For long, the voters of Thrissur parliamentary constituency in central Kerala have remained a spectator to fierce, two-sided electoral battles between the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF). In the last five parliamentary elections, from 1998 to 2014, the seat has alternated between the Congress and the CPI, choosing to never re-elect a candidate or party. This pattern of voting also indicates how decisive the constituency’s floating voters are and the lengths to which political parties go to influence them.
While the BJP has never really had much of a sway in Thrissur in the past, this time in 2019, it is preparing to make a forceful bid to wrest the constituency on the back of the support it claims to have garnered from its Sabarimala agitation and the surprise gains it made in the 2016 Assembly elections.
Thrissur, in fact, is one of the five focus seats of the party’s leadership, alongside Thiruvananthapuram, Pathanamthitta, Kasaragod and Palakkad. Even though the popular perception is that its best chances of a victory lie only in Thiruvananthapuram, the party leadership is keen to make contests in all these seats a three-cornered one.
It is in this context that the BJP has managed to get Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address a public rally in Thrissur on January 27 (Sunday), the last day of the three-day state convention of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), the party’s youth wing. Over 3 lakh people are expected to attend the mammoth rally at the Thekkinkadu Maidan in the centre of the town, usually reserved for temple festivals. PM Modi, who is also inaugurating the Rs 16,500 crore Integrated Refinery Expansion Project of the Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited (BPCL) in Kochi the same day, will fly to Thrissur in the evening to address the rally, before returning to New Delhi. Thrissur incidentally was the first town he visited in Kerala after being elected to office in 2014.
Preparations are in full swing in the town, with large posters and placards of the prime minister covering every inch of public space. The party hopes that PM Modi, who kickstarted the election campaign in the state with a visit to Kollam last week, will energise the cadre in a similar way in central Kerala.
“Organisationally, we are ready. We have strengthened all our booth committees. Four to six booths have been classified under a ‘shaktikendram’ (stronghold) and an in-charge has been appointed. Separate election committees have been formed at the panchayat, Assembly and parliamentary levels,” said A Nagesh, district president of the BJP.
In 2014, BJP’s KP Sreesan recorded 1.02 lakh votes and fell in third spot, way behind the Congress’s KP Dhanapalan with 3.5 lakh votes and the eventual winner, CPI’s CN Jayadevan with 3.89 lakh votes. Two years later, however, the party made impressive gains in the Assembly elections in every segment of the district. Even though it could not record a win in any of the seven segments, all of them swept by the LDF, a micro-analysis showed how it’s votes had doubled and tripled in several seats.
For example, in Kunnumkulam, the BJP went up from 11,725 votes in 2011 to 29,325 votes in 2016. In Nattika, the NDA candidate’s vote-share rose by three times from 11,144 votes in 2011 to 33,650 votes in 2016. Similar gains were recorded in Manalur, Wadakkanchery, Thrissur and Pudukkad seats.
“From 1.10 lakh votes in 2014, our vote-share rose to 3.75 lakh votes in 2016. We had 80,000 members then, today, we have 2.5 lakh members. If we can pull in additional 10,000 votes in every segment, we can easily pull off a victory,” Nagesh said.
The organisational build-up coupled with the prevailing public sentiment on the raging Sabarimala protests, the party estimates, will help it pull ahead in the race. BJP leaders in private spoke of how they could routinely see workers of the CPM attending their prayer meetings and are thus counting on them to cross-vote. They expect the conservative Hindu vote base of both the LDF and the UDF, who are strictly opposed to the entry of young women at Sabarimala, to flow towards them in equal measure.
“For example, the general secretary of the SNDP (representing the Hindu Ezhava community) said it will not favour any party in the elections. But I highly doubt it’s practicality. We expect all SNDP members not to vote on the basis of caste or community. We believe they will vote as Hindus,” a BJP leader said on condition of anonymity.
He also emphasised that leaders of the RSS and other Sangh Parivar outfits have been deployed as key coordinators at block-level election campaign, playing the role of facilitators between the Sangh and it’s political arm. This is a departure from the past, he noted, when the RSS has often declined to channel it’s strength behind the BJP in elections in Kerala.
In Thrissur meanwhile, the party has officially launched a hunt for popular candidates it can field to secure a victory. Alphons Kannanthanam, former IAS officer-turned-politician and now the Mos of Tourism in the Modi government, is one of the candidates being spoken about in unofficial circles, as he could potentially sway a section of the Christian vote in the constituency. Christians account for almost a quarter of the electorate and are key to any candidate’s victory.
However, Kannanthanam told reporters that he’s personally not interested in fighting elections this time.
“I have four years left in the Rajya Sabha so I don’t have to contest. Personally, I’m not interested in fighting elections this time. The party has not asked me to fight from any seat in Kerala. I’m a party worker. Whatever it tells me, I will do,” he said.
Apart from Kannanthanam, other names doing the rounds in Thrissur are of BJP state president PS Sreedharan Pillai, general secretaries AN Radhakrishnan and K Surendran.