West Bengal may have commanded most of the attention and headlines with its eight-phase elections that come with national implications. But Kerala, which votes in just one phase on April 6, is set for assembly polls that could be momentous in its own way, without fitting into a simple Bharatiya Janata Party vs everyone else pan-India narrative.

The southern state has seen power alternate between two fronts every five years for the last four decades. Almost like clockwork, and seemingly irrespective of how successful each government was, voters threw out the incumbents and brought in the Opposition in every electoral cycle since 1983.

Yet opinion polls are now predicting that the Communist-led Left Democratic Front is on track to be re-elected, dealing a blow to the ambitions of the Congress – which doesn’t hold power in any southern state at the moment – and reshaping the political narrative of the state.

Here is what you need to know about Kerala elections:

No more see-saw?

Kerala’s political trajectory has been quite consistent, even if some margins were bigger than others. The Communist-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front, each featuring a number of local parties, have alternated power for decades now.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has mostly been a bit player, until 2016 that is, when it managed to pull in 14.96% of the votes case, while only actually winning one seat.

Results to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections seemed to suggest that this see-sawing would continue, with the Opposition Congress-led UDF winning 19 of the 20 seats while the LDF won only one. That should have signaled business as usual for the state.

But local body elections in December 2020 presented a very different picture. The LDF won five of six municipal corporations and had big leads over the Congress in district, block and gram panchayats, giving the Communist-led alliance a huge boost just months before the assembly elections.

Opinion polls are now also predicting an LDF re-election.

The Vijayan election

Whichever way it swings for the incumbents, depends heavily on how voters see Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Many in the Communist camp blame Vijayan for scuttling a previous opportunity for the Left to be re-elected in 2011, when his party rival VS Achuthanandan was the incumbent chief minister. That year the results ended on a knife’s edge, with the Congress-led UDF winning just four more seats than the Communist coalition, enough to bring Achuthanandan down. At the time Vijayan was known to complain about Achuthanandan’s larger-than-life image within the party and state’s politics.

Which only makes it more ironic that Vijayan today relies on a contracted Public Relations team to build his government’s image and has been turned into Kerala’s ‘Captain’, the man who steered the state past devastating floods in 2018 and 2019, a Nipah outbreak in 2018 and over the past year, the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant economic crash.

Vijayan has been front and centre through these crises, with his daily TV appearances during the Covid-19 lockdown and beyond, in particular, giving him an opportunity to speak directly to voters. Moves like the big emphasis on public education, the use of an infrastructure investment board to raise funding frm the market for state projects and the provision of free food kits during the pandemic have burnished Vijayan’s reputation.

“During a recent journey across Kerala—which included the entire length of the state except the very south—a singular characteristic of nearly every election-related conversation was this: strong opinions either for or against Vijayan,” writes Nidheesh MK. “It is almost as if Vijayan is the candidate everywhere.”

This has even played out within his party, the Communist Party of India-Marxist. Though there is occasional grumbling about the Vijayan ‘captaincy’, the chief minister managed to prevail upon the party to drop all Members of Legislative Assembly who had served two terms, including a number of big names like ministers Thomas Isaac, EP Jayarajan and AK Balan.

In all, 33 new names are on the CPM’s candidate list, out of a total of 140 constituencies. While the two-term rule gives Vijayan cover in making this relatively unpopular move, it appears to have further solidified his hold on the party going into an election where the LDF is frontr-runner.

Congress stumbles

Given that this is Kerala, where not long ago something called the ‘Ice Cream Parlour Sex Scandal’ was the top news item for weeks, there has been no dearth of controversies for the Opposition to dig into. The most relevant is the alleged gold smuggling case, with the Union Customs Department claiming that Vijayan, three ministers in his Cabinet and the Speaker of the Assembly knew about illicit activity taking place at the United Arab Emirates consulate in Thiruvananthapuram.

Despite its parallels with the solar scam that brought down the previous Congress-led government, the gold smuggling case does not seem to have dented Vijayan’s image or giving the Opposition enough of a handle with which to attack the ruling alliance. Likewise for the alleged corruption at the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board, where Enforcement Directorate action and BJP accusations only seem to have confirmed the sense that investigations are politically motivated.

Where the Congress was able to strike was in the Sabarimala matter, when Vijayan carried out the Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling that women of all age groups would be permitted to enter the temple that had previously kept them out. Vijayan was able to mobilise a huge number of people to support the government’s position at the time, but his actions also appeared to cause a major backlash, which many believe explains the Congress success in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Since then, the LDF has tried to soften its stance, with a party leader expressing regret over the treatment of protesters opposing the Supreme Court decision in 2018 and Vijayan saying his government is “with believers.”

The bigger problem for the Congress is that it has no ‘Captain’ of its own. While Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala may be projecting himself as the face, his popularity is far behind Vijayan’s in the state, and he is also up against the faction led by former chief minsiter Oomen Chandy.

Former Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Kerala in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections certainly boosted the party’s prospects in the state that year. His extensive campaigning this time around reflects the importance attached to the state, which represents the Congress’ best chance of being the lead partner of a ruling alliance in South India. But, despite the state’s see-saw history favouring the incumbents, broader electoral trends look unfavourable to the Congress.

A saffron opening

Key among those trends is the presence of the BJP in the state. The saffron party is not really in contention for power in Kerala, either by itself or in an alliance. But that doesn’t mean it will not play an important role.

After single-digit vote share figures prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascension to the top post in 2014, the Kerala BJP has posted a vote share around 15% consistently over the last few elections at different levels in the state.

Crucially, these vote shares are all larger than the margin of difference between the other two coalitions, meaning the BJP could play spoiler or kingmaker in a number of constituencies.

Traditional readings saw the Communists’ Ezhava support base as one that was moving towards the BJP, alongside Nairs and a section of the Christian vote – an interesting sub-plot within the broader narrative.

But if the opinion polls hold – or indeed if the saffron party wins even more than before – then the BJP will likely have been a big reason for the end of the see-saw political history of the state, by soaking up some anti-incumbency votes and thereby making it harder for the challenge – in this case, the Congress – to overthrow the LDF.

With West Bengal having another five phases to get through still, however, even though elections take place on April 6, results do not come until May 2, when votes for all four states and Puducherry will be counted.