Thiruvananthapuram: The Sunday verdict of the Vengara Assembly bypoll was most humiliating for BJP, which is on a mission to make inroads into deep south before the 2019 General Elections to Lok Sabha.
Many senior cabinet ministers, chief ministers (from BJP-ruled states) and national leaders have taken part in padayatras (foot marches) with its state president Kummanam Rajasekharan as part of the Janaraksha Yatra to save people (in Kerala) from “red and jihadi” terror. In fact, for the first time in an Assembly by-election in Kerala, BJP's top national and state leaders campaigned for party candidate K Janachandran Master expecting the roadshow to spin more votes, if not a sure win.
But despite a high-voltage campaign, Master could muster only 5,728 of the 122,623 votes polled, which was less than its tally of 7,015 in 2016 and 5,952 votes that the party had managed from this segment in the recent Malappuram Lok Sabha by-election.
Even more humiliating was the fact that the Social Democratic Party (SDPI), which is taking lessons from the hardline Hindutva politics that the BJP practises in Kerala, went away with more votes (8,648) mainly eating into the votes of KNA Khader, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) candidate fielded by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML).
A missed opportunity?
Hindus constitute around 25 percent of the electorate of the Muslim-dominated constituency but they too appeared to have given a cold shoulder to BJP harping on the “jihadi terror”.
Its "development" slogan also failed to enthuse voters at large hit hard by the demonetisation fiasco. There was an increase of 1,590 in total votes polled this time, and the youngsters too seem to have ignored the Hindutva bandwagon.
Many feel that BJP’s communally charged campaign helped the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) in a big way to make inroads into the IUML vote bank, unleashing a communal campaign that Muslims would be safe only under its protection.
Even some BJP supporters feel the party should stop Muslim bashing and instead engage with them constructively on issues like triple talaq and women empowerment and it should have fielded a non-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) candidate.
"I feel BJP committed a mistake in understanding the Muslim mind. The party could have highlighted issues like triple talaq which others fail to take up," said KVS Haridas, political commentator, and former editor of BJP mouthpiece in Malayalam, Janmabhoomi.
"BJP had got its traditional votes, more or less. But I feel it lost a great opportunity to field a Muslim woman candidate and make a difference from others. It should have been a real experiment for the party that is trying to expand its base in Kerala."
However, Haridas feels that the BJP’s anti-red and jihadi terror blitzkrieg with regular protest marches simultaneously on the AKG Bhavan and the CPM headquarters in the national capital is more targeted at the cowbelt than Kerala.
Muslims constitute 26.58 percent and Christians 18.33 percent in Kerala. People of all faiths live together in harmony in the state's villages and towns and has no history of communal riots.
"I have been telling the party time and again that you cannot go ahead without taking minorities into confidence in Kerala," he told Firstpost.
"I perceive this as a failure on the part of BJP. It has a lot of opportunities in Kerala joining hands with all democratic forces against the Communist tyranny, which is not allowing any political opponents function freely."
The electoral setback would not affect the ongoing statewide roadshow, said Haridas, adding that BJP national president Amit Shah will join the marchers on Tuesday, when the show ends in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.
Shah had earlier skipped a show of strength in Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan's village where many have fallen victims to revenge killings between the two groups, and speculations were rife that the BJP chief was upset with the poor response that the Yatra evoked.
It's UDF vs LDF
Abdul Nasar, a voter who runs a furniture business in Vengara town, said both CPM and SDPI of the militant Popular Front of India (PFI) benefitted from the feeling of insecurity that the BJP campaign created among the Muslims.
Both parties used the alleged lynchings by cow vigilantes in northern parts of India to whip up passions and accused Congress and its allies of a soft-Hindutva approach while BJP leaders like Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who also participated in the Janaraksha Yatra only strengthened the perception.
The warning of IUML candidate, a Communist Party of India (CPI) leader who switched sides some years ago, against the Communist dictatorship, came handy for CPM.
In the process, PP Basheer, the CPM candidate, cornered 41,917 votes, improving on his 2016 tally of 33,275, while Khader could bag only 65,227 votes, despite a sharp increase in the turnout, far below 73,804 votes his predecessor PK Kunhalikutty got.
The bypoll was necessitated after Kunhalikutty, a hugely popular leader in the district and a five-time state minister, got elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Parliament, replacing E Ahamed, who died in February.
"The CPM launched a high-decibel campaign and it appears to have paid off a little," Nasar told Firstpost.
"But more than that, Basheer is a local boy whom Kunhalikutty defeated in 2016, while Khader was new to the constituency. Both are lawyers and former comrades."
Hawks like Welfare Party of India (WPI) of the Jamaat-e-Islami professing political Islam and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Abdul Nasar, an under-trial prisoner arraigned in the 2008 Bengaluru blasts, who had together received 3,336 votes in 2016, were absent in the fray this time.
Their votes too could have gone into the CPM kitty as both want IUML's decline so as to expand their base in the Muslim heartland.
Khader, upset at the reduced margin of victory, alleged that there was a flagrant misuse of power, and that communal forces were helping each other in "their own way" and the CPM had teamed up with BJP in their campaign for a "Congress-mukt Bharat."
"I will reveal more things in the Assembly," Khader told Firstpost, adding, "I see this as a victory of secular democratic forces against the Stalinists and rightwingers."
But the criminal investigation against popular Congress leader and two-time chief minister Oommen Chandy, who had spent a lot of time in the constituency campaigning for Khader, on the polling day came as an unexpected blow to the UDF juggernaut.
Acting in haste, Vijayan instituted a high-level police investigation, based on an unpublished 1073-page report that retired justice G Sivarajan had submitted two weeks ago into the allegations of receiving "bribe and sexual favours" from a woman. The police had arrested the woman ((when Chandy was Kerala chief minister) and charged her with cheating to the tune of Rs 6.75 crore offering solar solutions in 33 cases.
The announcement at a rare press briefing by Vijayan shocked the entire state for its unprecedented magnitude, prompting the soft-spoken senior leader AK Antony to describe it as a "cheap move that fourth-grade politicians make on the polling day".
Others describe it as an act of "tying someone to a pole and whipping and giving no room to respond" as the government rejected Chandy’s request for a copy of the report which even other members of the cabinet have not reportedly seen.
Analysts feel the CPM game plan using the solar case could backfire in the long run, which might not stand in a court of law and charges of sexual assault against Chandy might not go down well with the people.
"The BJP engaged in a blatant Muslim bashing and the question put to the people was who’s the vanguard of the minorities. They shunned politics of violence," said KM Shajahan, a commentator and former private secretary of veteran CPM leader VS Achuthanandan.
"I think UDF had not lost much grounds to the CPM. But remember, Khader is not Kunhalikutty. I don’t think cheap political games like trapping opponents in sex scandals would work," he told Firstpost.
The 67-year-old two-time legislator was pitted against his one-time protege, 50-year-old Basheer, and the CPM feels he had put up a great show by reducing his rival’s winning margin.
"The good thing about this election is the fact that BJP is on the decline," Vijayan told reporters in Thiruvananthapuram. "The increased vote share of SDPI is also a cause for worry," he added.
CPM state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, who cut a sorry figure last time saying that the Malappuram by-election would be the people’s rating on its government, had refused to make any such claims this time.
Kunhalikutty had won the Malappuram by-election by a margin of 171,023 votes. In the Vengara segment, he got more than double (73,804) that his rival MB Faisal had polled (33,275), while the BJP candidate N Sreeprakash was a distant third.
In the 2016 Assembly polls, Kunhalikutty had defeated Basheer by a margin of 38,057 votes. He had garnered 72,181 votes as against Basheer’s 34,124 and 7,055 polled by BJP’s PT Ali Haji.
In the 2011 General Elections to the state Assembly, LDF candidate KP Ismayil, fielded by Indian National League (INL), had polled only 24,901 votes against Kunhalikutty’s 63,138.
Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 19:10 PM