NDA’s Kerala vote share moves closer to critical mass in many constituencies

The NDA growth story in Kerala had been painstakingly slow and incremental. Data from this Lok Sabha election shows that it has now become a force to reckon with in at least 30 Assembly constituencies.
Prakash Javadekar, Suresh Gopi, K Surendran, V Muraleedharan
Prakash Javadekar, Suresh Gopi, K Surendran, V MuraleedharanBJP Keralam Facebook
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On June 4, 2024, when the counting was done and dusted, the mantle of heavy lifting for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Kerala fell on Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Suresh Gopi who won the Thrissur Lok Sabha seat. The win has set off electoral tremors in both the United Democratic Front (UDF), for which it was a sitting seat, and the Left Democratic Front (LDF), which had cherished high hopes of riding on the popularity of its candidate, CPI’s VS Sunil Kumar, a former minister in the Pinarayi Vijayan cabinet. Votes of both the fronts eroded in Thrissur.

Unlike the UDF and LDF, which have reached a saturation point, the NDA growth story in Kerala has been painstakingly slow and incremental. In 2014, the NDA’s vote share was around 10.5%. By 2019 it was 15.64% and this time, the front clocked 19.23%.

In the five north Kerala constituencies – Kasaragod, Kannur, Wayanad, Vadakara, and Kozhikode – the NDA has secured 2% to 6% increase in the vote share. Its biggest gains were in Alappuzha, which saw a 11% surge, Thrissur 9% and Alathur, where they got 10% more votes. Kollam and Attingal witnessed a 7% surge in NDA votes.

A clear increase in the number of votes for the UDF in 110 out of 140 Assembly segments in the state, ruled by the Left, is an indication of anti-incumbency against the Pinarayi Vijayan government. While Christian and Muslim voters chose to stay with the UDF as they did in the 2019 general elections, the LDF faced erosion of votes from the Ezhava community and Dalits, who shifted to the BJP as seen by its performance in constituencies like Thrissur, Attingal, and Alappuzha. The BJP is now in the top position in number of votes in 11 Assembly segments and second in nine. They also finished as close runners-up in 10 other segments.

Did the Christian vote shift?

There was a perception that the Christian community might show a preference for the BJP because of active attempts to woo them by Narendra Modi himself but the party took a beating after the strife in Manipur happened. UDF’s impressive performance across constituencies shows that minorities, including Christians and Muslims, chose to side with them rather than the CPI(M), which had even taken up every cause ranging from CAA to Palestine. In Ernakulam and Pathanamthitta – which have a significant Christian population – the UDF increased its vote share. In Pathanamthitta, where Anil Antony was the BJP candidate, the party votes dropped compared to 2019. In Kottayam, the NDA improved its vote share, though not as much as expected, with both UDF and LDF losing votes, when compared to 2019.

Actor-politician Suresh Gopi clocked 37.8% of the vote share and showed a clear increase in the number of votes he polled in six out of the seven Assembly segments which form the Thrissur LS seat, all of which are currently held by the LDF. His significant gains across the constituency is the only indication that the BJP may have received a share of the Christian votes in Thrissur.

“Both the LDF and UDF have lost vote share to the BJP. We cannot clearly identify which party had the bigger loss. The most visible loss is in Thrissur, where around one lakh votes from the UDF went to the BJP. Though not major, there has been a shift in Christian votes, mainly from the UDF camp. Even in Thiruvananthapuram, UDF votes have gone to the BJP. So largely, the votes have gone from the UDF rather than from the LDF,” said MG Radhakrishnan, veteran journalist and political analyst.

Similarly, though the LDF tried its best to woo the Muslim community, it seems the majority of Muslim votes went to the UDF. Kasaragod, Kozhikode, and Malappuram are some of the most Muslim-populated districts. The constituencies falling under these districts have consistently supported the UDF, and the BJP’s vote share growth does not seem very significant in these regions, except in Kasaragod, where the NDA secured a 19.73% vote share, more than a 3% increase from 2019.

Is BJP a potential threat to the ruling LDF?

It’s been two decades since the NDA registered an ‘electoral victory’ in a parliamentary election in Kerala. The last time the candidate was PC Thomas, a sitting Union minister of state in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee cabinet who had floated a political outfit of his own – the Indian Federal Democratic Party – after falling out with his mentor, the late KM Mani.

The constituency was Muvattupuzha, from where he had won consecutively since 1989, with the margin being a measly 529 votes. It shocked both the UDF, led by the Congress, and the LDF in the state because Thomas had 34.4% of the total polled votes in his kitty. This was despite Thomas contesting as a member of the BJP-led NDA, a party of Hindutvavadis, in a constituency where Christian voters held sway. In that year, even O Rajagopal, veteran leader of the BJP, could garner a vote share of only 29.9% in Thiruvananthapuram.

Thomas’ tenure as an NDA MP was short-lived and his win essentially a non-victory. In 2006, the Supreme Court declared his election as void for corrupt practices under the Representation of the People Act and for using religion to woo voters as he had distributed leaflets that had pictures of him along with Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul. In his place, PM Ismail of the CPI(M) was declared elected.

In 2004, BJP had a vote share of more than 10% but wasn’t considered a force to reckon with by either of the fronts. But two decades later, the party has thrown a huge challenge to the two fronts by displaying its potential with an increase in the number of votes in 11 of the 140 Assembly constituencies over its rivals. Whereas in 2019, it was leading in the number of votes only in Nemom. By contrast, the UDF got the most number of votes in 110 Assembly segments and the LDF in just 19. The LDF currently has 98 Assembly seats.

In the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, where it had fielded Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the BJP cruised ahead of Congress’ Shashi Tharoor in Kazhakkoottam, Vattiyoorkavu, and Nemom (from where O Rajagopal was elected before). In Thrissur, the party surged ahead in the Assembly segments of Manalur, Ollur, Thrissur, Nattika, Pudukad and Irinjalakuda, conceding only the temple town of Guruvayoor to the UDF. In Attingal, where Union Minister V Muraleedharan contested, the Assembly segments of Varkala, Attingal, and Kattakkada exhibited a BJP tilt.

It was votes gained in Thiruvananthapuram, Neyyattinkara, Kovalam, and Parassala that helped Shashi Tharoor sail through. Nemom gave him a real scare. A yawning gap of 22,000 votes was found here between him and Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who made gains in Kazhakkoottam and Vattiyoorkavu.

In Alappuzha, which witnessed communal polarisation after back-to-back murders of RSS and Social Democratic Party of India functionaries in recent years, BJP’s Sobha Surendran had more votes in the Assembly constituencies of Haripad and Kayamkulam than AM Ariff of the CPI(M), who had won the Lok Sabha polls in 2019 with a margin of 10,000 votes. In Ambalappuzha, a region known for the Left revolutionary citadel of Punnapra, Sobha polled 37,547 votes, only 110 less than that of Ariff, perhaps an indication of where traditional Left votes are moving.

Sobha, considered a vote booster for the party in every constituency she has been fielded, increased BJP’s vote share by 11%.

Reaching critical mass

In the three parliamentary constituencies of Thrissur – where it won – Thiruvananthapuram, and Attingal, the BJP garnered more than 30% of the votes, a critical mass that will force opponents to redraw their electoral strategies.

In Attingal, V Joy of the LDF lost to Adoor Prakash of the UDF by a wafer thin margin of 684 votes. BJP’s vote share in Attingal was 31.64% while in Thiruvananthapuram it was 35.52%. The increase in BJP votes in segments in Thrissur, Attingal, and Alappuzha, including Cherthala, drops enough hints about the Ezhava community’s shifting preference. In three other constituencies, the BJP has between 20% to 30% vote share – Pathanamthitta (25.49%), Palakkad (24.31%) and Alappuzha (28.30%).

The BJP also polled more than 15% of the votes in the LS constituencies of Kollam (17.82%), Alathur (18.97%), Kasaragod (19.73%), Kottayam (19.74%) and Mavelikkara (15.98%). Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a key ally of the NDA, performed much below expectations in the constituencies given to it, including Kottayam, where NDA convener and BDJS leader Thushaar Vellappally was the candidate.

Performances across constituencies have now taken BJP’s own share of votes to 16.68%, an increase of 3.8% when compared to 2019. The BDJS, which contested from four seats, garnered a vote share of around 2.55%. The NDA poll percentage has thus grown to 19.23, but if one looks at the time frame, the saffron front on average has hardly grown 0.5% every year since 2010, when it had close to 11% of the vote share. The saffron surge did not spare even Pinarayi Vijayan’s booth in Dharmadam, where BJP gained 115 votes compared to 53 in 2019.

A general election and a state Assembly election are different ball games and one cannot predict that the BJP will upset the bipolar nature of Kerala’s political environment in 2026 when the state votes again because of the diverse nature of the state’s demography.

Though Kerala saw a considerable decline in LDF vote share in many constituencies in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, in the 2021 Assembly elections, the LDF came back to power with a huge majority. Traditionally, Kerala has supported the UDF in Lok Sabha elections.

The UDF witnessed a decline in vote share in Kannur, Wayanad, Alathur, Thrissur, Chalakudy, Idukki, Kottayam, Alappuzha, Mavelikkara, Kollam, Attingal, and Thiruvananthapuram. Except for Thrissur and Alathur, the UDF suffered less than a 5% decline in vote share. However, the decline was 13.77% in Alathur and 9.76% in Thrissur. In the other eight constituencies, the UDF has slightly increased its vote share from 2019.

In Wayanad, Malappuram, Alathur, Thrissur, Chalakudy, Idukki, Mavelikkara, Pathanamthitta, and Thiruvananthapuram, the LDF either maintained its vote share from the last elections or slightly increased it.

The Left’s biggest losses were in Alappuzha, where it lost 8.75% of votes compared to last time, and in Ernakulam, where there was a dip of 7.83%. In the other nine constituencies, the CPI(M)-led LDF lost between 1% to 5% of the vote share compared to 2019. However, the overall vote share of the LDF has increased by around 1% from 2019.

But the BJP’s vote surge in 30 Assembly constituencies, where it is now a force to reckon with, has left both the UDF and the LDF in serious need of leg work.

“The 2021 trend may not be repeated in 2026. There was no anti-incumbency then. Now, there is clear anti-incumbency. However, situations can change too. In 2021, a good number of Muslim votes went to the LDF. That could happen again in 2026,” said MG Radhakrishnan.

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