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Which Way Will Kerala Vote In 2024?

March 08, 2024 10:39 IST
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In a state where thin margins and minor swings decide electoral outcomes, nothing can be left to chance, even for those relishing the cocooned life, observes Shyam G Memon.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party supremo Narendra Modi is felicitated by Kerala BJP President K Surendran at a public meeting in Thiruvananthapuram, February 27, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

It was towards the end of February.

Eve of the Aattukal Pongala festival in Thiruvananthapuram.

Following a late-night show at a theatre not far from the nerve centre of the festival, we had decided to drive around and see the thousands flocked for the festival and camped by the roadside for their morning rendezvous with the ritual cooking of rice.

We discussed many things ranging from the sight before us to a set of murders that shook a city suburb some time back.

Much afterwards, my friend hit the nail on the head.

That we touched upon a variety of subjects except the film we had just seen spoke volumes of how forgettable the movie had been.

It felt strange because the film featuring one of Malayalam cinema's biggest superstars as a villain, had garnered terrific reviews.

There were four of us and none appeared moved in any way by the cinematic experience.

The film was visually impressive; something my friend dismissed as the case with most films nowadays given technological advancements in the field.

The superstar, known for his acting skills, seemed wasted and the imagination of the characters felt amateurish.

The film was however, a commercial success and its trailer on the Internet was backed by comments from the superstar's fans praising his histrionics.

It puzzled that such an average piece of moviemaking could merit this scale of adulation.

Uniquely, it wasn't the only superstar film coming across so.

Weeks earlier, another Malayalam movie starring the aforementioned superstar's rival, had not only bombed at the box office but disappointed by the mismatch between expectations and actual product.

That film too had been a technological marvel, probably why my friend was dismissive of beautiful frames alone as avenue to cinematic greatness.

Further, its trailer on the Internet was accompanied by comments from fans excited about what lay in store.

More interestingly both the films had been directed by talent from Malayalam cinema's resurgence of the recent past, wherein it served as a primer for engaging vernacular films.

Suddenly, at least for my friend and I, that wave seemed checked.

One could no longer go by merely the production team's past reputation.

Equally suspect was the model at play. When a superstar is surrounded by a perennially uncritical fan club prone to compulsive praise, does it act as an encouragement to excel or an invitation for potential disaster?

In the Kerala of late February 2024, this cocoon-like existence capable of deception, plagued not just films but also the politics of the day.

For long a fortress of opposition against the wily politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Kerala's political resolve to be secular didn't feel as impregnable as before.

It is a battle between three political fronts in which the BJP has traditionally found itself severely challenged because of two reasons -- first, the abject opposite of the political Right, the forces of the Left, are strong in the state and second; the middle ground represented by the Congress and allied parties has been strong enough to be the alternative political choice and thus deny space to the BJP.

IMAGE: Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan inaugurates the 136th dedication anniversary celebrations of the Aruvippuram Shiva temple in Thiruvananthapuram, February 29, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

In the run up to the elections of 2024, two factors felt different from before.

Many people argue, the Left has been a grudging victim of the sycophancy around its state leadership.

The more the Left was perceived as the answer to keep the Hindutva-laden BJP at bay, the greater has been the Left's entrenchment in matters of daily governance that there is the feeling nothing gets done without appeasing it.

How the anger against the Left's cocoon would eventually manifest as electoral response is anyone's guess.

At the same time, the depletion of the Congress nationally (its cocoon being past glory and the Nehru-Gandhi family) and the continued inability of Opposition parties to convince the electorate that they have grasped the seriousness of battling the BJP, has the middle space looking adrift.

Such weakening in one of Kerala's traditional electoral choices could prove advantageous to the BJP.

Not only has the BJP wooed this constituency to mixed success (remember its overtures to the Christian church?), there have also been decisions by political constituents in the state to contest on their own terms with no clarity on which side of the larger political divide they may align post polls.

For example, Twenty-Twenty, a party attached to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activity of a large private company hailing from the state, which finds frequent mention among a class of voters in Ernakulam and its neighborhood (Kerala's business capital) and so far, restricted to local body elections, has decided to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha polls in a limited fashion.

Known to be opposed to the Left there was no indication in published media reports of what the party's stance towards the political Right may be, apart from a previous and since abandoned tie-up with the Aam Admi Party.

How should one read the potential post poll orientation of Twenty-Twenty when the business community nationally is known to be partial to the political Right? These are new gaps in Kerala's political mosaic.

At the time of writing, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the state.

Ranging from Modi's cult following to legends about the party's assured success at the all India level to its claim of being sole custodian of a vision for India, the BJP is little different from a superstar cocooned in his/her private fan club.

Like a superstar's fan bursting at the seams with excitement over nothing but a cackle or line from superstar-mouth or a flexing of superstar muscle in a movie trailer, the BJP's fan following suffers from an element of impenetrable denseness.

They are minds too bought into a larger idea to notice how they appear to others unlike them.

It probably doesn't count because the fuel for the BJP edifice is majoritarianism and blind commitment to political agenda.

But all it takes to prick the balloon of inflated ego is one poorly spun venture riding on over-confidence, like any of the two films cited earlier.

All this makes Kerala's potential electoral trends for the 2024 Parliament polls, a bit of an enigma.

IMAGE: Devotees take part in the Attukal Pongala celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram, February 25, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

The difficulty in predicting which way the wind will blow was visible in the line up of politicians close to the main choola for cooking rice, at Thiruvananthapuram's Aattukal Devi temple on February 25th morning, the day of the pongala festival.

The festival features tens of thousands of women lined up along the city's roads next to small make-shift brick choolas and lighting the fire to cook their vessel of rice in consonance with when the fire is lit at the temple.

Expectedly, prominent personalities from the overtly religious and ritualist BJP were there adjacent to the temple's choola.

But so were personalities from the ruling Left and the middle space-hugging Congress.

In a state where thin margins and minor swings decide electoral outcomes, nothing can be left to chance, even for those relishing the cocooned life.

Shyam G Menon is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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India Votes 2024

India Votes 2024