Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah wound up his hectic three-day visit to southern Kerala on Sunday, leaving a task cut out for his men: Win not one but more than half of its 20 Parliamentary seats in 2019.
BJP sources said he reminded them that the party had just 15 percent of the popular votes in Gujarat and Maharashtra in the nineties, which they have already achieved in Kerala, and that the target is very much in their reach.
But many believe it's almost impossible a task given the state's demographic peculiarities, where the minority Muslims and Christians make up 45 percent of its 33.3 million population.
The BJP’s strategy is to win over Christians, who constitute 18.38 percent, and Dalits who are 9.8 percent of the population, to reach beyond its traditional footprint among the upper caste Nairs and, of late, the lower caste Ezhavas.
Pollsters say BJP made slight inroads into the Christian voters in the Assembly elections last year, but the Muslims remained as elusive as ever. It needs to go miles ahead before crossing the resistance level.
"The BJP and its allies had gained three to four percent of Christian votes last time, but the Muslim votes they garnered were almost nil," says Dr KM Sajad Ibrahim, assistant professor of political science at the University of Kerala, who led a post-poll survey for Lokniti, a leading research agency.
"The Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) got little over seven percent of the votes but has 18 seats in the Assembly. But BJP had to contend with just one, despite having polled more than double those votes because they were scattered. They should find some suitable allies to break this barrier," he told Firstpost.
Christians and Muslims traditionally back the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) while the Dalits and Ezhavas are mostly a vote bank of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
To win their confidence, Shah met heads of all major Christian denominations, and analysts attach much importance to this meeting with the prelates, as never before they had given such a warm welcome to any BJP leader, not even Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
During his seven-day holiday in the backwater tourist town of Kumarakom, where Prime Minister Vajpayee celebrated the New Year in 2001 and wrote his famous Kumarakom musings, no bishop of significance was interested in meeting him.
"Only heads of insignificant churches met the prime minister then, on the BJP invite, while the majority of the clergy kept away. But now, all major bishops were there, and they invited Shah to their place," said political commentator Sunnykutty Abraham.
"This is very significant as far as the politics in the Christian heartland is concerned. Remember, he's not the prime minister but only a party president. But, I cannot predict its impact on elections or a possible political realignment," he told Firstpost.
Shah told his party leaders that they should directly reach out to them instead of through Christian-dominated parties like Kerala Congress, a faction of which is already part of its National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
"The meeting should not be read as political support to the BJP. It could be out of fear as many believe the Hindutva party would return to power and they need them to safeguard their interests, particularly when a Papal visit is on the cards," Abraham added.
Former Union minister and leader of the Kerala Congress faction, PC Thomas, had won from the Moovattupuzha Parliamentary constituency in 2004 as an NDA candidate. That was the first and last Parliamentary election that the NDA had won in Kerala.
The Kerala leaders are now actively wooing Kerala Congress (M) senior leader KM Mani, who had won six seats in the Assembly elections last year; and his son is a Lok Sabha MP, as a Congress party ally.
But Muslim leaders, including Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musliar, who is known for his soft approach towards BJP, was absent at Shah's meetings.
The restrictions on the cattle trade and slaughter have made a deep dent in its popularity in the region, where an estimated 97 percent of the people are meat eaters.
In the recent Malappuram byelection, the BJP candidate had even promised to open more slaughterhouses and make "good beef" available in the Muslim-dominated constituency, if given a chance.
But he could not gain much electorally compared to his previous score, and he ended up a distant third with just 65,675 votes as against 515,330 of IUML leader PK Kunhalikutty, who won by a large margin of 171,023 votes.
Many leaders of the saffron party in Kerala are, interestingly, 'proclaimed' beef eaters.
Allies like Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) of Ezhava leader Thushar Vellappally and Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS) led by firebrand tribal leader CK Janu, besides Thomas, who attended the NDA meeting Shah convened, have voiced their dissent against the regulations.
Shah, on a mission to expand his party's area of influence beyond the upper caste Hindus, also tried hard to reach out to Dalits. He addressed a booth-level meeting in one of their settlements in the state capital.
He held a series of meetings with people from different walks of life, including leaders of social and community groups, writers and intellectuals. He also interacted with leaders of his party at the grassroots level.
But BJP sources said he went back after giving a stern warning to the state leaders, mostly driven from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to reach beyond their traditional areas of influence and deliver, adding that he would come again after three months to review the progress.
The BJP could make a dent in the CPM vote bank of Ezhavas, who constitute an estimated 24 percent of the population, second only to Muslims with 26.56 percent.
"The situation is very fluid now. The CPM is also playing the communal card to attract Muslims who back the Congress and its allies. It succeeded in the last Assembly elections when the LDF had a landslide victory, despite BJP eating into its vote bank. The beef controversy comes handy for them," said author and social critic Hameed Chennamangaloor.
He was an active member of the cultural wing of the CPM, which he left a few years back protesting what he describes as its truck with extremists like Jama’at-e-Islami and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), of jailed cleric Abdul Nasar Madani.
"There’s a steady flow of the CPM cadre into the BJP, though slowly, and many of them find it difficult to digest its leaders diluting secular ideology for electoral prospects. It helps the party win votes temporarily, but at the cost of its ideological base," he told Firstpost.
With just four Christians and two Muslims in the 24 cabinet positions, the majority community has more than its due in the government and BJP cannot accuse the ruling front of minority appeasement.
The BJP’s attempts to justify the new guidelines, saying they aim at restricting indiscriminate cattle slaughter and protecting animal rights, lack conviction as the meat is becoming dearer in the state by the day.
Reports say that far-right groups have been stopping trucks carrying cattle heading for slaughterhouses in Kerala on Tamil Nadu borders.
Grabbing the opportunity, both the LDF and the UDF are waging a high-voltage campaign against the BJP government's "beef ban".
BJP leaders say the main agenda of Shah's visit is reviewing the progress they made ever since its national conference held in September – bringing the top brass, including Modi, Advani and Joshi, to the northern Kozhikode city.
The party is now on a drive to form 20,000 booth-level committees and has launched a massive Rs 100-crore fundraiser, not sparing homes of even its archrivals to deliver its message. It has also recruited some 65 "full-time volunteers" to work at the grassroots.
The RSS has a strong organisational in Kerala with some 5,000 shakhas as against Gujarat’s 1,000. No another party in Kerala is planning so meticulously for the General Elections, which are still two years away.
BJP missed the chance in 2014 when O Rajagopal lost Thiruvananthapuram to Shashi Tharoor by 15,470 votes. It had a 50 percent increase in its vote share in the state elections that followed.
The NDA’s vote share had shot up from 6.06 percent in 2011 to 14.8 percent when it opened its account in the Assembly elections last year.
Shah reportedly told the NDA meeting that he was not interested in the increase in the vote share but how it translates into seats.
As he wound up his visit, the political rivals were quick to warn the minorities that Shah's reference to Gujarat of the nineties was a call for communal violence in the state.
Updated Date: Jun 05, 2017 16:21 PM