President (VM Sudheeran) created, in effect, a third group.
Rivalry, sniping and one-upmanship was rife in the party, with disagreements over “scam-tainted ministers” being aired publicly right till the election campaign began – thus alienating large sections of the public.
Arguably the factions did more damage to each other than the Opposition did to them.
2. Development Matters, but It’s Not Enough
The UDF government’s hugely impressive development track record, from Kannur Airport in the north of the state to Vizhinjam Port in the south – and taking in Kochi’s Smart City, Start-Up Village and Metro on the way – set Kerala on a course towards sustainable economic growth. But it wasn’t enough to persuade voters to re-elect UDF.
3. Corruption Matters
The steady drumbeat of scandal and allegations (all unproven in any court of law) of corruption by UDF ministers undoubtedly created a public perception that damaged the government’s candidates.
It did not help that fingers were pointed within the party at some ministers during ticket-distribution. Several of those tainted by the media and by elements in the party did not survive the whiff of alleged corruption that hung around them.
4. Issues Matter
This may surprise those who base their political calculations on identity-based voting and see religious and caste affiliations as the principal determinants of electoral behaviour. But, in addition to corruption, the Left made hay out of various controversies that arose just before the elections.
The brutal rape-murder of a Dalit law student was exploited to argue that women were not safe under the UDF.
The adoption of prohibition by the UDF government, while publicly popular, especially with women and religious leaders, is disliked by the state’s many drinkers, and the LDF subtly let it be known, without saying so in as many words, that the availability of alcohol would be greater and easier under a Left dispensation.
With the “solar scam” and “bar bribery” as alliterative albatrosses already around the government’s neck, these issues helped swing undecided voters away from the government.
5. Vote Percentages Don’t Tell the Whole Story
The CPI-M actually got a slightly lower percentage of votes than it did in 2011, when it lost the election. But the Congress’ fall was more precipitate, and the gainer was the alliance that only won one seat – the NDA, composed essentially of the BJP (10.5%) and the BJDS (3.9%). Together with a couple of smaller allies, the NDA’s vote share was nearly 15%, but it got them less than 1% of the Assembly. It was enough, however, to reduce the Congress-led UDF from 72 seats in the old Assembly to 47.
6. “Hindu Consolidation” Doesn’t Work in Kerala
The BJP swept a majority of the Hindu vote in Assam, where Muslims are nearly 30% of the electorate. But in Kerala, where Hindus account for 55%, communal consolidation will not work, since Hindus voted for the LDF and the UDF too (in that order).
Communal issues have limited appeal in Kerala – the Ezhava community is 23% of the state’s population, but its supposed standard-bearer, the BDJS, got under 4% (or less than a fifth of the community, with four-fifths voting for other parties).
If the BJP hopes to become a credible contender for office in Kerala, it will have to appeal beyond its conventional strategy and seek to brand itself as a party of 21st century development rather than a vehicle of Hindu consolidation.
7. The Congress Has a Youthful Future
Strikingly, a significant number of the Congress’ more youthful candidates – men in their 30s and early 40s – won their seats, giving the Grand Old Party a Brand New Party look in the new Assembly. They will make for a youthful, vigorous opposition to the ageing Left Government, conveying the sense of a party with its sights set on the future rather than the past. This may well turn out to be the recipe for the party’s future across the nation.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and author)