If the issue of cow slaughter and beef eating had made maximum noise in Kerala, it would not have surprised even the staunchest of cow vigilantes. So entrenched is beef in the gastronomic traditions of the state that any attempt to overthrow it will invite a certain mutiny. But this time in Kerala, the 'politics over beef' has myriad hues.
For starters, the Union Government's notification surrounding the sale of cows for slaughter in markets was misunderstood as a blanket ban on the slaughter of cows and eating beef.
Both the Left and the Congress party had played equal roles in this misinformation campaign. While the 200-odd beef festivals went on as planned, things reached a feverish pitch when an over enthusiastic Youth Congress leader went to the extent of publicly slaughtering a calf – ending up behind bars, rejected by his own party.
The BJP certainly had been on the losing side of this vicious campaign and party president Amit Shah's three-day sojourn in Kerala was intended more at placating the anti-party sentiments among the minorities than just galvanising the party's state machinery for the 2019 General Elections.
But here too there is an anomaly. Rather a larger game plan at play. A closer look at what – apart from the usual party meetings – Shah has done in Kerala over the last weekend, could tell the story.
While garlanding a community leader's bust and meeting editors of top Malayalam media houses would be among the normal schedules in any powerful North Indian leader's visit, Shah's attempt at extending the olive branch only to the Church has not gone unnoticed.
Especially, since the BJP president made no attempt to reach out to Muslims, who form the largest minority in the state. If reaching out to minorities was indeed the agenda, there is more to his actions than what meets the eye.
Perhaps never had any BJP president taken out time to meet such a wide collection of Bishops, cutting across all denominations of the church in the state.
From the Syro-Malabar Catholic diocese – the largest denomination of the community in the state– to the Jacobites, to the Orthodox, to even the small Knanayas, all sat across a table with Shah, putting across their apprehensions and accepting the assurances from the saffron party at Kochi on Friday evening.
If sources inside the party are to be believed, Shah had specially demanded to rewrite the schedule to accommodate the meeting of the Bishops and there was clearly a reason for it.
"See both the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress have been spreading only rumours about the notification, instilling fear among the minorities because they know that the BJP's acceptance among them is increasing. So, we had to ensure that we explain to them the reality. The party president's visit was perhaps the best opportunity to send across that message... and among the Christian community heads, we were able to do that,'' MS Kumar, BJP state spokesperson told Firstpost.
Whether 'beef' became a topic of discussion at the meeting with the Bishops is still debatable as both sides stayed tight-lipped about it, deflecting the focus on to various other issues like the price of rubber and release of Father Tom Uzhunnalil, who continues to be an Islamic State hostage in Yemen.
But what set the ball rolling is what the Archbishop Soosapakyam, the custodian of the Latin Church which holds a tremendous amount of influence among the fishing community in the coastal belt of the state, had to say to the media after meeting Shah on Saturday at the state capital.
"This is certainly a new beginning and a new step forward. The discussions gave an opportunity to understand our stands better and make a few corrections wherever needed. We had talked about a number of issues and it was very cordial and positive,'' Soosapakyam told media persons in Thiruvananthapuram.
The words of the Bishop does suggest that a consolidation of the already existing vibes, between the community which holds over 20 percent of the vote share in the state and a party that is desperate to break ground among the community with its 'sabka saath sabka vikas' slogan, has taken place.
Also, if the BJP hopes to make in-roads in Kerala in 2019, many believe it would have to be from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency which had been rumoured to be eyed by the party's Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) from Karnataka, Rajeev Chandrasekhar.
After all, the BJP had proved its worth in Thiruvananthapuram by putting up a strong fight at the City Corporation polls, where they came a close second in the last local body elections and the Nemom Assembly constituency which is a part of the Lok Sabha seat, had sent the first saffron MLA to the legislature in 2016 in the form of the party's old war horse O Rajagopal.
But for the BJP to win the Lok Sabha seat in Thiruvananthapuram in the immediate future would only remain a distant dream without the Latin Church on their side. History tells us that the incumbent MP Shashi Tharoor was bailed out of a tough situation in 2014 by the crucial votes of the fishing community. It is here that the meeting with the Latin Bishop and his words gather significance.
The saffron party, too, thinks that no major breakthrough in Kerala is possible unless you get a chunk of the Christian vote bank, which accounts for close to 19 percent of the total population in the state.
With Narendra Modi and his promises finding acceptance, at least among a section of them, the party feels that times have changed in Kerala and hence it is crucial for them to consolidate whatever small inroads they have developed with the Christian community in the state.
"Very clearly, the times have changed. Kerala Christians have moved on from a time they would vote only for the Congress and even communists thought of us as political untouchables. That changed a long time ago. Now, the Christian mentality towards the BJP is changing as the party is perceived as one that stands for development. That is what we hope to build on for the future,'' says Alphons Kannanthanam, member, national executive of the BJP and one of the prominent leaders from the Christian community who brokered the deal.
CPM left red-faced
The church warming up to Shah's visit seems to have let the cat among the pigeons in the camps of CPM and the Left more than the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan launched a scathing attack on Shah on the sidelines of the party's Polit Bureau meeting in Delhi.
"BJP had tried its best to create communal violence in Kerala over the last few years. But till now, they have not succeeded. Shah's visit to Kerala should be seen in this light only. Shah only wants to create another Gujarat here and reap political dividends,'' Balakrishnan told reporters at the AKG Bhavan in New Delhi.
Political analysts say that the left certainly has more reasons to watch Shah's wooing of the Church cautiously than the Congress-led UDF. This is because the Left itself had been trying hard to woo the Christian vote which had predominantly been with UDF.
While the CPM had been able to break the deadlock at least to an extent in the last decade or so, Shah's 'social engineering', which many feel he had used very successfully for political dividends across the country, might be serious enough to push the Christian vote away from the Left again.
"If you look at the last Assembly elections, it's the CPM's vote which the BJP had eaten into in many places in the state because of the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank to some extent. In spite of that, if the Left could hold is because of the minority vote that eroded from UDF and came into their camp. So, obviously, the CPM does fear now that Shah's social engineering could break this system and they could end up on the losing side. This is precisely why the Left is taken aback at the new bonhomie between the BJP and the church,'' says CR Neelakandan, a well-known political activist in the state.
Muslims miss out
But perhaps what has surprised many political analysts is the fact that Shah has very conveniently given the leaders of the largest minority community in the state a purposeful miss.
The Muslims who form 27 percent of the total population always have a huge say in the electoral outcomes in the state and any clampdown on beef certainly affects the community in equal measure when compared with the Christians.
For the Muslims of Kerala, the present notification not only affects their eating habits but also their profession as many of them own and as well as run slaughter houses, something which seems to have been overlooked by Shah and his party men.
Perhaps the bitter lesson learned at the recently concluded Malappuram byelection, where the BJP candidate remained at the usual third position in spite of promising good beef through well-maintained slaughter houses, still haunts the party.
The Left reiterates that the Malappuram lesson has only made the BJP play more divisive politics.
"If the aim of Shah's visit was to reach out to the minorities regarding beef and other issues, why have they not met Muslim leaders, who are the biggest group in Kerala? So, it is only an attempt to play divisive politics again. They know the Muslims in Kerala won't reciprocate to their overtures so they are trying to woo the next largest group. It is all a part of their social engineering agenda,'' CPM Polit Bureau member MA Baby told Firstpost.
Updated Date: Jun 07, 2017 12:34 PM