The Congress will understandably exult over its huge victory in the Gurdaspur Lok Sabha by-election in Punjab. Conversely, the BJP will shrug off the defeat saying its ally Akali Dal’s unpopularity, manifest since the assembly elections, was primarily responsible for its rout in an erstwhile bastion. It can similarly dismiss its poor showing in Kerala’s Vergara Assembly by-poll, arguing the seat is a Muslim League fortress, which even the Left Front has not been able to dent. Coming along with the Samajwadi Party youth wing’s victory in the Allahabad University Students’ Union election, the last weekend failed to bring happy tidings for the ruling party.
By-election results usually bring cheer only to the ruling party of the state concerned, or the party that is already entrenched deeply in a particular area or seat. To that extent, the BJP need not be unduly worried over its loss of Gurdaspur or its unimpressive showing in Kerala. But whereas the BJP might hope to regain Gurdaspur in 2019 when national issues will overtake the regional, Kerala remains a different kettle of fish. BJP’s state leaders must have hoped for a quantum jump in the party’s support after the massive mobilisation the party attempted in the southern state in recent weeks. The Jan Raksha Yatra undertaken by the party was perhaps the most ambitious programme ever mounted in a state which has always by-passed the BJP’s electoral net. Party president Amit Shah spent several days galvanising the cadre and reassuring party workers in the killing fields of Kannur, To arouse nationwide awareness, BJP leaders are marching to the CPI(M) headquarters in New Delhi almost daily; similar demonstrations have been organised in various state capitals too.
Given Kerala’s demographic composition, the BJP’s aim of making a breakthrough will not be easily accomplished. But careful strategising would suggest it is not impossible. Some favourable pointers include the steady decline of the once-dominant Left-wing parties. The non-Muslim vote may not have fully consolidated behind the BJP yet as the Vergara result shows, but that’s Work in Progress.
However, there are many ironies in the political culture of Kerala. The RSS is a powerful force in the state and conducts a massive number of shakhas especially in its Muslim-dominated northern part. Christians, who account for nearly 20 percent of the population, do not see eye-to-eye with the Muslim community, at least electorally. Besides, there are a number of caste-based Hindu organisations in the state whose political loyalties swing between the Congress and CPM. In other words, there are many fissures in Kerala society which ought to provide an entry point to an organised party such as the BJP.
Although Marxist influence has been traditionally strong in Kerala, religious orthodoxy too is widely prevalent among all its three major religious groups. Interestingly, the Muslim and Christian communities have for long rallied around their own political outfits such as the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and Kerala Congress (myriad factions) respectively. But despite the orthodoxy of their religious leaders, the Hindus have not mobilised around any one party thus far.
From all accounts, the long-awaited breakthrough for the BJP may now be on the verge of happening, following its understanding with the Dharma Sansad, a party allied to the Ezhava community. The most prominent and populous among Hindu OBCs, the Ezhavas have been traditional supporters of the CPM, although they always had their own political outfit, namely the SNDP. This coordination has not yielded dramatic results yet, but a Hindu consolidation is finally discernible in Kerala.
It is in this background that the BJP has aggressively forayed into the state under the leadership of Amit Shah, with UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as its latest mascot. The mahant of the Gorakhnath Temple in UP never had any particular following outside eastern UP and adjoining areas of Bihar. But having been catapulted into the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the young leader has acquired a charisma he never had earlier. With the Yogi leading the charge and Amit Shah strategising the party’s manoeuvres, the BJP is poised to emerge as a significant player in a state where it never had traction in the past.
The question is whether a religion-driven strategy will enable the BJP to break into the Malayali citadel. But then why not? Both Muslims and Christians in Kerala are mostly led by orthodox religious organisations. They may like to call themselves secular parties, but in reality, the IUML and various Kerala Congress factions are deeply entrenched in religious politics. The IUML supremo, known as Thangal, controls a huge network of Muslim educational institutions, just as the powerful and financially robust Syrian Christians run a web of churches, schools, colleges and hospitals. But apart from the Ezhavas, Hindus do not have a comparable network nor has there been anything called “Hindu” politics in Kerala so far. Those who say that Kerala is too well-educated to harbour religiosity as a driver of politics need only to look at the political formations of non-Hindu groups to realise that education has little to do with political allegiances.
All these decades, the Congress banked on Hindus and a sizeable number of Christians to coast to power. The Marxists on the other hand, cultivated an OBC base and allied with Muslim power brokers in order to perpetuate their rule. But the mould seems to be finally breaking. Unlike the past, Hindus of Kerala are no longer ashamed to call themselves political Hindus. In light of the changed scenario, the BJP under its new aggressive leadership is poised to emerge as a significant claimant of the political pie. This explains Amit Shah’s Jan Raksha Yatra and Yogi Adityanath’s foray. All the party now lacks is a charismatic local leader who can supplement the appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Kerala and Bengal have eluded the Jana Sangh/BJP’s grasp for seven long decades. But the socio-political structure of Kerala suggests that it may be easier for the BJP to charge its way into the southern state compared to Bengal, although it is making a determined effort there too. If the BJP actively confronts the Marxists in Kannur and pushes them to the back foot and at the same time, strikes tactical alliances with Christian groups, which see no long-term future in the Indian National Congress, a new era may well be dawning for the BJP in Kerala.
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)