In Kerala, everybody is talking about the BJP's grand plan to "open the account" in the 140-seat state assembly. A national party's attempt to enter an assembly, where it has never won a single seat before, shouldn't really be a big deal in the normal course. But nobody said that Kerala's politics is taking the normal course in the run-up to the 16 May election. And while there is plenty of song and dance within the BJP about its account-opening, there is much moaning and fretting among the existing account-holders: the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the rival CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The BJP's slice in the state's electoral pie has been growing steadily in different elections in recent elections. And for the first time in the state, the party has become a force that the UDF and the LDF, the two chief contenders for power, can ignore only at their peril.
Neither front fears that the BJP will sweep the election. But both are wary of the saffron party's immense potential to erode their vote banks. They are aware that, in close contests, a three-way vote-split can turn an election result on its head.
The LDF, whose victory has been forecast by three opinion polls, fancies itself as the winner for three reasons. One: The Left fared exceptionally well in last year's panchayat elections, while the UDF came a poor second. Two: It believes that Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and some of his ministers are too tainted with scams for the UDF to return to power. Three: Except in 1977, no political combination ever won an assembly election for a second time in a row in Kerala. And nobody believes that Chandy is made of the stuff that can buck this trend. But, at the same time, the LDF is aware that, even if the BJP can't win the game, it can be a spoilsport.
As for BJP, it will be content to improve upon its own performance in the last year's panchayat elections. Call it a Hindu revivalism or a backlash if you will, the party's vote share in Kerala had climbed up from a mere 4.75 percent in the 2006 assembly elections to 6.06 in the 2011 assembly elections, to 10.3 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and finally to an all-time high of 13.3 percent in the 2015 civic polls.
So it is not surprising that in the account that it is seeking to open, the BJP wants to keep as much balance as it can muster. And to ensure that, it has launched a focused campaign, remote-controlled by the party's national President Amit Shah. It has identified a dozen or so seats which it hopes it has pretty good chances of winning.
Topping that list are four seats in capital Thiruvananthapuram. In all of Kerala, it was only in these four assembly segments of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat that the party polled more votes than its closest rival in the 2014 election. The party's O. Rajagopal, an 86-year-old veteran of many elections achieved that feat. By polling more votes in the other three assembly segments, Shashi Tharoor of the Congress, however, walked away with the Lok Sabha seat by a margin of 15,470 votes.
The party is now taking no chances with these four segments. While Rajagopal himself will be the candidate in Nemom, state President Kummanam Rajasekharan, a former RSS pracharak hand-picked by Amit Shah for the job last year, will contest from Vattiyoorkavu. Former state president V Muraleedharan and cricketer S. Sreesanth will be the candidates in Kazhakootam and Thiruvananthapuram segments respectively.
Adding to the BJP's confidence is the fact that, in the 2015 elections to the Thiruvananthapuram city corporation, the party came runner-up to LDF, pushing the UDF to the third position.
What made it possible for the BJP to notch up more and more support for itself since the 2011 poll is the growing feeling in Kerala that the Hindus (54.73 percent of the state's population against 79.8 nation-wide, according to the 2011 census) have been getting a raw deal from both the fronts: more from the UDF than the LDF.
The Congress in Kerala has traditionally depended on the backing from Christians and Muslims. Of Kerala's 3.3-crore population, Muslims constitute 26.56 percent and Christians, 18.38 percent. The Congress gets its Christian votes through its own leaders as well as factions of the Kerala Congress that are part of the UDF. The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), another UDF constituent, brings in the Muslim vote.
A good number of voters from upper-castes like the Nairs (about 14 percent of the population) and some from backward classes like Ezhavas (23 per cent) too have been supporting the Congress, but the minorities are its backbone. The feeling that the party survives by indulging the minorities with election tickets, ministerial berths and sundry favours only became more deep-rooted after Oommen Chandy took over as the Chief Minister in 2011. Having won the election by just four seats, Chandy did whatever he could to humour them.
What riles many Hindus most is that nearly 70 per cent of UDF's members in the outgoing assembly are minorities who together account for 45 per cent of the population.
And for the CPM, the backward Ezhavas have been its chief source of strength. Besides, the Dalits, other backward castes and a section of the minorities too have traditionally backed the Left Front.
Despite CPM's tiffs with the Church in the past-party leader Pinarayi Vijayan once called a bishop a "wretched creature"-the CPM too has been kowtowing to minorities to keep the Congress under check.
The recent explanation by CPM's state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan that his meeting with a prominent bishop before the release of the party's list of candidates was just a routine one has been taken with a pinch of salt by his own partymen. There is rumbling within the CPM over the way the party has picked some candidates for next month's elections allegedly at the whims of the Church.
A section of the Hindus, disgusted with this minority appeasement for long, were switching their support from one front to the other till they found an alternative in the BJP.
The only consolation for the Left is that the BJP has been eating more into the UDF's vote base than the LDF's. A comparison of the voting patterns in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2015 panchayat elections clearly points to that. The Congress may have lost a good number of voters from upper-castes and some from lower castes including Ezahvas to the BJP. And a smaller number of Ezhavas may have abandoned the Left for the BJP.
Whether the BJP will attract more Ezhavas in the coming election from both the fronts through the newly formed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) party, with which it has a seat-sharing agreement, is not immediately clear. The BDJS was launched last year by the 113-year-old Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, an organisation that represents Ezhavas. Past efforts by not only SNDP, but also the Nair Service Society, another caste-based organisation, to float political parties flopped badly.
But that doesn't stop SNDP's general secretary Vellapally Natesan from hoping that his new party, with its mouthful of a name, will win a handful of seats. He even said once that his new outfit would decide who would rule Kerala next.
If the perception that the minorities have cornered the financial, social and political power in Kerala under the regimes of the two fronts is driving many Hindus towards the BJP, the UDF and the LDF, in that order, must only blame themselves. And whether the BJP has been able to retain the support it received in the panchayat elections and will expand it and turn into a sizeable number of seats now will be unravelled by the EVMs only on 19 May.