Why did BJP president Amit Shah choose Kozhikode to hold the party's crucial national meet? Kozhikode, unlike Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod, isn’t a traditional stronghold of BJP in Kerala. But it is a strategically important district for the party in the Malabar region, where BJP has seen its presence growing steadily, albeit slowly, over the years. The decision to choose Kozhikode as the national-meet venue shows how Kerala is emerging as a potential stronghold in BJP’s larger scheme of things. Shah is setting the tone for the 2019 Lok Sabha Elections by paying more attention to the hitherto ignored state.
If anyone needs to worry, it is the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which has witnessed significant erosion in votes in the last round of Assembly polls. By choosing Kerala at this juncture, BJP wants to send a strong message on the importance it attaches to the southern state in its national roadmap.
According to local media reports, this is only the fourth time that BJP is holding its national meet in Kerala since the party's formation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is scheduled to arrive for the meeting on Saturday, will make his first ever public speech here after the deadly Uri attacks, which has put terrorism back on the discussion table. Pressure is mounting on the NDA-government to exercise its options to give 'befitting' response to Pakistan that has been exporting terror across the border — both financially and by aiding terrorists with military resources. At the Kozhikode meet, the party is likely to deliberate on reworking nation's security policy in the backdrop of the Uri terror attacks. This means that the Kerala meet, especially PM Modi’s speech on Saturday, will have intense international media attention.
Within Kerala, party's decision to choose Kozhikode is interesting. Consider this: In the last state Assembly elections, BJP almost doubled its vote share in the district's thirteen constituencies taking the figure to close to 13 percent compared to the 2011 Assembly polls. Even in the local body elections in November last year, BJP made notable progress by wining 7 seats in the Kozhikode corporation. In the past, the party never crossed 2.
In the last Assembly elections, the party opened its account in the state with O Rajagopal winning Nemam, a suburb of Kerala's capital. The party has sensed an opportunity to build a strong battle zone for the party in the 2019 general elections here, crucial for it’s larger goal of putting up a third front in the traditionally bipolar political state dominated by the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Congress party-led UDF.
As Firstpost noted in an earlier article, 2016 has been a landmark year for BJP in Kerala. Withstanding the strong Left wave that swept through the state, the lone lotus bloomed in Nemam marking the first victory for the party in Kerala Assembly elections. The party has indeed begun to make strong inroads to the bipolar political landscape of the state.
In the Assembly elections this year, BJP's vote share rose to10.5 percent as compared to the 6 percent in 2011 Assembly elections, but it has remained flat when compared with the 10.2 percent it scored in 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Seen together with its ambitious ally, Bhartiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), the vote share is about 14 percent as compared to the 16 percent the alliance clocked in local body polls last year. The BDJS contested in 37 seats and garnered 3.9 percent total vote share while BJP finished with 10.5 percent.
That was a less-than-expected progress though, considering the huge clout of Hindu Ezhavas in central Kerala (Alappuzha, Kollam districts where the BJP-BDJS combine didn't live upto the expectations) whose support BDJS chief, Vellappalli Natesan claims to enjoy. But, the BJP sent out the signal that in Kerala BJP is more than just a party-on-the-paper. Particularly, in a scenario, where the Congress-led UDF has weakened much on account of repeated corruption charges and policy flip-flops, the BJP senses a big opportunity to emerge as a third front.
BJP has been struggling hard to grow beyond its image of being a party of upper caste Hindus in Kerala and reach out to a wider section, by befriending the Ezhavas (lower cast Hindus) and even non-Hindus. But the party's efforts to create a wider appeal, beyond its Hindutva tag, has seemingly taken a beating because of the way a few issues, like ban on beef and cow politics, were handled. In other instances, Amit Shah's tweet wishing Vaman Jayanti on Onam was also seen as part of BJP's Hindutva agenda and the BJP chief was rebuked on social media. To further its vote bank in the state, the BDJS alliance will be key for the BJP.
Political analysts see the BJP’s poll alliance with Hindu Ezhavas by tying up with Natesan's BDJS as a landmark move in the state’s political history since Ezhavas constitute a sizeable chunk of the Hindu population in the state, whose votes are traditionally divided between the Left and Right. As said earlier, it is also a marked shift in the perception of the BJP in the state where the party is typically associated with Hindu upper castes.
So far, the poll outcomes show that this strategy hasn’t worked in such way which will make the BJP a deciding force in Kerala's power equation. The experimental alliance was expected to aid the party by a much bigger margin in central Kerala — something that has seemingly flopped. However, there has been progress for sure and Modi-Shah duo would want to build on this momentum and make a bigger wave in the 2019 polls.
The point here is choosing Kerala, Kozhikode in particular, for BJP’s national meet at this point of time isn’t a coincidence. The BJP is already making its moves keeping the year 2019 Kerala plan in mind.