In the Pathanamthitta constituency of Kerala, the BJP failed to cash in on the Hindu sentiments it had whipped up over the Sabarimala entry row. Party candidate K Surendran, who spent three weeks in jail for his involvement in the agitation, was able to improve the party’s vote-share significantly from 16 per cent in 2014 to 29 per cent, but still lost out to sitting Congress MP Anto Antony. LDF candidate Veena George came second and Surendran third.
In this election, Kerala, once again, proved to be an infertile territory for the growth of the BJP as it was unsuccessful in opening its account in the state. On the sidelines of the party’s core committee meeting in Alappuzha, called to introspect on the results, Surendran, the state general secretary of the party, spoke to indianexpress.com at length to discuss the polls.
What are the factors, in your opinion, that led to your defeat in Pathanamthitta?
There are two factors: one, there were fears among the minority community that we would win, so their votes went to the UDF. Among the Hindu community, there were doubts about our chances of victory. They were afraid whether Veena George, a candidate of the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan who wanted women to enter Sabarimala, would end up winning. So, our evaluation is that a fear psychosis in both majority and minority communities led to our defeat. In the last election, we didn’t have enough votes to win. We got just 1.38 lakh votes. So among Hindus, there were doubts whether we would lose. So we didn’t get as many Hindu votes as we expected. There was also a minority consolidation (against us).
Didn’t you expect these factors during your campaign?
Absolutely. The public had a feeling that it was impossible to reach 3.5 lakh votes from 1.38 lakh votes. But now that we’ve reached close to 3 lakh votes, they now know that we could have won. The confidence and optimism that our cadre had, somehow the Hindu community did not.
Do you agree that there were mistakes on your part during the campaign?
No, I don’t think so. In Thiruvananthapuram, we have a vote-base. We have been maintaining over 30% vote in the last four elections consistently. In Pathanamthitta, our vote-margin was below 15%. So going from 15% to 35% is tough.
You got around 29% of the votes. What was your expectation?
We were expecting 33-34% of the votes to win. In the last few weeks, other factors crept in.
In all Assembly segments barring one, the LDF has come second behind the UDF. Wasn’t that a shock?
In all constituencies barring Adoor, our fight was with the UDF. UDF was our rival, not LDF. In Konni, the difference between second and third positions is just 300 votes.
Even with the entry of PC George, the Independent MLA from Poonjar, into the NDA, it didn’t make a difference?
The vote-base (of George) is Christian and Muslim votes. In a short span of time, it was difficult to convince them.
The allegation was that the BJP only talked about Sabarimala, not development issues.
No, no. We talked about development issues, like post-flood situation, under-developed roads and hospitals. But the main issue was Sabarimala. How do you figure we got 1.6 lakh additional votes without the impact of Sabarimala? The UDF was able to increase just 32,000 votes. We got an increase of 1.6 lakh votes.
The main problem that BJP encounters in Kerala is that you’re not getting enough votes to cross the finishing line. This time, you came close in Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta, but unable to win. What’s the problem?
This is the problem. We’re not able to build up a confidence that we will win among the general masses. In the next election (in Pathanamthitta), no one will have doubts because we have 3 lakh votes now. To go from 3 lakh to 3.5 lakh is not a herculean task. To record an increase of 1.6 lakh votes is unimaginable. Even when BJP voters say we will win, the general public is asking us how we will win. But now, we’re confident. If 40,000 votes didn’t go to (Congress candidate) Anto, we could have won.
Did you feel that your party’s call for frequent shutdowns and violence affected your party prospects?
No, no. Look at the panchayat of Perunad in which Sabarimala is located. For the first time in history, we had a lead of 4000 votes there. In Pandalam municipality, we crossed 10,000 votes. In 20 panchayats in Pathanamthitta, we have a lead. In 20 other panchayats, we are in second position.
But the Congress also showed a favourable position on Sabarimala…
Naturally, they have gained. Look at the other constituencies. Votes, as a result of Sabarimala sentiments, have gone majorly to the Congress. Everyone wanted to teach the LDF a lesson, their best alternative to defeat the CPM was Congress. In Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram, the vote-margins (as a result of Sabarimala) reduced in our favour. That’s why we couldn’t win. In places like Kannur and Attingal, the winds of the Hindu faithful went against the LDF. Also, among minorities, there were fears that BJP would win a few seats, an anti-Modi sentiment.
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Do you concede that you didn’t get the expected support from the two main Hindu communities – Nairs and Ezhavas?
Among Nairs and Ezhavas, we got sizeable support, but it was not as per our expectations. If we had gotten complete support, we could have won.
Were there mistakes during the campaign on the part of the state leadership? Statements made by PS Sreedharan Pillai adversely affected party prospects?
No, no. Nothing like that.
What happened in Thiruvananthapuram?
In Thiruvananthapuram, there were undercurrents among the Christian and Muslim communities in favour of the UDF. We didn’t get as many Hindu votes as we expected. The pattern is the same. There was a pro-UDF trend in the state. We can only say that we were able to withstand the wave. We have gained votes this time.
In Bengal, the BJP has advanced despite a sizeable minority base. But in Kerala, you continue to be unsuccessful.
Yes, that’s the next stage. In Bengal, when the CPM disintegrated, the BJP was able to succeed. First, we won the DumDum seat. Even at that time, we faced a strong CPM. In the next election, when the CPM got washed out, we came up. In Kerala, the LDF won’t be able to return. In states like Bengal and Tripura, their situation is poor. They had even won Varanasi at one point of time. Today, they don’t have a single vote there. So it’s a promising trend. In Kerala, we will see a minority-based UDF and a BJP opposite to it. The Left is becoming irrelevant.
But the CPM continues to be organisationally strong in Kerala, unlike Bengal.
They may be strong organisationally, but the dent in their vote-base cannot be repaired. Kerala is five years behind Bengal. In the next election, we will do very well. The Left can only erode from here on. The Left always fills its vacuum by making use of minority sentiments. In Kerala, this will never happen. In the panchayat elections last time, the LDF gained massively because of minority support. It reflected in the Assembly elections too, but now they’ve realised there’s no point voting for the Left. It has just 3 seats in India. So the political scene in Kerala is going to be a head-to-head battle between Congress and BJP.
How do you see the party prospects in the upcoming bypolls?
The party will do very well in four of the bypolls. For example, in Vattiyoorkavu and Konni, the margins are close. There was a misinformation campaign led by the media and the Opposition against Modi. Malayalis thought Rahul Gandhi will win by thumping margin at the Centre and Modi will lose. But they were wrong. The pattern of parliamentary election will not be the same as bye-election.
Is there a feeling that the BJP was not able to take Modi’s welfare schemes like Swacch Bharat or Ujjwala down to the ground among voters in Kerala?
Partly, I agree that like other states, we were not able to take that to the voters. But at the same time, Ujjwala, electricity or gas are not attractive schemes in the Kerala context. People have electricity and gas connections in their homes. Here, urban housing and Ayushman Bharat are more relevant. These schemes are only coming up.
Kerala has a tradition of political coalitions like LDF and UDF. Both Congress and CPM have a number of allies that bring in additional votes. The BJP, on that note, has still not managed to attract allies. Isn’t that a problem?
There is an absence of mass-based parties in the alliance. Today, we only have the BDJS as a mass-based party. So that’s a setback but in the coming days, we are looking to add more allies and personalities to the coalition.
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