The lukewarm response Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s roadshow — Janaraksha Yatra — in Kerala received this week and party chief Amit Shah's decision to abandon subsequent events leaving the state leaders in the lurch proved the saffron party had to do a lot of homework on India's most literate state.
On Thursday, Shah was to participate in an 11-km padayatra (foot march) through Pinarayi, the village of chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, a scene of revenge killings between the BJP and the state's ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the cadres were upbeat at the prospects of storming the "rival bastion." Shah's sudden withdrawal cast a pall on them and its state president Kummanam Rajasekharan, who leads the show, had to struggle with words to explain.
The march planned as a buildup for the general elections, which is one and a half years away, started off on a wrong foot with its most powerful ally Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) keeping away stating that the National Democratic Alliance is yet to make an impact in the state. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's campaign on the second day, harping on about his pet theme of "love jihad", added only insult to injury keeping the social media abuzz with comparisons of communal harmony prevailing in his state and that of Kerala.
While Shah flagged off a state-wide roadshow to "save people" from the "red and Jihadi terror" in the northern town of Payyanur on Wednesday with much fanfare, local media looked the other way. They were busy with the minute-by-minute coverage of the high court granting bail to superstar Dileep and the procedures at the lower court for his release and reactions of his fans, despite Shah joining the walkers led by Rajasekharan covering a distance of eight-kilometres on foot.
"With Amit Shah leaving them halfway, the Janaraksha Yatra has become a funeral procession," taunted Congress party's Ramesh Chennithala, the Opposition Leader in the State Legislative Assembly. "This is Kerala and people are politically conscious and vigilant against such tricks to divide them, on religious lines. Shah appears to have realised it within a day of his walk among the people."
Many feel people gave the BJP show the cold shoulder because of its over-emphasis on violence, which the BJP and the ruling CPM are more or less responsible for, and they thought the BJP was trying to present a grim picture of their state.
"It appears the BJP had mobilised people even from the neighbouring Karnataka state for its national president's roadshow and there were skirmishes in many areas right from the morning," said writer CV Balakrishnan, who hails from Payyanur, where two BJP workers and a CPM man were killed since Vijayan assumed office.
"The BJP national leaders have their strategy wrong on Kerala, and they have a lot of misconceptions. It's not easy to break the state's tradition of bipolar politics on communal lines since the minorities for almost half the population. It's hard to sell the Hindutva brand here beyond certain limits," he told Firstpost.
A video clip, which is being shared on social media, shows rallyists, apparently hired north Indian labourers who replace the Gulf-bound migrants in the state in large numbers, chanting "Jai CPM". A picture showed a man wearing a T-shirt carrying a sketch of Argentine Marxist revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevera.
The campaign painting Kerala as the cradle of jihadi terror and putting the state in a bad light has also prompted traditional rivals CPM and Congress close ranks against the propaganda.
"We will stand united and resist the move to misrepresent the state for a few isolated incidents. People of all faiths live together peacefully in our villages and towns, and there are no such issues as made out to be," said senior Congress leader Oommen Chandy.
"We'll together resist any attempt to tarnish our image."
Analysts also feel that the campaign has, in fact, boomeranged on the BJP with Adityanath criticising the state government for fever-related deaths, exaggerating the numbers, which brought the state's achievements in human development indicators, including universal health care education, into sharp focus.
"I think the BJP strategists had committed grave mistakes in understanding the mind of Kerala. The happiness level is much high here and the religious harmony it has been maintaining for centuries is lauded world over," said political commentator Jacob George.
"I don't think the destructive politics would help the BJP grow in a state like Kerala in any way. They should rework on their strategies now if they want to make any inroads into its multifaith society. You cannot mobilise votes as you do in UP or Bihar," he told Firstpost.
The BJP and its allies in the NDA had a vote share of only 6.06 percent in the 2011 Assembly elections, but it has been going up steadily.
In the 2014 elections, it went up to 10.88 percent and the last year it clocked an all-time high of 14.8 percent and opened its account in the Assembly elections.
The BJP could add two new parties to NDA, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) representing the powerful Hindu Ezhava community, the backbone of the CPI (M) in Kerala, and firebrand tribal leader CK Janu's Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS).
Though Janu was present at its flagging off BDJS president Thushar Vellappally kept away saying he had other commitments. The party's mentor Vellappally Nateshan, his father and general secretary of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, has already gone on record saying it should sever ties with the BJP and align with the CPI (M).
The elevation of Alphons Kannanthanam, who had a good rapport with all denominations of the church in Kerala as a minister of state with independent charge, did not go down well with the BDJS. The church leaders, known for their pragmatic approach and had immense contributions to the state's envious position in universal education and healthcare, have all hailed his elevation. But few believe it would help BJP to gain electorally.
The predominantly Christian Kerala Congress (M), which had severed ties with the Congress after the last year's elections and since been making overtures to both the CPM and the BJP, was quick to condemn statements of BJP leaders at the roadshow, reminding them "such divisive politics will not sell in Kerala."
"Kerala society is more aware of the games the politicians play and they see through their deceptions. With this Yatra, BJP's efforts to place itself as a centrist force in Kerala has fallen flat," says Jacob George. "BJP gained in the last elections because the youngsters had a lot of expectations from the Modi administration that it would fuel economic growth and bring jobs to them. That's very important for a state like Kerala where young graduates find it difficult to get a job. They are getting impatient. Hindutva alone will not satisfy them."
BJP had, he feels, since lost a lot of face after the Medical College Scam, where leaders allegedly took money promising Medical Council of India (MCI) affiliation, a young leader getting arrested for printing fake banknotes and another booked for temple fund fraud. "They have lost a chance to position itself as a party with a difference. Instead, the Kerala BJP leaders are as bad as, even worse, than leaders of the dominant political formations in the state," says Balakrishnan.
"Moreover, the clan mentality is powerful in Kerala, especially in Kannur district where chief minister Vijayan and CPM secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan come from. It is difficult to wean them away."
There were 14 killings between the two this year, and a majority of them were BJP workers. Many fear more violence during the 15-day tour as the two were fighting to maintain supremacy in their strongholds. The show is progressing under heavy police protection.
Several national leaders, including senior ministers Nirmala Sitharaman, Ananth Kumar, Smriti Irani, Dharmendra Pradhan and Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, were to join the Yatra at various places and Shah was to join the walkers from Sreekariyam to Putharikandam grounds, the venue of the public meeting, in the state capital on the concluding day (17 October).
"The BJP cannot win Kerala without taking all sections of society including those having different faiths into confidence. Hindutva ideology would prove a burden on them," added George. Kerala is 26.56 Muslim and 18.38 Christian and the Communists, the largest political bloc, are traditionally agnostic.
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