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Why the BJP may be misreading the legacy of social reforms in Kerala

The local bodies poll, slated for November 1, would be the first test of this informal coalition of BJP and caste outfits.

Written by Amrith Lal |
Updated: October 6, 2015 7:28:24 am
BJP, social reforms Kerala, Kerala, Kerala strategy, amit shah, narendra modi, BJP kerala, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sanghom, SNDP, Ezhava community, kerala 2016 Assembly election, BJP 2016 Assembly election, Vellapally Natesan, Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, KPMS, Vaikunta Swami Dharma Pracharana Sabha, VSDP, Dheevara Sabha BJP chief Amit Shah at an election rally in Bihar (Photo by Sheela Bhatt)

Last week, the BJP indicated a course correction in its Kerala strategy. Party chief Amit Shah signalled a deal with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Sanghom (SNDP), an outfit associated with the Ezhava community, and hinted that the BJP would fight the 2016 Assembly election as part of a third front under the leadership of SNDP general secretary Vellapally Natesan. It would rope in other caste outfits like the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS), Vaikunta Swami Dharma Pracharana Sabha (VSDP), Dheevara Sabha, etc. Some of these bodies have nodded to the plan. The local bodies poll, slated for November 1, would be the first test of this informal coalition of BJP and caste outfits.

Can it provide the BJP with its first legislator in Kerala? At 78, Natesan, a liquor baron, has neither the charisma nor the credibility to head a credible alternative to the Left Front and UDF. The SNDP has an illustrious past, but its recent public record is hardly inspiring. The KPMS and VSDP are no different. What then explains Shah’s enthusiasm to sup with a motley crowd of caste chieftains and power-brokers at the risk of dampening the morale of his own party leaders?

The BJP voteshare in Lok Sabha polls and bypolls has been rising. However, its performance has plateaued in Assembly elections. Going solo in a state polarised along two broad coalitions that balance class and caste equations has not helped it grow despite the presence of a wide RSS network. Its voteshare in Assembly polls since 1991 has moved between 4.75% (in 2006) and 6% (in 2011), with a handful of candidates finishing runners-up. In Lok Sabha elections, it tends to fare better — it polled 10.45% in 2014. The BJP leadership seems to read that a broad front of caste groups could add incremental value to its performance, and help it achieve its first goal of becoming the preferred political platform of Hindus in the state.

Ironically, the biggest impediment to the BJP’s rise in Kerala is the Left, especially the CPM. The social base of the Left is predominantly Hindu, especially the numerically powerful Ezhava community. The politicisation of communitarian Hindus was the outcome of their involvement in social reform movements, land struggles and trade union initiatives. The process began in the late 19th century, when organisations developed around specific castes and against social and economic oppression, social respect and rights, and political representation. The leaderships of these organisations imbibed the progressive spirit of the times, and collaborated in the quest for a new society.

From Dalit leader Ayyankali to Brahmin reformer V T Bhattathirippad, a coalition of radical community leaders debunked caste oppression and argued for social and political reforms. Christian missionaries aided the process by spreading education and offering the prospect of religious conversion.

The social movements provided cadres and leaders to the Congress during the freedom struggle and, later, to the communists. Sree Narayana Guru, who was both a sanyasi and a social reformer, provided a template for Hindu reformation that not only denounced caste but also decommunalised the Hindu religious space. He mentored the SNDP into a radical organisation that fought for community rights and revolutionised politics in the state.

At Aruvippuram, where he consecrated a Shiva temple, he wrote: “Free of the prejudice of caste/ and religion, everyone in this exemplary abode/ lives like brothers.” Kerala’s mindscape shaped by Guru has been unresponsive to overtly casteist and communal agendas. The coalition politics that emerged in the 1960s internalised the logic of the state’s enlightenment history and negotiated communal faultlines reasonably well. The BJP’s political imagery, built around a muscular nationalism and a communal, masculine Hindutva agenda, falls outside this narrative.

For the BJP to expand, this political terrain has to change. The beneficiary of the Hindu unease with the minorities allegedly cornering political and economic benefits through communitarian politics is at present the Left. The BJP’s electoral hopes lie in the narrow margins that often decide poll outcomes in Kerala, especially in the swing seats of the south. If the likes of the SNDP win even a couple of thousand votes in every constituency in the 2016 Assembly elections, the impact could be felt in nearly three dozen seats. A second consecutive failure to win office may result in an erosion of the Left base.

However, the BJP’s strategy of marrying caste and religion may not find many takers. One, Natesan is hardly a representative leader of the Ezhavas, the immediate target group of the BJP. He pales in comparison with the likes of CPM leader V S Achuthanandan and Congress chief V M Sudheeran, even though these leaders don’t seek political redemption by championing their caste. More importantly, Narayana Guru’s legacy ceased to be the preserve of the SNDP long ago.

Two, no community in Kerala votes solely on communal lines. The SNDP and Nair Service Society (NSS) had floated parties claiming to represent the Ezhavas and Nairs in the 1970s, and failed miserably. Caste pervades Kerala politics as in other Indian states, but its operational levers are situated within the political mainstream and subsumed by the logic of the state’s welfare agenda. And new social movements have taken up the task of addressing the failures of electoral politics.

The BJP’s blueprint, however, could be for the 2021 election. In Tamil Nadu, it had reached out to a host of parties and caste outfits in the southern and western parts of the state ahead of the 2014 election. The NDA under the leadership of Vijayakanth won two seats, and over 18% votes. The BJP could benefit from any potential implosion within the AIADMK or the DMK ranks. But coalition politics in Kerala seems more stable. Moreover, the perfect script for the BJP calls for the Left to collaborate in its self-destruction.

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