Notes On Chengannur By-election

You would have heard and read a lot in the media about the result of the by-election to Kairana Lok Sabha constituency, mostly because it was, though expected, a defeat for the BJP. There was another election result announced the same day that, for me personally, was more disappointing than the happenings in Uttar Pradesh. As Sujoy Ghosh explained in this OpIndia article, the result of Kairana may not be a total washout for BJP and there might actually be many positives for the party, in numbers as well as a psychological edge against the combined opposition in the run up to the next Lok Sabha election. The defeat in Chengannur, however, is another reminder of the hopeless prospects of BJP in Kerala when it comes to winning elections.

Kerala is a state where Hindus are now officially less than 50% of the total population. And the demographic distribution is such that, there are only a very small number of assembly constituencies where the Hindu vote can decide the winner. Chengannur in Alappuzha district is one of those rare seats where Hindus have a comfortable majority (60+%). The Christians, who have traditionally voted in favour of Congress-led UDF in Kerala, also have a very significant presence in the constituency forming about 30% of the total electorate. Among the Hindu castes, Nairs form the majority and the Nair Service Society (NSS), despite it’s stated sama-dooram (equi-distance) policy has always provided a tacit support to the UDF.

As a result of it’s demographic composition, Chengannur has traditionally been a safe seat for the Congress party until the LDF won during the 2016 assembly election. One of the factors that contributed to the LDF’s surprise victory was the spectacular increase in the BJP’s vote share from about 5000 votes in the previous election to about 42,000; just 2000 behind the Congress candidate who was also a 2-time MLA. While a small portion of these increased votes in favour of BJP were due to Nairs and other Hindu castes, a majority of it was due to the support from the Ezhava community. Though Ezhavas have traditionally formed the backbone of the CPI(M)’s vote bank, BJP was able to wean away a part of those votes in 2016 due to an alliance with the SNDP-backed BDJS party (SNDP is the community organization that represents the social and educational interests of the Ezhavas). Unlike the NSS, which has supported which ever front was in power, SNDP adopted a principled stand in support of uniting all the Hindu castes which resulted in the formation of BDJS and an alliance with BJP.

However, the relation between BJP and SNDP has since taken a south-ward turn. SNDP general secretary, Vellapally Natesan and his son, Tushar (who is also the president of BDJS), have been in a perpetual sulking mode against the BJP. They have accused the party, especially it’s national president Amit Shah, of not fulfilling the promises made during the alliance formation. There have been persistent speculations in the Kerala media about Tushar Vellapally being offered a Rajya Sabha membership by BJP. Not only has this not happened, the party has instead nominated two other Malayalees, K Alphons and V Muralidharan, to the house of elders. Other points of friction have included lack of action in completing nominations to the boards of different Central government organizations in Kerala. As a consequence of these festering issues between the two parties, not only has the BDJS stayed away from the campaign in Chengannur, SNDP is rumored to have instructed its members to teach a lesson to the arrogant big-brother.

When the results of by-election were announced on 31st May, the LDF candidate won with a massive margin of 20,000+ votes. BJP’s Sreedharan Pillai came 3rd, having lost almost 9000 votes from what he polled in 2006. On the results, Mr Natesan commented that they were just rewards for BJP’s arrogance and Mr Pillai seems to agree with him. A dispassionate analysis of the voting numbers shows that the result was due to the Christian votes consolidating in support of the Christian LDF candidate and the majority Hindu votes splitting 3-way. It also needs to be pointed out that while the BJP plays hardball with the leadership of Hindu organizations such as SNDP/BDJS, it readily rewards someone like Mr Alphons, a Christian, with Parliament membership and a cabinet berth despite the community shunning the party, not just in Kerala but also in Mizoram.

At this juncture, if you are an outsider to Kerala, there is a legitimate question that might occur to you. While the Church organizations totally backed the Christian LDF candidate in Chengannur, why didn’t the Hindu organizations like NSS and SNDP support BJP, the Hindu party? As already explained above, SNDP did come out and support BJP in the previous election, only to be treated like a second-rate nobody by the national party. Also, these community organizations run many educational and charity institutions in Kerala. It could be very costly for them to anger LDF or UDF which share power in the state. What would they gain by supporting BJP which cannot even put up a strong, united opposition in the state? What protection can they expect from a party that can’t even save it’s workers from getting butchered by their political opponents in Kerala and Bengal? If BJP has any genuine ambitions of making inroads into Kerala, it is important for the party to refresh it’s alliance formation skills and to remind itself about the transactional nature of these social and political alliances. That is the lesson party can take back from Chengannur to New Delhi.

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