Despite having a dedicated cadre base and large number of RSS shakhas for decades, Kerala has always eluded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This might have changed with the victory of O Rajagopal as the first BJP MLA in the state.
Rajagopal has been the face of the BJP in Kerala since the time of the party’s earlier version, Jana Sangh. He first contested elections in 1980 and has been continuously losing since then, often by close margins, including the Aruvikkara by-election held last year. The octogenarian has been two-term Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh between 1992 and 2004, and the Union minister of state holding various portfolios in the A B Vajpayee government. In a nutshell, Rajagopal’s political career has mirrored the BJP’s prospects in Kerala.
This time, the BJP formed an alliance with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam’s (SNDP) political wing Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS); social activist C K Janu’s political outfit Janadhipathya Ooru Vikasana Munnani (JOVM); and the P C Thomas-led faction of Kerala Congress.
The NDA received 14.6 per cent of votes and apart from winning one seat, the BJP candidates were runners-up in six seats.
The BJP had performed relatively well during the Lok Sabha elections in Kerala, but this was the first time it received double-digit support in an Assembly election (figure 1, page 2). Also, unlike other states, the party’s vote share did not decline from the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. It had also made substantial gains during the 2015 civic polls in the state. The BJP had emerged as the runner-up in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation, the single largest party in the Palakkad municipal council, and established crucial presence in several other municipalities.
In this Assembly election, the NDA did relatively better in the urban pockets of Thiruvananthapuram, Kasara-god, Pathanamthitta and Thrissur districts. The alliance won approximately 11 per cent vote in the Malabar region, 16 per cent in the Kochi region, and 18 per cent in the Travancore region.
The gradual expansion of the BJP in the state indicates that the party has the potential to play a more prominent role in the near future. It also begs an answer to two important questions. First, which social segments are voting for the BJP? And second, who is losing their votes to the BJP — the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) or the Left Democratic Front (LDF)?
The data presented (Table 1) makes it clear that the BJP is cutting into the support base of both coalitions. The upper-caste Nairs have remained the nucleus of BJP’s social coalition in Kerala and the party in this election received more votes among this section than the UDF. The BJP’s alliance with SNDP (a social organisation of Ezhavas), however, has not resulted in the desired effects. The Ezhavas are a numerically dominant backward-caste community and represent almost half of the state’s Hindu population. The BJP’s support among the community increased by merely five percentage points in comparison to the Lok Sabha election. Even among the Ezhavas, who reported to be associated with the SNDP, the NDA was far behind the two alliances.
The BJP’s vote share among the Dalits has increased significantly in this election. In fact, the BJP and the UDF won equally among the Dalits, who have historically remained aligned with the LDF. The survey data also suggests that the BJP has succeeded in winning a small segment of Christian voters.
Does this development indicate a formation of a new social coalition in Kerala? Can Rajagopal replicate BJP’s Goa model where Manohar Parikkar built a coalition around upper-caste Hindus and Christians? Will the BJP succeed in making further inroads in Kerala?
In the past, the BJP’s success in new frontiers like Karnataka, Haryana, Jammu and most recently in Assam is in large part due to the en-masse transfer of a regional party’s support base. The prospect of this option looks bleak in Kerala and thus the BJP needs to prepare for another round of struggle in the state. The party’s vote share is still a few percentage points below the threshold point beyond which it could start making substantial gains in terms of seats.