Estrangements between old allies and new political dalliances have spiced up the local body elections in Kerala, making it an unusually volatile exercise – and the bellwether of voting patterns in the assembly polls due early next year. As voting for the over 21,000 seats in the three-tier local governance structure ended on Thursday, long-established power equations appeared to be in jeopardy as the Bharatiya Janata Party wooed Kerala voters by partnering with the state’s largest Hindu segment.  The results come on Saturday.

Simmering caste and communal divisions in the state are coming into the open as the BJP joined hands with the backward Ezhava community, numerically the largest Hindu caste in Kerala. It is the fruition of an old strategy that was initiated some 20 years ago by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological mentor of the BJP, when it tried to infiltrate the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the organisation of the Ezhavas. But the RSS-BJP’s plans to win over the Ezhavas and influence Kerala politics came to naught until Narendra Modi took charge in 2014.

During his general election campaign, Modi made it a point to have SNDP chief Vellappally Natesan on the stage at his election meetings in the state and to meet Ezhava priests. The idea was to underline Modi’s bonding with the SNDP as a fellow backward community member – Modi belongs to the ghanchi caste of oilseed extractors and traders – and set a new course for Kerala politics.

How effective it will be in the peculiar politics of Kerala is hard to forecast since the focus this time has been on issues that are roiling the country at the national level. Apart from attacking each other, both the Congress Party’s United Democratic Front and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front kept the spotlight on the communal agenda of the BJP. So, it is cow, beef eating, the lynchings in Dadri and the like that have taken centre stage rather than local concerns that are addressed by local self-government structure in the state which pioneered true grassroots democracy.

Triangular contest

Ever since the communists were voted to power in 1957 in Kerala’s first election, there has been a straight contest between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress. The historic victory and its aftermath – the EMS Namboodiripad government was toppled by Nehru’s Congress government at the Centre after just 27 months – set the stage for a duel in which power has alternated between these two parties with four brief interregnums of presidential rule.

That ding-dong battle has now turned triangular with the BJP throwing its trident into the arena. For both the CPM-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress Party’s United Democratic Front, this is bad news, coming as it does when the arch rivals are riven by corruption scandals, infighting and poor political judgement. One example: The Revolutionary Socialist Party, an important LDF constituent, has crossed over to the UDF. Another example: the Congress is facing a widespread revolt in the civic elections by party members who have decided to oppose the official nominees as rebel candidates.

For the moment, the Congress appears unperturbed by the looming presence of the saffron party and its shrewd election strategy. Chief Minister Oomen Chandy has attacked the BJP in strong terms for its communal politics, but he could well be laughing up his sleeve. In the past, the BJP-RSS combine has helped Congress candidates win against the Left in swing constituencies. Nationally, the Congress is laying into the BJP’s agenda over cow protection, beef eating and communal polarisation, but in Kerala other calculations are under way.

Hindu consolidation

The CPM, too, launched fierce attacks on the BJP’s communal agenda but is hamstrung by its murky history on political alliances in the state and the Centre, which the Congress never fails to bring up. It is being pilloried for its secret electoral understandings in the past with the Indian Union Muslim League and for its support for the Janata Party in 1977, and the 1989 tie-up with BJP to prop up the VP Singh government. Besides, its loss of West Bengal and the resulting emasculation appears to have unsettled its political acumen. Just weeks before the civic elections it managed to alienate the Ezhavas by parading a float in Kannur district in which the figure of their spiritual guru was shown as a crucified victim of the BJP.

Hobbled by their political and electoral compulsions, neither the LDF nor the UDF may be in a position to stall the BJP’s onslaught once it hits stride. BJP chief Amit Shah has been working assiduously to build up the party’s Hindu constituency, missing no trick in the game. In late November, he attended the birthday celebrations of the hugging godwoman Mata Amritanandamayi in Kollam at which the former Chief Justice of India and current Governor of Kerala P Sathasivam was roped in to lend official credibility.

The Indian Express report of the event quoted unidentified BJP officials as saying that “Shah has directed the state leaders to Hinduise Kerala politics and politicise Kerala Hindus”. The party’s priority, it said, was to get Natesan to cobble together an alliance of backward communities to support the party.

Some figures give a clue as to how the caste numbers stack up. The 2011 census says Hindus account for 54.73% of the population, followed by Muslims (26.56%) and Christians (18.38%). Among the Hindus, the Ezhavas are said to form the largest chunk, accounting for a fifth. Then come the Nairs (13%) followed by the Pulayars (2%), while other scheduled and backward communities make up the rest in smaller percentages.

Such a divisive policy raises critical questions about the future of Kerala politics. The overarching concern is whether Kerala will succumb to a Hindu consolidation and the regressive politics this would entail. “Somehow I don’t think it will work,” said Premla Arun Kumar, a librarian from Kozhikode. “At least, not in Malabar, where people are firmly divided on ideological lines. Caste is secondary.”

Sense of foreboding

Indeed, the BJP and SNDP make for strange bedfellows. The SNDP was set up by the revered social reformer Sree Narayana Guru who preached social justice and egalitarianism with his basic motto of “One Caste, One Religion, One God for Mankind”. It is a philosophy that runs counter to the RSS-BJP’s intractable belief in the varna (caste system) and does not sit with their record of dividing communities.

To be sure, Kerala is a deeply caste-riven society with a history of animosities that still fester although violent conflicts may have ended in the last century. Playing on caste sensitivities for electoral gains could backfire for the BJP. The upper caste Nairs, for one, appear deeply annoyed with the BJP whom they are known to back. Their representative organisation, the powerful Nair Service Society, has attacked the Natesan alliance although it is not clear if they will turn their backs on a party the community is by and large in sympathy with.

Among old-time Left supporters in Kannur, a CPM stronghold which is awash in red flags, there is a sense of foreboding although publicly the party has been celebrating a small victory. In the newly carved out Anthoor municipality with 28 wards, its candidates have been returned unopposed in 14 and it seems almost certain the CPM will get control of Athoor. That’s small respite in an ocean of uncertainty.

Some are candid about what lies ahead. V Narayanan, an octogenarian, says he is doubtful if the party he has supported since his youth will be able to swing the other districts. “In Kannur it is different. The CPM still rules,” said the retired government official. “Here, the party fought the fascist RSS-BJP combine and beat them back.”

Some are more sanguine about the party’s prospects after the CPM brought in its election warhorse, the redoubtable VS Achuthanandan, all of 92 years, to salvage the situation. His fiery rhetoric and no-holds-barred approach appear to have demolished the BJP’s chances in several parts of the state after he made Natesan’s alleged corruption the centrepiece of his campaign. But observers say the fact that the party was forced to bring in the rebel Achuthanandan – the politburo has always sidelined and undermined this popular leader – is a reflection of its desperation.

Existential test

Kannur, a blood-drenched district, became the notorious killing fields of Kerala as armed cadres of the CPM and the RSS-BJP fought a brutal battle for the control of North Malabar beginning in the 1990s. Today, however, the struggle has taken on a different dimension with the SNDP lining up behind the saffron party and setting in motion the emergence of a third force in Kerala politics, as some pundits have suggested. This would be a consolidation of the Hindu vote whose secularism has been steadily undermined by the rise of the BJP.

That rise is hard to ignore. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, the BJP garnered 10% of the votes against 6% in 2009. And in the Aruvikkara assembly by-election in June this year, the party proved its growing clout by securing as much as 17% of the votes even if it did not win the seat. On the other hand, the vote shares of both the CPM and Congress dropped significantly.

The heat clearly is on the CPM. Not only has the BJP snaffled its prized vote bank, there is also the embarrassment of the Congress attacks on its past dalliance with the BJP as an example of its opportunistic politics. The current elections are, in effect, an existential test for the CPM. For close to a decade after Achuthanandan pulled off a remarkable victory in the 2006 state elections, the party has gone from one defeat to another. It has lost the local, state assembly and Lok Sabha elections, touching a nadir in 2010 when the UDF wrested more than 65% of seats in the local body elections. Achuthanandan may, perhaps, be able to pull the CPM through once again.