Still to open account in Kerala, a familiar face gives BJP an unfamiliar edge this time

Indeed, as Kerala goes to polls on May 16, the BJP is banking heavily on this image of former Union minister O Rajagopal.

Written by Liz Mathew | Nemom | Updated: April 25, 2016 10:50:14 am
Kerala, Kerala assembly polls, Kerala elections 2016, kerala elections, kerala elections news, kerala BJP, bjp kerala Rajagopal, kerala bjp Rajagopal, kerala news, india news Outside a Bharatiya Janata Party campaign office in Nemom. (Source: Liz Mathew)

“Rajettan is a noble person, he doesn’t harm anyone. He deserves to win at least this election,” says Prashant, 45, a loyal supporter of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Nemom, using the word “chettan” (elder brother) to refer to the rival candidate.

Indeed, as Kerala goes to polls on May 16, the BJP is banking heavily on this image of former Union minister O Rajagopal, the face of the party in the state for more than two decades, to create history. For, the party ruling the Centre is yet to open its account in a legislative or parliamentary election in the state.

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And if Rajagopal wins Nemom, it will be a turning point in the 87-year-old veteran’s political life that tasted the bitterness of defeat six times from Mancheri in 1989 to the Aruvikkara by-election in last year.

“He has an edge,” said Nadirshah, who sells aquariums in Nemom, on the outskirts of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. A few metres away, Shanmughan, a diehard Communist, laughs at that claim. “Comrade Sivankutty (the CPI-M’s sitting MLA V Sivankutty) has been with the people of Nemom whenever they needed him. No one can defeat him here,” he said.

Rajagopal’s supporters in Thiruvananthapuram, too, are uncertain about the outcome. “You never know. In Kerala, things will change in the last two days of campaigning. You cannot trust this lot (supporters of UDF and LDF),” said Vijayaramani, a middle-aged woman who runs a stationary shop.

Among the five Assembly elections in April-June, it’s a high-stakes campaign for the BJP in Kerala. Bagging a seat or even more in this politically-polarised state will be a major achievement for the party, which is in alliance here with the newly formed caste-oriented Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS).

BJP chief Amit Shah and his team has been on this mission for over a year. One of the BJP’s candidates from Thiruvananthapuram is cricketer Sreesanth, apparently as part of a bid to bolster its youth-friendly image, and just last week, it nominated Malayalam filmstar Suresh Gopi to the Rajya Sabha.

“Gopi’s nomination is an indication of how serious the BJP is about Kerala,” said Rajiv Pratap Rudy, the Union Minister in charge of Kerala, while launching the party’s visual media campaign in the state.

Yet, it’s a delicate balancing act for the BJP, different from its approach in other states. Here, it has to appeal equally to minorities — 28.56 per cent Muslims and 18.38 per cent Christians — as well as Hindus. And that’s reflected in its campaign speeches, ad films and hoardings, all of which offer an alternative from the Congress-led UDF or the CPI-M-led LDF, which have taken turns to rule the state for decades. Hence this message: ‘Vazhi Muttiya Keralam, Vazhi Kattan BJP (Kerala is losing its way, BJP will show its way)’.

The party also had to refrain from raising many Hindu-centric issues, which have been the highlight of its campaign in other Opposition-ruled states, be it the ban on cow slaughter or beef, the entry of women in the Sabarimala shrine and the controversy over control of the estimated Rs. 1.5 trillion assets of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple.

According to a party coordinator in Nemom, workers have even been strictly told not to rake up issues such as chanting the slogan ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. “We have been told by RSS leaders not to ask anyone to raise slogans like ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ or ‘Vande Mataram’ or entertain any debate on such issues,” he said.

BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan admits that his party “cannot demand a ban on cow slaughter” in Kerala. Asked about the beef ban, he spoke about protection of “cattle wealth”. “Cattle population has come down from 30 lakh to 9 lakh in the state. You cannot go on killing them because it will disrupt the ecological imbalance,” Rajasekharan told The Indian Express.

Rajagopal, meanwhile, believes that the BJP’s attempts to remove “fear” in the minds of minorities would be successful. “The old notions that the BJP is against minorities have vanished. People have seen how the Narendra Modi government is launching programmes for all sections. There has been no discrimination in the name of religion and the false propaganda has not worked in Kerala. The recent election results have proved that,” said Rajagopal, referring to the 15 per cent votes the BJP bagged in the last local elections.

Here, the party believes that corruption charges and scandals involving the Congress and UDF would help the party. Leaders say the alliance with the Ezhava community’s Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP)-backed BDJS has removed the “untouchability” of the BJP. The coalition has also taken in smaller allies, some of them erstwhile constituents of the UDF.

But there’s still a long way to go. More so, with a section of the Christian community, which voted for Narendra Modi’s development plank in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, disturbed by campaigns like ‘Ghar Wapasi’ and ‘Love Jihad’. “I may not be a religious person. But when I see a priest or a nun being attacked because of their work for the poor, I build a mental block against this party,” said a prominent Christian figure in Thiruvananthapuram, who did not wish to be identified.

Political experts say the BJP’s attempts to “polarise voters on communal lines”, or a Hindu consolidation with the dominant Nair and Ezhava communities rallying behind the BJP, has not succeeded. “A particular polarisation has been introduced by Vellappally Nadesan (the SNDP leader) for Ezhavas. But the question of how far he represents their psyche remains,” said writer and political analyst Paul Zacharia.

“It looks like the BJP has failed to create any kind of across the class/ caste appeal in the state. Thiruvananthapuram could be different. They may not have been able to get the entire Hindu community together, but this being a place of traditionalists, some sectors seem to have got together,” he said.

Contrary to projections, voters in Thiruvananthapuram do not seem to be bothered about the controversies involving the Oommen Chandy-led UDF government. Corruption is an issue that disturbs an average voter but not many are ready to give the BJP an advantage solely on this plank. The flip side, of course, is the number of voters who want to see a change in the pattern – the UDF and the LDF ruling the state alternatively — may be on the rise.

Social scientist M A Oommen says the BJP’s emergence in Kerala is a “reflection of the inefficiency of the two parties (Congress and Left) in convincing people that they genuinely stand for the common good, public welfare and social justice”.

“People in Kerala have not had the opportunity of seeing how the BJP performs. Some people want to give them a chance,” he said.