BJP President Amit Shah is not a very expressive person, but the relief and happiness on his face during the party’s regular press conference today was hard to miss.
Among the questions asked of Shah was whether today marks the ‘golden period’ of the BJP in India.
Though the question sounded like a compliment, it concealed within it a concern that is shared by many BJP leaders — the party may have hit its peak and things are likely to only go downhill from here.
Not one to miss out on the nuances, Shah was quick to point out that the party’s ambitions are far from being completely fulfilled.
“The golden period is yet to come,” he responded. “As long as we are not able to form governments in Odisha, Bengal and Kerala and win back Karnataka, it cannot be our golden period.”
Shah went on to express his confidence on how his party’s going to win Odisha, West Bengal and Kerala just like it decimated the Left in Tripura today.
For the record, the BJP and its newly formed ally, Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura, cornered over 50% of the total votes in the state, compared to 1.3% five years ago for the BJP alone.
Shah then went on to draw a parallel between what the BJP has been trying to achieve in Kerala and what it has been able to, in Tripura.
“Today, the happiest are our workers in Bengal and Kerala, because there too, they have been facing violence from Left parties and many of our workers there have had to pay with their lives… Only BJP workers know how happy they are.”
“It has been proven that the Left is not right for any part of the country,” he added.
For all the optimism and confidence expressed by Shah in his post-results press conference, the fact is that the BJP’s condition in Kerala is far from ideal.
Despite strenuous efforts, the last state elections, held in 2016, yielded the party a vote share of just 10.6%, or about 15% including its allies like the BDJS.
This was certainly an improvement over the 6.03% it managed to attract five years earlier.
However, the number also showed that the BJP had been unable to increase its vote share compared to the General elections held in 2014, when it had won 10.33% of the votes with no help from any allies.
In other words, the two years of Modi rule had failed to convince more Malayalis to vote for the saffron party compared to two years ago, an unexpected and disappointing outcome for the honchos.
Going by the mood of the electorate in the state today, the BJP continues to wallow in the 10% range, and is no closer to achieving a 30%-35% vote share required to form a government in a three-way fight.
There are two main reasons for this.
First is the lack of true leadership at the state level. The party’s unit is led by local leader Kummanam Rajasekharan, a long-time activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Kerala.
Despite his background, Rajasekharan is seen as yet another politician, and this may not work in Kerala.
The party faces steep odds in a state with a minority population of 47% and a Hindu population riven by caste faultlines.
The party faces sophisticated attacks on social media, which has come to play an increasing role in determining which way the young voters of the state — BJP’s target — go. As is to be expected, the rivals’ social media strategy has been to target Kummanam.
Sophisticated social media campaigns have tried to turn him — with some success — into an object of ridicule. Recently, for example, a campaign was conducted to name the elephant symbol of Kochi Metro ‘Kummanana’ (Kumman Elephant).
The BJP has been unable to counter the social media attacks despite some attempts being made in the direction. Without a (more) successful social media strategy, the party is unlikely to attract the young voters.
The second problem faced by the party in the state is a lack of strong leaders from non-Nair communities.
A case in point are Ezhavas, who comprise about 40% of the Hindu population in the state and form the single biggest block of voters among the Hindus of Kerala.
More importantly, they have traditionally played a crucial role in developing all ‘revolutionary movements’ in the state and are known for their unflinching devotion and loyalty to their political parties and ideologies.
However, it is the Left Front — with its egalitarian ideals and promises — that has been more successful in attracting and retaining the trust and support of Ezhavas compared to the RSS with its hardline Hindutva ideals. This is ascribed to the Buddhist and Jain background of the Ezhavas and the impact that these religions continue to have on the community’s temperament and outlook.
Moreover, having faced much discrimination and atrocities at the hands of Brahmins and Hindu kings, the community is lukewarm to, or even wary about, appeals based on the Hindu identity. Narayana Guru, the spiritual leader of the community, famously refused Gandhi’s appeal to join the independence struggle, pointing out that it is the British who allowed him to pursue his spiritual studies — something, he pointed out, that was impossible under the Hindu code of law practiced by Kerala kings.
The elevation of Narendra Modi, who belongs to the OBC, and Amit Shah, a Jain, to BJP’s leadership and the associated shift of the party from hardline Hindutva to a development-oriented agenda therefore seemed the perfect setting for a migration of Ezhava votes to the BJP in Kerala.
Another potential source of support are the Christians — particularly Syrian Christians who comprise about 13% of the state population and have warmed to the party in recent years. The mercantile community is reputed for its pragmatism, and are a good fit for the economic development oriented agenda of the ‘Modified’ BJP.
Yet the BJP in Kerala has been a near total failure in capitalizing on these two paths of growth owing to two reasons.
First is the continuing dominance of leaders from a Nair background — like Kummanam — at the top (see photo). Social media is full of forwards about how 80-90% of the top positions in the state unit of the party are allegedly filled from just one community.
The second factor has been an inability of the local leadership to resonate with and communicate the shift from hardline Hindutva aspirations — such as cow protection and Ram temple — to development goals as has happened at the central level.
In other words, the BJP in Kerala is moving from side to side, and very far from being able to repeat a Tripura in this southern state.