The BJP will seek to reprise its Tripura win in Kerala, where a well-entrenched Left holds fort. But its own state unit is in shambles.
Kerala has been out of bounds for the saffron party as much as the Hindi heartland has failed to be enticed by the red forces. So for the lotus to bloom in God’s Own Country, it would certainly need more than just strategic political-one-upmanship.
2016 was the year when BJP broke into what has been the red bastion in the south, when it managed to have one of its oldest warhorses win a seat in the Kerala State Legislative Assembly. On paper, O Rajagopal’s 2016 victory in the assembly elections post the Modi wave of 2014, might look better than the saffron party’s nil seats in Tripura, in the 2013 assembly elections.
This comparison is what is giving the BJP some hope of doing the near-impossible in Kerala. If they could pull off a zero to 43 in five years in Tripura today, why not in Kerala in 2021? By that reckoning, they already have one foot in the door of the Kerala State Assembly of 140 members.
A Different Ball Game
However, Kerala is not Tripura, thanks to the political demography. What makes things more difficult for Amit Shah and his team, is not just the internal strife of the state unit of the BJP, but also the fact that the CPI(M)-led Left Front is strongly in the saddle, with a jaded but very much alive Congress party in the opposition.
In 2016, the BJP was unable to get to their dream target of 10 seats in the State Assembly, despite the many visits by PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. Not just that, with one measly seat, the BJP is nowhere close to being even the principal opposition party.
Senior journalist and political commentator Sunny Kutty Abraham told The Lede, “See, there is a vast difference in the political atmosphere of the two states. In Tripura, the Congress was in complete shambles, a non-entity after the relentless violence unleashed by the CPM. So people found the BJP to be the best bet to end this misrule. In Kerala, the Congress is still the principal opposition party. The BJP has been desperately trying to break the Congress in Kerala and woo a few senior leaders in the past few years. But in vain.’’
KVS Haridas a leading political observer and a Sangh Parivar sympathiser, believes differently. He says that the Congress party in Kerala will meet with the same fate that it did in Tripura, but it is a matter of time. He foresees a political realignment in the state in the near future.
“My assessment is that post 2019, there will be a regional Congress in Kerala which will part from the party at the centre, and which will align itself with the BJP. They will have to do this if they have to fight the CPM in Kerala, which is an all-powerful entity even now. BJP then, is their best bet. The Congress-led UDF is a weak entity today after losing the support of Kerala Congress (M) led by KM Mani, and the Janata Dal. This could realign the political scene in Kerala in the days to come.’’
BJP State Leadership Fails To Inspire
Haridas’ words though, could be wishful thinking. For the state BJP itself is in disarray, and far from united. Infighting has been the eternal bane of this party here, and the recent corruption charges in the medical college scam has ensured that the party’s image has taken a severe beating.
In 2015, Shah attempted to end the infighting by bringing in a party outsider, who is also a Sangh strongman. But Kummamanam Rajasekharan, despite his honest and hardliner image, has failed to impress as a leader. Over the last two years, there has been no political leader in Kerala who has perhaps been more trolled on social media, than the BJP State President.
“The BJP and RSS state leadership is completely out of sync with ground reality in Kerala. Look at the BJP president himself. Over the last three years, he could not tackle even a single political issue in the state, simply because he does not have the political acumen or skill. How can such leadership inspire change?’’ asks senior journalist Roy Mathew, pointing out that the second rung leadership in the party is uninspiring as well.
Kerala’s Crucial Minority Vote Bank
Kerala has a consolidated minority vote bank of 45 to 46 percent, out of which close to 27 percent is Muslims, and a little more than 18 percent is Christians. Cutting ice with this crucial chunk will be critical for the BJP’s electoral gains. This is also traditionally a votebank that has been wary of the BJP and its ‘communal agenda’.
The CPM has capitalised on this trust-deficit by engaging in campaigns that help portray it as the one party that can hold up against the BJP. Their taking a stand against RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s visits to Kerala, and the beef fests held as a show of defiance against the anti-cattle slaughter notification of 2017 are some examples.
BJP spokesperson MS Kumar claims it is this ‘propaganda’ by the Left that has prevented BJP from gaining a foothold in Kerala. He says, “See, in Kerala, there is not a single constituency where you can win without the help of minority votes. So when you have such a powerful propaganda unleashed against us, labelling us ‘anti-minority’, it is not easy for us. Otherwise how would you explain our party being unable to do well electorally in a state in which it has the largest number of RSS Shakas?’’
Kumar tells The Lede that the BJP is currently engaged in planning the micro-management of voters, right at the booth level, like it did in Gujarat and other states. He calls the concept ‘page management’, where a designated party representative will be in charge of one or a few pages of the voter’s list book at every booth, that will enable him to physically meet with each voter and explain how the BJP can transform the state.
Joseph C Mathew, who has been an advisor to former Chief Minister VS Achuthananthan, tells The Lede that this is something similar to what the CPM had successfully done in Kerala in the past. But with an adversary hijacking this game plan, the CPM may have to rethink its strategies.
While the Muslim section of the electorate is not looking like it will swing towards the BJP anytime in the near future, the Christians, who had been upbeat with the appointment of Alphons Kannanthanam, a Catholic from Kottayam as Union Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Culture, and Tourism, are seeing no further action from the party that would help further their own interests.
“What has the BJP leadership in Delhi done to help the Christian community in Kerala in the last four years? The Christian community here is quite different when compared to the northeast. They are a business community which will stand with a party that protects its interests,’’ opines Roy Mathew.
With the minority vote bank looking the other way, the best bet for the BJP is the 55 percent Hindus in Kerala. But this community, which has traditionally stood with the CPM, now stands divided between all three parties. A strong consolidation by one is nowhere in sight.
CPM’s Changing Avatar
If the CPM in Tripura was a party adamant holding on to its grand but irrelevant historical ideology and narrative, the party in Kerala has evolved with time to become more pragmatic.
Social activist, writer and political commentator NM Pearson believes that the party in Kerala has successfully evolved and can survive. This he thinks, is because the Left had adapted to the political needs of the hour, countering BJP’s moves with similar ones of its own, not necessarily adhering to its ideological roots. There have been many instances of the CPM playing the communal card. It went soft on coming down on IS recruitment in the state; and the CM responded to a terror-related question in the State Assembly by stating that Muslims cannot be targeted. All these are seen as moves meant to cosy up to the Muslim electorate in the state.
Person says, “I don’t see any problem with CPM’s survival at the moment at least. That’s why they are playing communal politics with the Muslims, and even trying to get a tainted politician like KM Mani on board.” All this, feels Pearson, is indicative of the Left in Kerala deviating from its core ideologies of being non-communal and eschewing corruption, adapting itself towards an electoral goal. But Pearson also feels that if the Left is decimated in an election, it would be difficult for it to revive.
Joseph C Mathew feels that the Left’s new avatar is not only alienating the people, but also the general cadre. “There is a general erosion of political values in the CPM because you are now defining politics of the Left in an entirely different way, with just the electoral outcome in mind. Here, ideology takes a back seat. There is the risk of losing genuine cadre who are the real strength of the party,’’ Mathew told The Lede.
The CPM’s old tactic that it continues to follow unabashedly, that of political violence, is also turning counterproductive. If the CPM does not reign in its cadre, a day will not be far behind when the electorate will consider political alternatives like it did in Tripura.
For the BJP, the upcoming by-election in the Chengannur assembly constituency would be the first real test of where it stands, post Tripura.
Unlike the Malappuram Lok Sabha by-poll last year, when it came a dismal third, the party should hope to at least stand second in Chengannur.
If this does not happen, the writing is on the wall for the saffron party in Kerala.