Why people in Kerala voted so differently in three elections over two years

While the UDF won 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, the LDF got a majority in the 2020 local body polls and a thumping victory in the 2021 Assembly election.
Voters in a Kerala election
Voters in a Kerala election
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Nineteen out of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala were won by members of the Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF), in 2019. Only one seat came to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF). A year and a half later, the state had its local body elections and the result took a U-turn, the LDF candidates winning a majority of the corporations, panchayats and wards. Hardly four months later yet another election took place in Kerala – to decide who would rule the state next and voila, the incumbent LDF had a thumping victory. All three elections happened in a span of two years and the results, if put on a scale, will have the needle jumping from one end to the other.

“Electorates in Kerala see each election differently. The same voter who voted for one party in the Lok Sabha poll may vote for another in the Assembly election. There is a difference in people’s priority for each election and the way they look at each tier of election,” says J Prabhash, who was professor of political science at Kerala University.

In an article titled 'Changing voting behaviour in Kerala Elections' that he co-authored with KM Sajad Ibrahim in 2017, Prabhash writes that the emergence of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has 'punctured the starched sanctity of bipolar politics' in the state. In the EPW story, the two authors write that except for the extremely poor, ‘all other socio-economic groups are highly volatile and are changing their political preferences, depending on the unfolding social reality’.

In the 2014 general election when the NDA came to power at the Centre, the UDF had won 12 of the 20 seats in Kerala while the LDF bagged eight. In 2009, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was reelected in India, the LDF had won only four Lok Sabha seats, and the rest went to UDF.

“In 2019, people in Kerala wanted the Congress to come back to power (at the Centre). They didn’t want the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party leading the NDA) back. So they voted overwhelmingly for the Congress. The Left didn’t have even a slight chance to come to power at the Centre,” Prabhash says.

Congress leaders Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy

The issues were also different that year. It was only months after the Sabarimala conundrum had happened, though that was not the only deciding factor, Prabhash says. Perhaps if the Assembly election had taken place in 2019, the results may not have been the same. 

‘People think with their stomach’

“People look at politics in a way it makes sense to them; they needn’t think with their brain but may think with their stomach. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, many people were driven penniless. At the time the welfare pensions and the free rations rolled out by the state government mattered,” Prabhash says.

During the 2020 local body polls too, the pandemic was there. “When it comes to local body elections, local issues and local leaders matter. Then there’s caste and other factors to consider. There was a slight shift in the way people voted, swaying away from the way they did in the 2019 elections, towards the Left. That slight shift became too much in the 2021 Assembly election,” he adds.

On May 2, when the results were announced, 99 out of the 140 went to the LDF and the NDA lost the single seat it won in 2016. By 2021, it was a whole different set of issues that worried the people. The Sabarimala issue had gone to the Supreme Court and the matter was not an immediate concern in 2020 or 2021. It suddenly became all about the worrisome pandemic and day to day issues as balancing poverty and possible lockdowns.

“The very sociology of election has changed between 2019 and 2021. People take to heart certain issues which they can define and understand. On that basis they come to certain political conclusions, which to an outside observer may look foolish,” Prabhash says.

Master storyteller

The Left, he says, had a convincing narrative to tell people and there was also a master narrator to tell that story. He, of course, means Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister that people grew fond of day by day in these past five years, as he took them through several disasters. The pandemic was the last of these.

CM Pinarayi Vijayan

It worked that the LDF had projected a single strong leader, like Pinarayi Vijayan, Prabhas says. “The Congress on the other hand was not sure what they wanted to tell people, neither could they agree upon a single narrator – Oommen Chandy or Ramesh Chennithala or someone else. If you look at elections these days, universally, leadership matters. One single strong leader is projected and people vote for them. In the US there was Donald Trump earlier and Joe Biden last year. In Tamil Nadu, there is Stalin, in West Bengal there is Mamata and in Odisha, it is Naveen Patnaik. The party which is able to project that single strong no-nonsense leader has won the race halfway. The rest, they need to win with their policies and storytelling abilities – because politics nowadays is like storytelling. Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes speeches like he is telling a story.”

Ten years ago, it would have been different, when people looked at the party and not the leader. Prabhash quotes the example of the BJP’s rise to make a point. “In 2014 when Narendra Modi came to power, the BJP as an organisation was not very powerful despite having the RSS core. Modi came as part of a movement, as a phenomenon. People’s perspectives have changed. They want a strong leader to narrate their story.”

Yet another factor that favoured the Left is the way they handled their political communication – with slogans and songs that appealed to people. Prabhas calls it the “art of political communication.”

Watch: LDF song for the election

“They have a war room, a captain, a narrative and all these together brought them their landslide victory,” he says.

Elections 2023

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