If history since 1977 is any indicator, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front should win Monday’s Assembly elections in Kerala.

However, the going is not as easy as the LDF initially thought. The emergence of a third front led by the Bharatiya Janata Party has completely changed the political equations that have seen a change in government every five years over the past four decades.

While the people of Kerala still do not seem prepared to experiment with a third alternative, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has given both the LDF and the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front some food for thought.

New player

The NDA’s strong presence has led to triangular contests, an alien concept for the two traditional rivals. Though the BJP has been contesting elections in Kerala since 1987, it was a serious contender only in a couple of seats.

That was because the BJP had fought the elections alone. This time, however, the party has cobbled together a third front with the help of a few community organisations and splinter groups of various parties from the two fronts.

What is particularly worrying both the LDF and UDF is the BJP’s alliance with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, a political outfit of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, which represents the numerically strong Hindu Ezhava community in the state.

An electoral understanding with the fledgling BDJS helped the NDA notch up its all-time high vote share of 14% in the local body polls in November last year. Political observers feel that if the NDA is able to maintain this vote share in the next week’s election, it could influence the outcome in a big way.

A 14% vote share for the BJP, which managed only 6.03% of the votes in the 2011 Assembly elections, could mean nearly an 8% swing in votes against the UDF and the LDF. Such a swing would have a great impact on the outcome in a state like Kerala, where even a 1% margin has previously proved enough to decide the winner.

A shift of just 0.89% votes from the LDF saw the UDF coming to power in the last Assembly election, with 72 seats in the 140-member Assembly. In the 1996 Assembly polls, the LDF got 99 seats with a lead of 5.6% of the vote share over the UDF.

The victory margins in four out of seven elections since 1982, when the BJP contested in Kerala for the first time, were below 4%. The highest victory margin of 8.81% was recorded in 2001, when the UDF came to power with 100 seats, an all-time high.

Making a dent

While everybody agrees that the NDA would make inroads into the traditional vote banks of both the fronts, it is still not clear which grouping the saffron party will harm most. Political observers had earlier thought that the BJP’s alliance with BDJS could affect the LDF the most, since the lower caste Ezhavas were the backbone of the Communists since its emergence in the state.

But the local body elections held in November last year proved this assumption wrong, with the UDF losing a third of the local bodies it won in the 2010 elections. Political observers believe this could be because of a shift in political allegiance by the creamy layer in the Ezhava community, which traditionally backed the UDF, towards the NDA.

NN Pearson, a political analyst in Kochi, said that the local body polls showed that the lower class among the Ezhavas had maintained their allegiance towards the LDF. However, he feels that this could change in the Assembly election as BDJS have been making concerted efforts to woo the lower class through the vast SNDP, and its micro-finance networks across the state.

If the BDJS is able to mobilise a substantial section of the Ezhava votes that constitute 23.47% of the total 54.73% Hindu population in the state, the NDA could become a crucial force even in the Assembly. Apart from winning seats, it could even become a kingmaker in the event of fractured verdict.

Minority game

Both the UDF and LDF are aware of this danger, and are trying to cut their losses by mobilising maximum minority votes, which account for nearly 45% of the total electorate. Minority votes have therefore become very crucial in the election this time.

While Muslims and Christians have been traditional supporters of the Congress or its allies – the Indian Union Muslim League and the Kerala Congress – who champion the interests of Muslims and Christians respectively, there have been swings away from the UDF in the recent elections.

A minor shift of 0.7% votes against the IUML in the 2006 election, compared with the previous 2001 polls, saw the party’s seat tally falling from 16 to seven. This was one of the major factors responsible for the massive LDF victory in the 2006 elections.

The Muslims, who stood solidly behind the IUML, shifted their loyalty following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. The party lost the hegemony over the Muslim vote bank, with several new parties and organisations springing up in protest against the soft stand adopted by the IUML towards the then Narasimha Rao government.

While some of these parties and organisations aligned with the LDF, others took independent positions leading to a split in the Muslim vote. The LDF has sought to consolidate its position among Muslims by cementing its ties with the pro-Left Muslim organisations, and fielding prominent Muslims as independents in the IUML heartland of Malappuram.

The LDF has also tried to make further inroads into the Muslim vote bank by making claims about secret pacts between the UDF and the Hindutva party in many seats across the state. This has been a major poll plank of the LDF in all Muslim strongholds.

It has also sought to penetrate the Christian vote bank by forging an alliance with a splinter group of the Kerala Congress (M), after they left the UDF following disputes over seat allocation and fielding Christian candidates in constituencies with substantial Christian population.

However, political analysts feel that the LDF may lose Christian votes because of its refusal to clarify its position over the phased prohibition policy introduced by the UDF government. The church, which holds considerable sway over Christian votes, has made an open call to defeat those who do not support prohibition.

The LDF has taken maximum care to divert the attention from liquor policy by playing up allegations sleaze and scams plaguing the UDF. However, they do not seem to have stirred any wave in favour of the LDF. Its attempt to arouse the anti-incumbency sentiments among the voters too has not been much of a success.

Banking on the BJP

The UDF is pinning its hopes on its “development and care” initiatives to break the four-decades-old pattern of Kerala voting out the incumbent government. Though the caste and communal factors are loaded heavily against the UDF in this election, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy hopes that Keralites will vote for development.

The UDF also hopes a consolidation of women’s votes in its favour over the closure of more than 730 liquor bars and 20% of the retail outlets of hard liquor as part of its phased prohibition policy. The open support of the Church has boosted its hopes.

The UDF believes that it will be able to retain power if about 80% of Christians and Muslims vote for them. However, this is a long shot as the UDF has never got more than 65% minority votes. Moreover, the presence of rebels in the Christian-dominated Central Travancore and northern districts is a major source of worry for the UDF.

Political analysts believe that the UDF could retain power only if the lower caste Ezhavas desert the LDF. Senior leaders of the UDF do not rule out that possibility since the Ezhavas stood behind the LDF in the local body elections as the BDJS alliance with the BJP was not strong at the time.

With SNDP leader Vellapally Natesan making all-out efforts to rally the entire Ezhava community behind the NDA, the UDF is expecting strong triangular fights in at least 30 seats. This, they believe would help them since the LDF was relegated to third position wherever the BJP came second. This is the reason why Chandy said that the contest in this election is between the UDF and the BJP.

Therefore, the key to the outcome of the election is the BJP’s performance. But as the BJP vote share in the Assembly elections has not crossed more than 7% so far since 1982, it is difficult to predict who will gain from the triangular contests that Kerala is witnessing for the first time.