Mohan Bhagwat flag hoisting row: CPM treads cautiously as RSS, BJP make deep inroads into its votebanks in Kerala

On 15 August when RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat chose a nondescript school in Palakkad in north Kerala to raise the National Tricolour, in normal circumstances it should have gathered a little or perhaps no attention at all.

But thanks to the Left government’s intense hawkishness to ensure that no ground is conceded in this frantic political one-upmanship, that has played out in the state in the recent months between the ruling CPM and the BJP-RSS combine, the RSS chief managed to pull off a grand coup and even put the national news spotlight back on Kerala.

Bhagwat not only hogged the limelight as the RSS strongman who could do what he wanted at the only remaining bastion of the Left forces in the country apart from Tripura, but also held a victim card across his chest for having faced the wrath of a district administration perceived by many as trying to throttle a citizen from raising the tricolor owing to his different ideological allegiance.

File image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. PTI

File image of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. PTI

The Sangh Parivar which does not need lessons to encash in such situations was quick to respond.

"We condemn such brazen attempts by the CPM led government in Kerala to deny the basic citizen rights of celebrating the Independence Day and their continuous attempts to poison the state of Kerala with divisive politics," said Manmohan Vaidya, the All India prachar pramukh of the RSS in a statement.

Understandably the RSS was twisting the issue to its advantage and with the state government utterly confused, as many political pundits call, on how to tackle the situation, the Sangh Parivar ended up scoring some brownie points.

"The CPM, as usual, has once again played into the hands of the Sangh Parivar. Mohan Bhagwat coming to school to hoist a flag would have made little news in Kerala. But CPM has made him a hero now. Wherever you need to tackle a situation wisely with political acumen the CPM has been found wanting," political commentator and activist NM Pearson told Firstpost.

But the party has a completely different take on this. MA Baby, a Polit Bureau member is one of its tallest leaders in the state says that though opposing Bhagwat was a well thought of strategy by the party, it purposely played safe by not going the whole hog in the matter.

"See the RSS has a clear agenda to unleash violence and their chief’s open infringement on the state government’s authority was provoking such a situation. So if he was prevented from hoisting the flag he would have created a hue and cry that it is an atrocity by the Left government which would have become a license for more violence. But the government saw through this game plan," said Baby.

Senior journalists also agree that the Left in Kerala which is already walking a tightrope was left with no option but to finally not opt for any stringent measure against Bhagwat.

"Already the situation in Kerala had been very precarious with violence on the streets between both the political parties. Imagine a situation where a case is registered against Bhagwat or even physically stop him at the venue. It would have been a catastrophe for the state," said senior journalist Sunnykutty Abraham.

Even when one gets the feeling that the government may have been right in not going for the kill, the big question that still remains is what prompted the state to go for such a preemptive misadventure using the district collector if at all it had no plans to go all the way.

The school authorities too are making it very clear that they had let the district administration know about the RSS chief’s visit at least 10 days in advance. They also point out that when the entire itinerary was passed onto the superintendent of police and the Bhagwat’s tour diary was submitted to the district collector, why was no opposition raised at that point in time.

"Everyone was aware of his visit well in advance. If you come with an order at 11.30 in the night preceding the function what do you expect the school to do? Are you saying we should have stopped him on the morning of 15 August? This is a well-planned political game played right from the Chief Minister's Office," Kailas Mani, managing committee member of the school told Firstpost.

Is polarisation the key factor?

A political game it certainly was and the CPM was well within its rights to play it to the maximum as all governments in power do. But a closer analysis of it all gives us the bigger picture.

The government certainly did not want to take it beyond a point and vitiate the already volatile political situation. But certainly, Bhagwat had to be opposed, even if it meant symbolic.

"See opposing Bhagwat was to send a signal to the Muslim vote bank but then any action beyond that will only alienate the majority Hindus. That is why in spite of Bhagwat openly flouting the order of the district magistrate, the government did not have the will to arrest him after having set the entire process in motion in the first place," said social activist CR Neelakandan.

Political pundits also feel that this confusion of the CPM is a fall out of the intense churning that is taking place across Kerala’s political landscape.

The political demography in the state show that throughout the last 60 years since its formation while majority of the 55 percentage strong Hindu vote bank had stood with the communists at the ballot box, the 27 percentage of Muslims and 18 percentage Christians had predominantly been divided between both the fronts with the latter going mostly with UDF.

But psephologists and political researchers like Sajad Ibrahim, an assistant professor at the Kerala University say there has been a shift in this, since the last Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. It is certainly a gradual one, if not tectonic.

They warn of a clear consolidation of the Hindu vote bank at least at the upper caste level. This combined with the BJP’s inclusion of Vellapally Natesan’s BDJS which represent a large section of Ezahavas, the largest community in the state, has enabled the NDA it to make considerable in roads in terms of vote share in some crucial areas in the state.

"Although it is too early to say we are certainly seeing a trend of Hindu vote bank consolidation. Perhaps after the 2019 Lok Sabha and the next Assembly elections we can say for sure. But this is why the CPM feels the need to project a pro-Muslim image, especially as a counter in Kerala to the BJP’s growing stature in the country. At the same time they refuse to go the whole hog on many such issues just to keep the Hindus in good spirit," said Ibrahim.

The assistant professor also reiterates that CPM’s double game was clearly evident not just in the Bhagwat issue but also otherwise the party had been trying a minority appeasement model that does not go to the extent of antagonising the Hindus.

The BJP, on the other hand, claims there certainly is a consolidation of the Hindu vote bank which the CPM is trying to desperately stop.

"The CPM is certainly putting their feet in two boats. On one side they hope to appease the Muslims by opposing us and on other hand paint the BJP and RSS as villains and extremists at every instant so as to stop the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank which they are scared of," said BJP state spokesperson MS Kumar.

But analysts also point out that such appeasement politics the CPM is playing here and at the national level is also helping the BJP in Kerala slowly gain an upper hand.

"If you look closely at the issue, it is the CPM declared policy to even go soft on divisive forces to appease the Muslim community. They did that in JNU and by reaching out to the Hurriyat. But they are also not realising that this is consolidating the Hindu vote for the BJP," says veteran journalist KVS Haridas.

BJP and the Church find common ground

The new-found love between the BJP and the Church in Kerala is also worrying the CPM to no end. That a few months ago when Amit Shah visited Kerala as part of setting the agenda for 2019, his meeting with the bishops cutting across denominations was indication enough that the ice was indeed melting.

What Shah achieved was something which even Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his heights of popularity as the prime minister could not do. Compared to Vajpayee’s meeting with a few fathers of individual churches which hardly carried any significance, here was a BJP leader getting the entire top brass of Kerala’s Christian clergy around one table.

That it happened at the height of the beef ban controversy which was continuously being stoked up in the state by the Left, shows that the Church indeed thinks that the relation has significance beyond all such issues.

"See the Christians in Kerala are always pro-development. That is why they never stood with the communists. Now they think that Narendra Modi is the man who can offer them an all inclusive development. So it was only natural for them to move towards us," says Alphons Kannanthanam, a Catholic and a member of the BJP Executive Council.

Certain issues prevailing in the state have also brought the BJP and the church closer. At least a section of the Church believes that a concerted campaign is underway to convert Christian girls to Islam and take them to Syria.

That a Christian girl Merin had reportedly gone to Syria after converting to Islam along with the 21 others who left the state had then rung the alarm bells for the Church.

Last month a ‘Christian Helpline’ was formed in association with former members of BJP’s Minority Morcha after taking inputs from the ‘Hindu Helpline’ an organisation that supposedly fights coerced conversions among Hindus.

"See officially the Church has not made any such stand but if the believers are worried then we can't fault them for it and if someone comes with the idea of protecting the girls from this menace why not support them?" asks Jimmy Poochakatt, spokesperson for Syro Malabar Church.

It is this new bonhomie that has got the CPM certainly worried because they are well aware that if ever the BJP hopes to make a considerable impact in the electoral process in the state, it cannot be achieved without the Christian votes.

"There is an elite class inside the Christian community that looks at the BJP to fulfill their aspirations no doubt. But how far it will make a difference at the ballot box is difficult to say now," said Ibrahim.

The political scenario in Kerala for sure seems to be churning like never before. The 2019 general elections would hold the first signs of a definite change in the voting pattern if at all it happens. Till then an intense political one-upmanship between the CPM and BJP-RSS combine will be the order of the day.


Published Date: Aug 19, 2017 04:16 pm | Updated Date: Aug 19, 2017 04:16 pm