After two months of frenzied discussions with the BJP state unit and the local RSS, the national leadership of the party last week decided to anoint PS Sreedharan Pillai as the state president in Kerala for the second time. Up against two formidable coalitions led by the CPM and the Congress, the BJP in Kerala has in the past struggled to get its message out to the voters. Registering acceptance among the Muslim and Christian communities, which together account for 45 per cent of the votes in Kerala, has also been a major challenge for the saffron party. With the parliamentary elections less than a year away, Pillai, a known face on TV debates, has an onerous task on his hands. Just days after his appointment as the state chief, Pillai sat down with indianexpress.com to explain the roadmap he has drawn for his party’s future.
Q. What are your immediate objectives upon taking over as president of the BJP state unit in Kerala?
A: In the next three elections – 2019 Lok Sabha polls, 2020 local body elections and 2021 Assembly elections, I want to ensure the party improves and moves into a commanding position so that in 2021, Kerala can become a BJP-ruled state. For that, I have to expand the BJP’s base, strengthen the NDA, reach new areas and constituents. I am optimistic that the party can achieve these things.
Q. What are the main challenges that the BJP faces in Kerala?
A: The two opposition coalitions have a political history of more than 40 years. During the last 40 years, Kerala happened to be the experimental place of coalition politics. CPM is a cadre party, they have muscle, money and political power. They are always trying to eliminate us from Kerala, both physically and politically. That’s one of the main challenges. We are able to face it bravely. BJP has got a very good manpower in Kerala even though our assembly representation is too meagre. By and large, the minorities are afraid of joining BJP because UDF and LDF in a systematic way has created a fear psychosis in the mind of the minority community. We are trying to remove it. I have got experience as a BJP worker. While I was the president of the party from 2003-06, there was the 2004 parliamentary polls. Among the Malayalis, two NDA candidates were elected, one from Muvattupuzha and the other from Lakshwadeep. Lakshwadeep consists of majority Muslim population. There, the NDA was victorious defeating the Congress. In Kerala, we were able to win Muvattupuzha under the banner of NDA. We got 13% votes at that time, that was a record. So minorities opted for Atal Bihari Vajpayee. During that period, Vajpayee was depicted as fascist, as anti-minority and communal. Even then, we were victorious. As president of the state unit, my team knows how to tackle the situation and get minority votes.
Q. How do you plan to get the votes of minorities, especially the Christian community?
A: Recently, I contested the election in Chengannur. There, in many places, I got votes of minorities in plenty. In a place called Kollamkadavu, I just got 37 votes in 2016. In that booth, all the voters are Muslim. This year, in the bye-election, I was in second position with more than 200 votes. So it is possible. As a BJP leader and worker, we are able to do that.
Q. Chengannur is considered a place where the RSS has a solid base. How did you lose then?
A: RSS has a base everywhere in Kerala. In 2011, I got 6000 votes which jumped four-times to 42,000 in 2016. This time, because the BDJS did not support us, we got only 36000 votes.
Q. So you’re saying the BJP’s core vote remains?
A: Yes, obviously. In every constituency, we have the core vote but that’s not sufficient to win an election. That’s why we are in search of additional votes.
Q. Do you regret that you couldn’t bring the BDJS on board?
A: After I became the president, both BDJS general secretary Subhash Basu and our leader, O Rajagopal were giving sweets to me. BDJS leaders accompanied me when I travelled in Kuttanad area to evaluate the flood situation.
Q. When you were the state president during 2003-06, you dealt with national presidents at the time – Venkaiah Naidu, LK Advani and Rajnath Singh. How is the current party president, Amit Shah, different from them?
A: Amit Shah is one of the best organisers I have seen. He is talented in organising things. Atal ji, Advani ji and Venkaiah ji were also instrumental in organising. But their work is more related to speeches and ideological aspects. Amit Shah is a pakka organiser, he is an organisation man. At the same time, he is applying his mind, studying things and concentrating on the other side, penetrating into them and making sudden changes. A classic example is Tripura, where in the 2013 election, we polled less than 2% votes. Now, we are ruling Tripura with a thumping majority. So it’s all about strategy.
Q. In several states, we have seen Congress leaders defecting to the BJP in large numbers. But so far, here in Kerala, we haven’t seen that. Why do you think so?
A: Tomorrow morning, we will start it, all the arrangements are made (smiles). I have made my own contacts and I will be able to do that.
Q. So is there any senior leader of the Congress who has got in touch with you?
A: (Smiles) That’s part of our strategy, I can’t disclose that to you. For a political party, there are two aspects. One is tathwadhistidha nilapadu (ideological stand), there is no compromise on that. The other aspect is nayam (strategy). Strategy is subject to change. We have a lot of committed workers. Without any change to ideology, we are going to concentrate on strategy. With that strategy, we hope we will be able to win new entrants to the BJP. Former Congress ministers, UDF ministers, state level leaders from both fronts, we are expecting them to say goodbye to their party and joining the BJP/NDA.
Q. You have been appointed post a two-month gap after Kummanam Rajasekharan was appointed as the Governor of Mizoram. Why did it take so long for the party to declare its state president?
A: It is natural, the central leadership wanted to apply its mind. We are ruling India, power in more than 20 states, so many elections in the meantime. The national president studied things. I am not an aspirant for any post. I never approached anybody.
Q. You are seen as the moderate face of the party, someone who doesn’t belong to either of the two major factions within the state unit. Do you see that as an advantage working for you?
A: Maybe, maybe. As a president, I have got ample publicity. Everyone is welcoming me as the president of the party. I follow ideology-based politics. It is a service to the people, the nation. I have never stood in line for any post. The party insisted me to contest in the bypoll, they asked me to become the president, that’s why I had a presumption of my appointment. I hope to make remarkable change through the cooperation of my colleagues.
Q. Both the CPM and the Congress argue that the Centre has ignored the interests of Kerala. For example, in the Lok Sabha, when Congress MP Shashi Tharoor asked the Union Health Minister about the setting of the AIIMS, the minister said there is no such proposal.
A: I want to ask Shashi Tharoor, they had eight cabinet ministers in the UPA and AK Antony as chief minister, what did they do for the people of Kerala. Has there been a railway minister like O Rajagopal? Everyone’s accepting that. Who has given as much for Kerala as the previous Vajpayee government? They want to make a political mileage out of the shadow fight with the Centre. After 1956, in any field, be it agricultural, industrial, export field, has Kerala gone up? Cultivation of paddy, tapioca, sugarcane, eggs, have these fields improved after 1956? Kerala is existing because of the money-order economy. Suppose, tomorrow, if it stops, what will be the fate of Kerala? They only know agitation, making controversies. Opportunities in Gulf are decreasing every day. Kerala is a high-cost economy, can a high-cost economy through its products compete with the outside world? These things need immediate attention, we will educate the public and convince them about the wrongs here. Both the fronts are communal and corrupt.
Q. What do you plan to do about the running feud with the CPM? How will you try to eliminate the political killings, especially in Kannur?
A: Prior to the starting of work of RSS, Kerala had a history of political murders. That’s why Nehru was forced to use article 356 because of the worst law and order situation here. That’s the tradition of the Communist party. If they want to stop it, if they decide within 24 hours, these political murders can stop. We are ready to cooperate with anybody, we have decided to discuss with them if they are ready. I don’t want to be a beggar, but if they want, we are offering a sincere effort to discuss.