Kerala polls: BJP gets another chance to make inroads, but prevailing in coastal state seems improbable

Even if NDA manages to win the support of majority of the Hindu votes, it may not help the alliance in winning much seats since the Hindu population is only 57 percent in the state. Of this, Ezhavas, who constitute about 24 percent of the Hindu population, is the backbone of the Communists

Ananya Srivastava March 31, 2021 07:30:41 IST
Kerala polls: BJP gets another chance to make inroads, but prevailing in coastal state seems improbable

Representational image. Reuters

Even as the BJP has commanded significant support in North India and has made inroads in East and Northeast India, the South and especially the state of Kerala has evaded the Saffron wave.

However, notwithstanding the subsequent poll losses, a look at the party's performance since the 2014 general elections show that slowly but steadily, the BJP has been building its support base in the coastal state. The party has been fortifying efforts in Kerala and has managed to improve its vote share. It has also managed to attract professionals to its folds, including former railway engineer E Sreedharan, who became famous for spearheading the construction of Konkan Railway and Delhi Metro.

From the Sabarimala issue to the allegations of 'corruption' under subsequent governments, BJP leaders are sounding the right note during the campaign trail. The party has been insisting that it can secure a win in the state even though the Left Democratic Front has refused to take the BJP as a serious contender in the poll.

"People were perceiving BJP as a non-contender to hold power. This time there is a big change. We are removing that perception and putting in all-out efforts. Therefore, the alternative of the LDF-UDF chain will be broken. Because people want a change," the party's national spokesperson Gopal Krishna Agarwal said.

Slow and steady: Rise of saffron in Kerala

The BJP in Kerala has braved many odds to make its presence felt in the state's bipolar politics, dominated for decades by the traditional coalitions-CPM-led LDF and Congress-headed UDF.

The BJP has never had an MP elected from the state of Kerala, its vote share had never gone beyond a meagre 5-6 percent and the party did not even have offices in every city council until 2014. However, since then the party has been seeing a slow rise in its vote shares across areas where previously it had no presence.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha Election, the BJP had performed abysmally, securing only 6.31 percent of the total votes polled, which was a decline of 4.07 percent when compared to the previous Lok Sabha polls.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, Kerala was one of the only states where the Narendra Modi wave failed to create any ripples and the NDA once again lost all the 20 seats it contested. However, that time around the vote share had clocked a small upswing as the alliance for the first time secured a double-digit figure (10.83 percent) in vote share.

In the 2015 local body polls, the NDA seat share improved once again as it garnered 13.28 percent of the popular votes against the LDF’s 37.36 percent and the UDF’s 37.23 percent. The NDA also won 933 of the 15,962 grama panchayat wards, 21 out of 2,076 block panchayat wards, three out of 331 district panchayat divisions, 236 out of 3,122 municipal wards and 51 out of 414 Corporation divisions, according to The Hindu.

In the 2016 Assembly polls, the NDA secured 14.96 percent votes, up from what it managed in the local body polls just a year ago. In those polls, the LDF received 43.48 percent of the votes while the UDF got 38.81 percent votes. The saffron alliance also managed to win a single Assembly seat for the first time ever as BJP veteran O Rajagopalan won the Nemom constituency by a margin of 8,671 votes.

Buoyed by this lone win and the Sabarimala controversy polarising Hindu votes to some extent, the party next faced elections in 2019 for the Lok Sabha. It failed to win even a single seat, but party candidates put up an impressive show in a few constituencies. Most notable was the performance of state BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan who lost the state capital Thiruvananthapuram to Congress' Shashi Tharoor by 7 percent votes. The NDA's overall vote share this time increased to 13 percent.

Despite the steady rise, the most recent elections — December 2020 local body polls — were a mixed bag for the saffron party.

Though compared to the 2015 civic body polls the BJP-led NDA improved its tally and added more seats to its credit, the alliance could not display a stellar performance as it had claimed during the time of campaigning.

The saffron alliance managed to win between 1,600-1,800 seats against their target to garner 2,500-3,000 seats. The BJP along with regional partners reached the second position in over 500 wards besides retaining the Palakkad municipality and wresting the Pandalam municipality from the LDF. But, its ambition to capture the prestigious Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur Corporations remained a distant dream.

The failure of some of its major leaders and the loss of many sitting seats also took the sheen off their performance at the local body polls.

In an interview with The Hinduparty leader V Muraleedharan, however, had claimed that BJP was the only party to have improved its vote share in the local body polls.

Winning Kerala uphill task for BJP

Despite the steady gains in vote share, as discussed above, the BJP is still some distance away from breaking the see-saw control of the state which alternates between LDF and UDF.

Even when the BJP tried to capitalise the Sabarimala issue, laying all the groundwork and organising campaigns against the Supreme Court verdict allowing women's entry into the shrine, it was the Congress-led UDF that reaped the benefits by simply sharing the saffron stance, winning 19 of the state's 20 Lok Sabha seats.

The BJP's pro-Hindu stand on all issues at the national level also seems to be proving counter-productive to its cause in Kerala.

According to an analysis of 2019 Lok Sabha results published in Firstpost, even if the NDA manages to win the support of the majority of the Hindu votes, it may not help the alliance win as many seats since the Hindu population is only 57 percent in the state.

Of this, Ezhavas, who constitute about 24 percent of the Hindu population, is the backbone of the Communists. The NDA has not been able to wean away the hardcore Left supporters from the LDF, even after forging an alliance with the community’s political arm, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS).

The Nair Service Society (NSS), a community organisation of the upper caste Nairs who form 16 percent of the Hindu population, has been turning their back to the BJP, saying they don’t want to be identified as a Sangh Parivar outfit.

The Nair community, which was critical of the chief minister’s hasty decision to implement the Supreme Court verdict in Sabarimala, seems to have opted for the UDF which opposed the LDF stand without shedding blood.

This has been quite a trend in the uniquely multicultural society of the state. Whenever a group or community has a grouse against the party in power, they have always found support in the Opposition and rallied behind their leaders in the next election. This and the alienation of minorities — who constitute 43 percent of the state's population  — elsewhere in India has made the BJP's job difficult in the state.

This is not only visible in the party's performance in terms of hard wins, but in other ways as well.

The party which routinely poaches heavyweight leaders from rival camps in other states has been unable to make a similar dent in UDF and LDF in Kerala. Furthermore, top BJP leaders have also been making fewer rounds to Kerala as compared to West Bengal where the BJP anticipates a win on more seats.

Three tactical errors

Besides, the BJP made a few tactical errors early on in this campaign, which may take some sheen off their performance this time.

The first such mistake was the failure to mollify the PC Thomas-led faction of Kerala Congress, which quit NDA and merged with the UDF ally, PJ Joseph faction of the party. The party quit the NDA fold after its demand for three seats were rejected.

Secondly, the party got a rude shock when the nomination papers of three of its candidates in the Thalassery, Guruvayur and Devikulam constituencies were rejected by the Election Commission on the grounds that they did not have the signature of the state BJP president.

Of these, the Thalassery constituency was crucial as it was one of the few seats the BJP hoped to bring into the saffron fold as in the 2016 polls, BJP candidate VK Sajeevan had managed to secure 22,125 votes even though he finished third.

Amit Shah was scheduled to address a rally in Thalassery, which had to be cancelled following the fiasco.

Thirdly, a major setback for the party was the attack on nuns in Uttar Pradesh, allegedly by ABVP workers, which was immediately taken up by the ruling party in Kerala. Although Shah promised strict action against the perpetrators but the damage was done by Vijayan's letter in this regard, which was widely reported in the national and state media.

The party had been working hard since 2014 to capitalise on the disenchantment among Christian leaders over the growing influence of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in the UDF in Kerala.

The BJP had even inducted many prominent Christians from the state in the NDA and rewarded them with positions in the government and the party organisation.

Furthermore, RSS had set up a Christian Rashtriya Manch whose chief and BJP spokesman Tom Vadakkan had made several efforts to rally church leaders for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to share their concerns about minority welfare benefits being cornered by the Muslims and the alleged rise in ‘love jihad’ cases.

"Through the special outreach programme, we have also explained every detail of the Citizenship Amendment Act to religious leaders and cleared their apprehensions about the flow of international funds to NGOs and church affiliates. These are being reviewed by concerned agencies on a case to case basis,"  Vadakkan had told India Today in December 2020.

These factors included, the BJP may be far off from its dream of making inroads in Kerala.

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