Development and government performance mattered more to the electorate.
One of the many reasons for the defeat of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was believed to be the State government’s handling of the Sabarimala temple entry issue. In the run up to the 2019 elections there had been widespread opposition in Kerala to the Supreme Court’s 2018 decision to allow women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple and the LDF government, which had tried to implement the top court’s order, was said to have borne the brunt of people’s unhappiness.
While the judges later referred the issue to a larger Bench and a final verdict is still pending, the fact that the issue had remained unresolved and the opposition Congress and the BJP kept up the pressure on the Pinarayi Vijayan government led to renewed speculation that the LDF’s electoral prospects might get affected once again. The Assembly election results and the LDF’s resounding victory, however, make it quite clear that the issue failed to make any dent to the Left’s prospects. The Lokniti-CSDS’s post poll survey in Kerala gives some indication as to why this happened.
First and foremost, the survey found that the Sabarimala issue was simply not a top-of-the-mind issue for most voters any more. When respondents were asked an open-ended question about what issue had mattered to them the most while voting in the Assembly election, merely 1% said that they had voted on the basis of Sabarimala issue. Instead, development, government performance and corruption issues mattered more to the electorate.
Second, and more importantly, even though people continued to hold strong opinions about the Sabarimala issue, they do not seem to have punished the Left government for it, at least not in the same way they did in 2019. The survey found around two-thirds of the voters to be opposed to the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala judgment and only about two in every ten (17%) to be in support of it (Table 1).
However, when we look at their voting preferences, we find that the LDF not only ended up netting a large share of votes of the minority that supported the SC’s judgment, it also ended up securing quite a fair share of votes of those opposed to the judgment. For instance, among the six of every ten (58%) who said that they fully opposed the Sabarimala verdict, the UDF got 42% of their votes and the LDF was very close behind at 38% (Table 2). Simply put, the UDF failed to sweep the sentiment against the judgment the way it did in 2019. Back then it had secured at least half the anti-verdict vote as per the Lokniti CSDS survey conducted then.
Of course, all this is not to say that the LDF government is going to have it easy going forward on the issue. This is because, even though the LDF did successfully manage to mute the Sabarimala issue this time, the survey also found that most people continue to be unhappy with the way it has dealt with the matter, in fact more so compared to two years ago.
Over two-thirds of the respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way the Vijayan government has handled the issue — an increase of around ten percentage points since 2019 (Table 3). Moreover, public opinion on the issue was found to have hardened further with both the general public and Hindus, in particular, taking an even stronger stand than they had in 2019. Whereas 48% had fully opposed the judgment in 2019, this time the figure was even higher at 58% (Table 1). Sabarimala may not have been an electoral issue this time but it is certainly likely to remain one of debate.
(The author is a Research Associate at Lokniti-CSDS, Delhi)