BJP's Kerala strategy faces Thiruvananthapuram litmus test; picking right candidate against Shashi Tharoor key
Winning Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat is crucial for BJP as it will not only end the party's long wait for a Lok Sabha member from Kerala but could also trigger an exodus of people from both the Congress and CPM to BJP
Winning Thiruvananthapuram is crucial for BJP because it will not only end its long wait for LS seat but also trigger exodus of people from Congress and CPM to BJP
A win will also enable Kerala BJP to keep Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in good humour since it will prove that their frequent visits to the state weren't futile
The daunting question facing the saffron party, however, is: who can beat Tharoor’s larger than life image?
A string of names including Nirmala Sitharaman, Subramanian Swami, actor Mohanlal and state BJP president PS Sreedharan Pillai is doing the round
As for CPM, superstar Mammootty has emerged as the top priority
With Congress’ Shashi Tharoor getting ready for his third term in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, BJP and CPM-led LDF are on a mad hunt to find the best candidate against him.
The BJP is confident to wrest the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency from Tharoor, who defeated BJP veteran O Rajagopal by a whisker in the last election. Even pre-poll predictions by psephologists suggest near-sure victory of the BJP in the crucial constituency.
Winning the Thiruvananthapuram constituency is crucial for the BJP because it will not only end the party's long wait for its maiden Lok Sabha member from the state but could also trigger an exodus of people from both the Congress and CPM to BJP.
Moreover, the win will enable the state BJP leadership to keep Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah in good humour since it will prove that their frequent visits of the state during the past couple of years haven’t gone futile.
The Modi-Shah duo that has succeeded in hoisting the BJP's flag in the politically tough terrain of Kashmir is said to be upset with the Kerala BJP as Modi and Shah's efforts to penetrate the Left citadel hasn't produced any tangible results. The outcome of the constituency, therefore, is the litmus test for the BJP's Kerala strategy too.
The Sabarimala episode is certainly going to bring a windfall for the BJP in the state capital city. The dastardly killing of two young Congress workers, allegedly by CPM, its recent harassment of two young upright woman officers — IAS and an IPS officers — and the anti-incumbency factors against the LDF government are likely going to bring in some extra votes for the saffron party. The ground condition, it would seem, is very much conducive for BJP.
The daunting question facing the saffron party, however, is: which BJP leader can win the seat for the party? Who can beat Tharoor’s larger than life image?
Making things difficult for the BJP, Tharoor has already enlarged his footprint in the constituency. He is highly visible in all the mega-state functions in the state capital, where he plays the role of the state ambassador. Unlike the last election, there are no allegations against Tharoor either to mar his image. Congress will certainly project him as a potential Cabinet minister candidate if Congress wins the election.
The ever-smiling BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai, however, prefers to laugh it off.
"We know the strength and weakness of the Congress candidate. BJP has a good pool of leaders, who are strong enough to take on any opposition candidate. We will announce our Thiruvananthapuram candidate at the appropriate time,’’ Pillai said.
The RSS faction in the state unit, however, doesn't seem to agree with Pillai. It insists the state leadership bring a big-ticket national leader if no one in the state is capable of giving Tharoor a run for his money.
"Last time, the seat slipped through our fingers. This time we cannot afford to lose it. Now we are more comfortable. If we miss the bus this time just because of the candidate, it will be a crippling blow to the party. So, a winnable candidate should be the focus. If no one cannot be found from the state, bring in from outside," a state-level RSS said.
Various power centres in the BJP state unit have proposed different names. A string of names including those of defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, maverick BJP leader Subramanian Swami, BJP Rajya Sabha member and millionaire-businessman Rajiv Chandrasekhar, Meghalaya governor Kummanom Rajasekharan, superstar Mohanlal as well as Pillai is doing the round as potential candidate against Tharoor.
The indication is that Sitharaman tops the list. The party's state leadership was impressed by her handling of an unruly crowd in a coastal village near Thiruvananthapuram nearly two years ago during her visit to villages affected by Cyclone Ockhi. Hundreds of fishers had lost their lives after officials failed to alert them in advance on the looming cyclone.
The death of the kin and the inaction of officials turned the people so violent that their villages became inaccessible even for the state ministers. Sitharaman was greeted by a ferocious crowd during her visit to one of the cyclone-affected villages. Her repeated request in chaste Tamil to let her listen to their woes finally worked wonder. The crowd became silent and a fruitful interaction took place. She won the heart of the locals and established a rapport with their community leaders.
In the last election, Tharoor was trailing behind Rajagopal till the last moment. He managed to win only due to the votes from the coastal areas. The BJP thinks that Sitharaman can win at least a portion of the coastal votes and thus the seat can be grabbed by the party.
If Sitharaman says no to their request, the party will look at Swami. They rely on his sharp brain and words to checkmate Tharoor. This apart, Swami’s stance in the Sunanda Pushkar death case, the Kerala BJP hopes, would make a psychological impact on Tharoor. And the combined effect would tilt the balance in their favour.
Rajiv Chandrasekhar is a known Keralaite and owns the most viewed Malayalam news TV channel.
The BJP state leadership has also put out feelers to superstar Mohanlal who was recently decorated with Padma Vibhushan by the Modi government. The actor is half-minded on the offer. Though Mohanlal, the five-time winner of National Film Award, reiterates that he has no plan to contest an election, sources close to him hint that he is weighing all the pros and cons of the offer.
If the Kerala BJP’s efforts to rope in Mohanlal don't materialise, its next choice is Suresh Gopi, the party’s nominated MP from the state. Gopi, however, claims he is not aware whether his name has been shortlisted.
"I am frankly saying I haven’t been told by anyone in the party that my name is being considered. I have come to know about it from the media," he told reporters.
The MP, however, says that he is a disciplined party worker and duty bound to shoulder any responsibility assigned to him by the party.
Gopi, however, is yet to fully metamorphose into a seasoned politician. His public speeches, though remind one of his film dialogue deliveries, often give enough fodder for his critics to troll him. Besides, a large section in the BJP state unit sees him as an imported leader. He has not been much visible in party functions and does not have grassroots support either. Many senior state BJP leaders still frown over the central leadership's decision to grant him a Rajya Sabha membership. The state leaders believe that the central leadership must have been misguided on the advantages of bringing him into the party leadership.
Meghalaya governor Kummanam Rajasekhara, the former party chief in the state, is a clean, straight and silent politician but not a strong player in parliamentary politics. He is said to have been thrown out from the party post as he could not become as aggressive as his big boss in Delhi demanded. His track record in electoral politics too is pretty bad. He lost all the polls he had contested. But the former VHP leader is backed by some senior RSS leaders.
Enjoying the support of a strong section in the party and RSS, Pillai also managed to find a place in the list. He too couldn’t win an election, though he came a close second in the last Assembly election at his home constituency of Chengannur.
"I have sent all the names with the state leadership’s comments to the Centre. Now the ball is in their court. They have a system in place by which they will calibrate the winnability of each of them and accordingly take the final decision,’’ Pillai said.
Meanwhile, the LDF is in utter confusion. Since the inception of the LDF, the seat was allotted to CPI, the second largest partner of the front. But victory has eluded it most of the times in the constituency. The last time CPM won the seat was in the 2005 bypoll. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, CPI not only brought a humiliating defeat for the LDF by finishing a poor third behind Congress and BJP but also kicked up an ugly row. It was alleged that the CPI had sold the seat. The truth is not yet fully unravelled.
The party candidate Bennet Abraham, a doctor by training and an investor by profession, was not a party man. It was only when he was made the candidate that many, even in the party, heard about him. These facts added credence to the allegation. Now the air is thick with rumours that CPM is eyeing the seat. Whereas, the CPI says that it has no plan to swap the seat. Perhaps, unable to withstand the big brother’s arm-twisting tactics, CPI may concede the demand. Whether it is CPM or CPI, the option is limited. They have to bring in an outsider to effectively check Tharoor in the battle of the ballot.
"What is the benchmark of the candidate? If it is only politics there are several people in both the Communist parties. But if they are looking for an all-rounder, I am not able to spot anyone in either of the two parties. They have no option, but to field a popular figure as an Independent candidate," said Joseph Mathew, political commentator and IT advisor of former chief minister VS Achuthanandan.
CPM is not sure of getting the seat from CPI, yet it has started shortlisting names, say party insiders. Superstar Mammootty is their first priority. Dubbing artiste and woman activist Bhagyaleskshi is also in their radar. Mammootty who is not even a CPM sympathiser is very close to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The actor has been the chairman of the board of the party’s TV channel, promoted mainly with funds from party comrades, for the past several years.
CPI, however, is not in haste to kick-start its operation to identify the candidate. "Let us finish the seat-sharing talks first,’’ was the reaction of CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran.
BJP is under more pressure than Congress and LDF to win the race. But the victory for the party solely depends on the candidate they chose to field against Tharoor.
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