Too early to proclaim a revival in the BJP’s Kerala fortunes

In a previous blog post, we considered the possibility that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s strong performance in the Aruvikkara assembly constituency by-election marked the beginning of its revival in the state of Kerala. A closer examination of BJP leader O Rajagopal’s previous election record suggests that this by-election result is a one-off, rather than the beginning of the BJP’s statewide ascent.

Recall that the BJP’s vote share in Aruvikkara doubled from 12% in the 2014 general election to 24% now, which eroded the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM)’s vote share and helped the Indian National Congress (INC) retain the seat with 40% of the vote.

This is similar to what occurred three years ago in the Neyyattinkara assembly constituency (that lies within the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary constituency), where the BJP’s Athiyannoor Sreekumar had won 6% of the votes cast in the April 2011 state election (pdf). When the victorious CPM candidate R Selvaraj resigned and switched over to the INC, the BJP decided to field its veteran Rajagopal in the ensuing June 2012 by-election (xls). As a result, the BJP’s vote share soared to 23%, the LDF’s fell 14 percentage points to 35% and the UDF won despite a drop in its tally from 43% to 40%.

Sound familiar? Clearly, it would be premature to proclaim the beginning of the BJP’s ascent in Kerala.

Note also that national politics appear to have had no discernible effect in this assembly constituency: the vote shares of the three party blocs were substantially unchanged in the 2014 general election, two full years later.

The Congress should thank the BJP for its Aruvikkara assembly win

Shortly before the counting of votes in Kerala’s Aruvikkara assembly by-election, Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan make the startling claim that the entry into the contest of veteran Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader O Rajagopalan had made it difficult for his party to unseat the incumbent Indian National Congress (INC).

He was right. The INC (or rather, the INC-led United Democratic Front) won 40% of votes cast, the same percentage as it had in the 2014 general election. The CPM-led Left Democratic Front that had won 43% of the vote in 2014 got only 33% this time. The BJP’s tally however doubled from 12% to 24%, with most of the gains coming from the CPM, which ensured the INC’s victory. Had the voting pattern of the general election been repeated, the CPM would have triumphed over the INC.

BJP supporters were naturally jubilant.

Still, it may be a bit early to pop the gau-champagne. The BJP’s Rajagopalan is one of a handful of credible leaders in the party’s state unit, and had previously given a tough fight to the INC’s Shashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014. It remains to be seen whether this result is a flash in the pan, or the start of a bigger shift in votes towards the BJP.

A real shift could well facilitate the UDF’s reelection in 2016, as the BJP’s rise divides the opposition vote statewide. As the following chart shows, Hindu voters have long leaned towards the LDF in Kerala, while Muslim and Christian voters have coalesced around the UDF.

If the BJP continues to gain support among, for instance, Ezhava voters, it could fragment the LDF’s vote base even as the latter attempts to take advantage of any anti-incumbency against the UDF. In both Kerala and West Bengal, the rise of the BJP is posing a severe challenge for the CPM and its allies.

Update on Jul 1

On reflection, it would appear that the Aruvikkara result has little to say about the BJP’s wider prospects in Kerala. Click here for why.