Kerala has just experienced a remarkable election. As Pinaravi Vijayan led the Left Democratic Front to victory, for the first time in 44 years, a chief minister will serve a consecutive term. This brings to an end to the electoral swing that has sent parties back and forth from government to the opposition.
Both Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) obtained similar vote shares and did not perform very differently from the way they did five years ago. In fact, the Congress even improved its vote share a bit. Still, it did not repeat its 2019 performance, when it won 17 of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats with its partners.
In this article, we dissect the data of the Kerala election to spot the variations and continuities that help us make sense of the verdict. Ultimately, voters produce an electoral outcome. But the geography of the results, and a timeline of data from past elections tell us a lot about state electoral dynamics. The data used in this piece and in the other pieces produced by the Trivedi Centre for Political Data team can be found here.
The Left Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) emerges has a clear winner. Even though they have identical vote shares, the CPM has nearly three times the number of seats as the Congress (62 against 21). Its partners bring in 31 additional seats, for a total of 93 seats in an assembly of 140.
The United Democratic Front, which includes the Congress, only won 40 seats, seven below its 2016 tally. The Bharatiya Janata Party, despite scoring 11% of vote share, lost the sole seat it occupied in the previous assembly.
The table below shows that both alliances did not contest the same number of seats. The Left Democratic Front ran candidates in 126 seats against 135 for the United Democratic Front. In reality, the Left Democratic Front made arrangements with several independent candidates, who support the alliance without running under its banner.
Both the CPM and the Congress rely on a major second partner, and a large array of small parties.
There are striking variations between the performances of these alliances in the 2021 state election and the 2019 general election. In the 2019 national election, voters were more inclined to vote for a national party. The United Democratic Front scored 47.3% of vote share, nearly 16% ahead of the Left Democratic Front.
If 2019 made sense as a reference election for West Bengal, the 2021 election in Kerala should be compared with 2016, as this was before all a state-level contest in which the BJP did not matter much. As it turns out, the BJP does better in state elections in Kerala than in national elections in the state.
In the 2019 general elections, the Congress and its allies won in 123 assembly segments. In 2021, they were down to 40 seats, 21 of which were won by the Congress itself. But compared to 2016, they only lost six seats.
The Left Democratic Front, which was wiped across assembly segments in 2019, gained seven seats compared to 2016.
Participation was down this year in Kerala, ending a 20-year growth trend. It is hard to state what the reasons might be, particularly at a time troubled by a pandemic. We saw previously that participation went down also in Assam, West Bengal and in Tamil Nadu.
Participation went down by 4% to 5% across the three sub-regions of Kerala, Kochi, Malabar and Tranvancore. The drop was more pronounced in Central Kerala, where the Congress performed comparatively better.
Plotting participation on a map shows significant variations between the north and the south, but also between coastal districts and districts in the hinterland. The lowest turnout was recorded this year in Thiruvananthapuram (61.9%) while the highest turnout took place in Kunnamangalam (81.5%) in Kozhikode district.
This seat saw the victory of PTA Rahim, one of the six independent candidates to have won a seat in the state assembly.
Gender-wise, we expect women to have outvoted men, like in 2011 and 2016 (the data has not been released yet by the Election Commission). Contrary to most states, Kerala had closed the gender gap in participation early on, in the late 1960s. High level of education and favourable human development index, and an overall high level of participation are generally cited as reasons for the high participation of women voters in elections.
But the data shows that there has been a gap for a period of ten years, between 1996 and 2006, under the tenures of EK Nayanar (CPM), AK Antony (Congress) and Oomen Chandy (Congress). We do not have an explanation at this time but it seems puzzling that women participation should go down at a time when women’s engagement in civil society organisations in Kerala was rising.
A more restricted pool of candidates, but more parties
This year, 957 candidates filed their nomination, a sharp decline from the 1,203 individuals who ran in 2016. Fewer independents contested this year but there remains a healthy competition, with 7.5 candidates per seat on average.
While the total number of individual candidates is down, the total number of parties running keeps increasing. A record 50 parties were in the fray in 2011, up from 39 in 2016. Most of these new parties are local formations, often not fielding more than a handful of candidates.
Twenty parties fielded only one candidates. Six parties contested two seats, including the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Shiv Sena. The Nationalist Congress Party contested three seats and the Janata Dal (Secular) four.
The Kerala assembly has now the largest number of parties represented (17). This comes from the growing inclusion of small local parties by both alliances, who build partnerships with local formations who can bring additional voters to their banner. This practice of inclusion of small players, we will see in our next article, also contributes to increase the diversity of representation in the assembly, like in Tamil Nadu.
Looking at party performance over the past 30 years, one can see how the Congress declined in 2006, when the CPM won on its own 30% of the votes. This was a peak performance for the communists, who have been declining in vote share since then. In 2021, the Congress closed the gap after 15 years.
Of course, one has to factor in the fact that both parties are parts of two alliances and do not necessarily contest in the same number of seats. Looking at the vote share data in the seats where parties contested shows that all major parties have been in the bracket of 45% to 50% vote share, again, in the seats where they contested.
This means that the two communist parties, the Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League are very solidly embedded in the state. But since 2016, the Congress scores significantly lower vote shares than the three other major parties (37.9% for both 2016 and 2021). This reveals that the Congress is experiencing general decline in Kerala, beyond considerations of who performs in a given election.
Here is perhaps a key to understand how Pinaravi Vijayan succeeded in getting re-elected. Both in 2016 and 2021, he has been contesting against a diminished Congress, unable to put up the same fight as before to the Left Democratic Front.
We can see also the BJP increasing its vote share at the same time as the Congress decline. We cannot assert with certainty that Congress votes have shifted towards the BJP. Our data does not provide that kind of information. But the BJP rises does mirror the decline of the Congress. Its candidates obtained more than 20% of vote share in 24 seats, 21 of which were won by Left Democratic Front candidates. It is therefore safe to assume that the BJP lost many of those seats – if not most – to United Democratic Front candidates.
Looking at the evolution of party strike rates over time illustrates even more dramatically the decline of the Congress. In 2011, it won 47% of the seats it contested, already the lowest strike rate among major parties. Its strike rate went down to 25% in 2016 and 22.6% in 2021. No other party, including the Congress’ partner, the Indian Union Muslim League, experiences that issue. Clearly, the Congress has a seat retention problem.
The fact that the Congress vote share gets blended with the vote share of its partners dissimulates the decline. But what is also declining, interestingly, is the cumulative vote share of both alliances.
Between 2011 and 2016, the cumulative vote share of the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front went down from 89.4% to 76.5%. We can see further that even if the Congress declines more than other major parties, the Left Democratic Front overall vote share has also declined substantially in recent elections.
The rise of the BJP in Kerala provides part of the explanation. But this decline also reflect the fact that the political stage in Kerala is becoming more and more fragmented, something we saw with the growing number of parties.
Finally, if one were to include the individual arrangements between alliances and independent candidates, the differences would not be as large. But this trend still reflect that nearly a quarter of voters today vote for candidates who do not belong to the Left Democratic Front or the United Democratic Front, against 10% in the previous decades.
CPM surges above the fray
Looking at seat share over time shows how these rather modest variations in vote share have important implications in terms of seat distribution. Since 2006, the CPM is the largest party in the assembly. In 2016 and 2021, it has not been far from obtaining a majority of seats on its own.
This is also reflected in the high strike rates the CPM gets. In 2016, it converted 65% of the seats it contested into victories. The ratio is the same for 2021. In 2021, the Left Democratic Front has a better strike rate than five years ago. But we have seen that the Congress did not contribute to that increase.
Most Congress partners have rather high strike rates. The Indian Union Muslim League has a 60% strike rate, while the Kerala Congress (Jacob) and the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India won the only seats they contested.
In Piravom, Anoop Jacob, founder and lone candidate of the Kerala Congress (Jacob), defeated the Kerala Congress (Mani) candidate, Sindhumol Jacob. In Vadakara, KK Rema, the widow of CPM dissident and founder of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India, TP Chandrasekharan, defeated Mayanath Chandra, the Loktantrik Janata Dal candidate.
In the Left Democratic Front, most parties had high strike rates, which indicates among other things that vote transfer operate well between the different segments of the alliance.
Geographically clustered party performances
The map of the 2021 results shows that the Left Democratic Front dominates Southern and Central Kerala – the Communist Part of India more so in the South and the CPM more so in Central Kerala – and also along the coast line, which is more urbanised.
The Congress has a more scattered presence while its main partner, the Indian Union Muslim League, is heavily concentrated in the Malabar region, Malappuram district. The geographical concentration of the Indian Union Muslim League creates another difficulty for the Congress, as the League does not have many voters in other parts of the state, who could transfer their votes to Congress candidates. Wherever the Congress contests, it is pretty much on its own.
The Kerala Congress (Mani) is concentrated around Kottayam and won two additional seats in Idukki and Pathanamthitta, both in the Travancore region.
The 2016 maps shows great similarity to this year. Only 30 seats out of 126 changed hands, against 52 between 2011 and 2016. Six were from the Congress to the CPM (and one more to the Janadhipathiya Kerala Congress in Thiruvananthapuram). The CPM lost four seats to the Congress and two to the Kerala Congress (Mani) and to the Loktantrik Janata Dal.
The Communist Party of India lost only two seats to the Congress, in Karunagappally and in Muvattupuzha. The CPM took three seats to the Indian Union Muslim League and the Indian National League, a small Muslim party founded in 1994 by Ibrahim Sulaiman Sait, took another one. The lone BJP seat of Nemom, occupied by O Rajagopal, was won by the CPM candidate, V Sivankutty.
What this data shows is that if 30 seats overall have changed hands, they haven’t done so to the sole benefit of one party or alliance. Electoral politics is a game of win some, lose some. At the end of the day, the difference of outcomes between the 2016 and 2021 elections was a matter of few seats. The CPM took ten seats to the United Democratic Front against six from the Left Democratic Front by the Congress. The rest was a matter of varied performance among small players.
The last two elections are a far cry from the former performance of the Congress. In 2011, it still won many seats in the Malabar region and was still competitive in many seats in the Travancore region, in the South. We see now how the Congress finds itself restricted into smaller pockets of territory.
The 2019 map looks of course very different (results are represented by assembly segments won). The CPM had won a few segments in the Kannur parliamentary seat but did not win the seat. The Communist Party of India retained its stronghold of Kottayam and Kollam, which it also won in the general election.
The maps have already told us most of what we need to know about the sub-regional concentration of parties. Kerala can be divided into three regions – North, Centre and West – which very roughly correspond to the boundaries of the erstwhile states of Cochin, Travancore, and the Malabar region.
Confirming what we saw earlier, the Left Democratic Front registered it highest strike rate in Southern Kerala, where it keeps a number of strongholds. In the Malabar region, it has to face the competition of the Indian Union Muslim League in districts where the Muslim population is also concentrated.
The Congress remains competitive in the Ernakulam district. In 2021, the Congress won nine of its 21 seats in that district alone. But for the rest of the Kochi region, the Communist Party of India and the CPM won together 17 seats. The higher strike rate of the United Democratic Front in the Malabar region is again explained by the strong performance of the Indian Union Muslim League.
Party-wise strike rates across sub-regions brings further confirmation of these trends . The Congress has a better strike rate in Central Kerala, thanks to its Ernakulam stronghold. In the rest of the state, its strike rate collapses to 19.4% in North Kerala and 15% in South Kerala.
High margin victories
The relatively small number of closely contested races (conventionally defined as below 5,000 votes of victory margin) indicate that most parties won the seats they won decisively.
The highest victory margin was won by a woman candidate. In Mattanur, the CPM candidate KK Shailaja (also known as Shailaja Teacher) defeated the Revolutionary Socialist Party candidate, Illikkal Augusthy, by 60,963 votes (a 39% victory margin). In Perinthalmanna, the Indian Union Muslim League candidate Kanthapuram, defeated KPM Mustafa, an independent candidate, by only 38 votes.
Small parties candidates across alliances often have high victory margin, which confirms their status of local stalwarts or to the least important local political figures. They are of course helped by the influx of votes from supporters of party banners. The Communist Party of India and CPM candidates won their races with comfortable margins (12.5% and 11.7% respectively).
The Congress and Indian Union Muslim League candidates won their races with tighter results, at 7.1% and 8.9% of average winning margins, respectively.
Victory margins tend to be higher in North Kerala than the South, although there are important variations within regions as well. Coastal seats tend to see bigger victories.
Finally, Kerala counts few reserved seats for Dalits (14 or 11%) and for Tribal communities (two or 1.5%). The Congress and the CPM each won one Scheduled Tribe reserved seat. The CPM and the Communist Party of India won 12 of the 14 Scheduled Caste seats.
In Kunnathoor, Kovoor Kunjumon is the only Dalit to win a seat as an independent candidate. He was also the incumbent MLA and now a five-time elected MLA (three terms as a Revolutionary Socialist Party legislator and a second term now as an independent).
This data exercise does not tell us why the Left Democratic Front won the election and why the United Democratic Front – and the Congress more particularly – performed so poorly. The explanation lies with the voters. But it tells us that the Left Democratic Front defeat has come in the backdrop of the decline of the Congress in Kerala, a decline that was further amplified in 2021.
This is not to diminish the Left Democratic Front’s feat of winning the election. The Left Democratic Front government presented itself in front of voters with a solid record of governance and performance. It handled the first wave of Covid-19 comparatively better than most states.
It seems fitting that Kerala’s health minister, KK Shailaja, who handled her portfolio with competence and compassion, should win her seat with the biggest victory margin the state has seen since M Chandhran (CPM) in 2006, and before him Korambavil Ahmed Haji (Indian Union Muslim Leage) in Kuttipuram, in 1987.
The Congress will have to introspect after this verdict. Even if the BJP failed to make progress and lost the only seat they had, its candidates seemed to have played “vote katua” (vote cutting) with Congress candidates and its allies.
That the tussle between Congress and BJP in Kerala contributed to the re-election of a communist party-led government adds to the many ironies that politics in India throws at us.
Gilles Verniers is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Ashoka University, co-director of TCPD and Visiting Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research.
Basim-U-Nissa is an Affiliate Researcher at TCPD.
Mohit Kumar and Neelesh Agrawal are Research Engineers at TCPD.