A day after Amit Shah announced the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ambitious plans to make inroads into Kerala, the BJP suffered a huge electoral setback in the bye-election for the southern state’s Malappuram parliamentary constituency on Monday.

While addressing the party’s national executive in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, on Sunday, Shah said that the BJP was making enough progress to challenge the established powers in Kerala, Odisha and West Bengal.

The saffron party hoped to consolidate Hindu votes and increase its vote share in the Malappuram bye-election, which was necessitated after the sitting MP, Muslim League leader and former Union minister, E Ahamed, died in February.

However, the BJP candidate finished a distant third with just 65,675 votes, behind winner PK Kunhalikkutty of the Indian Union Muslim League, and runner-up MB Faisal of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

Kunhalikkutty, who represented the Congress-led United Democratic Front, polled 5,15,330 votes, while Faisal, the candidate of the ruling Left Democratic Front, bagged 3,44,307 votes. The winning margin was 171,038 votes. In 2014, E Ahamed had won the seat with a record margin of 194,739 votes.

BJP expectations

The BJP had poured in an unprecedented amount of money for this election. In the run-up to the poll, a party leader had told this correspondent on condition of anonymity that this was the first time that the BJP had pumped so much money for an election in Malappuram district.

The BJP organised several road shows, and hoardings of its candidate N Sreeprakash and Prime Minister Narendra Modi dotted the constituency. The party’s state leaders camped in the constituency for weeks to coordinate the campaign, while Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists worked at the grassroots, going door-to-door.

The result of the bye-election in the Muslim-majority constituency was a foregone conclusion but BJP’s high-pitched campaign had given the impression that it would increase its vote share.

Substantial winning margin

But that was not to be. The BJP got 970 more votes in Malappuram than it polled in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Despite finishing second, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) got 1,01,323 more votes while the Indian Union Muslim League bagged 77,607 votes more.

The BJP had fared better in last year’s Assembly elections. Then, it logged 73,412 votes from the seven legislative Assembly constituencies that fall under the Malappuram Lok Sabha constituency, as against its tally of 65,675 votes now.

According to the 2011 census, Muslims account for 70.2% of Malappuram district’s population, while Hindus constitute 27.6% and Christians 1.9%.

BJP leaders had hoped that a strong showing in Malappuram would bolster the party’s chances in Kerala in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The BJP’s district president, K Ramachandran, had told this correspondent that the party would create history by collecting more than one lakh votes in the election.

However, its political opponents cornered the BJP by raking up national issues, including the assault by cow vigilantes on Muslims transporting cows in Alwar, Rajasthan, on April 1, and the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, in 2015.

At one point, the BJP candidate even tried to woo Muslim voters by promising to ensure the supply of quality beef if voted to power. But he had to soon eat his words. “My statement was distorted, I am against cow slaughter,” Sreeprakash had to quickly clarify.

The Malappuram result has indicated that the consolidation of Hindu votes had not taken place as anticipated. BJP leaders in the state will now have to explain to their national leadership the reasons for the party’s unimpressive show.

‘Secular victory’

The winner Kunhalikkuty said that his victory was evidence that there is no scope for the hate politics perpetrated by the BJP in Kerala. “Literate Kerala has voted for secular politics,” he told reporters on Monday. “We got political votes and it is wrong to portray it [his win] as a consolidation of Muslim votes.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala said that the BJP was the bye-election’s biggest loser.

“The election result shows that voters in Kerala are against communal forces,” said Balakrishnan.

Chennithala said that the result showed that only the United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress, could halt the BJP’s growth in the state.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said that the verdict was not against the state government. Vijayan said the winning candidate could not get the margin he expected despite support from Muslim political outfits such as the Social Democratic Party of India and Welfare Party of India, which, in 2014, had together secured 77,069 votes, coming fourth and fifth.

“The LDF [Left Democratic Front] has increased its vote share, but the Muslim League could not make huge gains though it received support from SDPI and the Welfare Party of India,” said Vijayan.