The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has been struggling to break into the two-front political scenario in Kerala for over a decade seems to have decided to move away from ‘Hindu unity’ plank and on to ‘development politics’ after the Left Front put up a stronger-than-expected fight in recent local elections.
Before the local elections held in November, the BJP was championing the cause of the Hindus of Kerala, highlighting “the impact of minority appeasement politics” of its two main rivals in the state — the Congress Party and the Left front.
It was not unusual to see BJP ‘influencers’ make covert and overt suggestions that the well-being, even the existence, of Hindus in Kerala was under threat due to the rising economic dominance of the state’s business-oriented Christian and Muslim communities.
In this, the BJP was ably supplemented by the impassioned speeches of firebrand leaders like Sasikala Teacher of Hindu Aikya Vedi. These speeches were easily available on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Youtube and even circulated on CDs.
The idea was for the BJP to extend its influence beyond its upper castes by highlighting the Hindu cause in a state where business-oriented communities have prospered more than the others in recent years.
As a result, the BJP always reserved its sharpest arrows for the ‘Communists’, who stood in the way of its consolidation of the Hindu vote bank. An estimated 70% of the OBC and Dalit votes in Kerala go to the Left parties.
In fact, many Left leaders seemed to believe that the BJP and Congress were acting in cahoots to finish them off. For BJP in Kerala, the slogan seemed to be ‘Communist-mukt’ before ‘Congress-mukt’.
However, the results of Kerala’s local body elections held in November held a shock for practically everyone, including the Leftists who did much better than anyone had expected.
The results also seemed to show that BJP’s strategy of trying to expand its base to OBC and Dalit sections using the Hindu identity had failed, with the party picking up seats largely, even exclusively, in upper-caste dominated wards.
Three months on, there is still no consensus on what exactly happened in the local body election. While some believe that OBCs and Dalits were scared off by campaigns such as that opposing cow slaughter and a train of caste-based violence in North India, others believe that the dominance of OBC leaders in the Left front ensured that these classes continued to support the formation.
Eventually, nearly all the extra votes that the BJP got in the election seemed to have come from voters who ditched the Congress-led United Democratic Front, which saw its vote shares shrink drastically in many areas.
FROM HINDU UNITY TOWARDS DEVELOPMENT
The unexpected turn of events seemed to have prompted the BJP to redraw its growth strategy for Kerala.
It did two things. First, it replaced the mellow and ‘progressive’ state BJP leader with Kummanam Rajashekharan, an on-the-ground activist with unblemished Hindutva credentials.
With an unquestioned champion of Hindutva at the helm, it started an aggressive campaign to woo the Christians in the state., shifting its focus from ‘Hindu unity’ to ‘Development’. Over the last two months, Rajashekharan has visited practically all the influential Christian religious leaders, going from one Bishop house to the next.
On social media — the cheapest and arguably the most effective political campaigning tool today — impassioned appeals for Hindu unity are conspicuous by their absence these days.
Instead, the party is busy expanding its appeal to the Christians with photos of Kummanam’s breakfast meetings with various Bishops shared widely. Newspapers carried a photo of the state BJP chief bent down before a Bishop, touching his feet.
CONGRESS UNDER THREAT
The BJP’s new strategy brings it more in line with the traditional politics of Kerala, where the Left parties have always sought to represent the interests of the ‘underprivileged’ and the other party has largely represented the interests of the ‘forward’ communities — upper caste Hindus, rich OBCs and Muslims and the various prosperous Syrian Christian trading communities.
The formula was disturbed in the last 5 years when upper caste Hindus started leaving the Congress Party after key positions — including the crucial Chief Ministerial berth — started going to Syrian Christians.
However, the Congress wasn’t overly worried as it was banking on two factors — its alliance with the Indian Union Muslim League which could help it garner over half the votes of the state’s 26% Muslim population, and on the BJP eating into Left parties’ OBC and Dalit vote base.
However, as the local body elections demonstrated, the calculation went wrong spectacularly.
POLITICAL STARS ALIGN
Another factor favoring a realignment are recent political developments in the state.
The leader of one of Congress’ long-time and powerful allies — Kerala Congress — was unceremoniously made the scapegoat for the debacle in local body elections and forced to step down from the council of ministers on charges of corruption.
Kerala Congress has strong clout in the various Syrian Christian communities in Kerala — especially in the districts of Kottayam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta and Ernakulam which account for about 40-50% of Congress’ total seats.
Already, one particular split-away faction of the Kerala Congress, called Kerala Congress (Thomas), is part of the National Democratic Alliance, having joined it when Vajpayee was the prime minister in 2001.
If the Congress Party loses power at both the Center as well as at the state level, the entire Kerala Congress could join the breakaway group in NDA.
The BJP, on its part, has also been going soft on Mani even as it feels dutybound, as an opposition party, to attack him for what is known as the ‘bar bribery’ scandal.
According to allegations made by a prominent industrialist, several government ministers took bribe from a bar owners’ association in lieu for various ‘favors’ such as not closing down bars under a policy of prohibition and not raising license charges.
In fact, KM Mani, head of Kerala Congress, last week said he would meet Amit Shah on Thursday (this week) in Kerala. However, this was followed by the Congress extending an invitation for Mani over the weekend to come back to the state Cabinet.
Mani is yet to make his stance clear on whether he would remain outside the government or rejoin it.
Political observers do not expect Mani, who has been in politics for over 50 years, to ditch the Congress and join the NDA before the elections scheduled in April-May. If he does so, it would guarantee a Left victory, with both NDA and the Congress remaining in the opposition.
On the other hand, a united Kerala Congress-Congress-Muslim League front still has a chance, however slim, of defeating the Left front.
However, if the Left parties do indeed come to power, analysts believe it more than likely that Mani will join the NDA and his son, who is also a member of Parliament, will become part of the Modi cabinet.
Such a move would go a long way in helping the BJP win the confidence of the Syrian Christians in Kerala and creating fissures in Congress’ last remaining ‘vote bank’, thus supplanting the Congress Party in Kerala’s two-party politics.