By: P. Sreekumaran
Public bragging notwithstanding, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala has not snapped out of its blue mood.
The reasons are not difficult to decipher. The party’s performance in the recently-concluded local body elections fell far short of its expectations. The Kerala unit of the BJP had boasted to the central leadership that it would win at least 4,000 wards. But it managed to win a mere 1600 wards – an increase of only 400 wards from its tally in the 2015 local body polls. Its performance in the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation elections also was dismal.
The BJP had pinned high hopes on its show in the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation. It had even bragged that the party would capture the Corporation in the State capital. But it actually ended up one seat less than the 35 it had in the 2015 polls. The party tried to take refuge behind the excuse that the below-par show was due to the understanding between the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) to defeat the BJP. That is only one side of the story. The real reasons can be traced to the schism within the party over the selection of candidates, among other things.
Moreover, the BJP fared poorly in some of its known strongholds, too. The saving grace was that it managed to capture the Pandalam municipality because of its proximity to the famed Sabarimala hill temple. There too, the party prospered thanks to the strong vote base of the BJP’s ally, the Bjaratiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS). Had the BDJS fully supported the BJP in its strongholds in other districts, the BJP would have done better. But BDJS did not throw its full weight behind the BJP because of the latter’s failure to address the concerns of the BDJS and honour the commitments to that party. The sullen mood of the BDJS cannot but cause utmost concern to the BJP, which has to face a sterner test in the upcoming assembly elections, likely to be held in mid-April this year. What saved the BJP the blushes was its success in retaining power in the Palakkad municipality, a traditional stronghold of the party.
And the BJP continues to be rocked by rampant factionalism. The party is badly divided into factions led by senior BJP leader and now Union Minister of State V Muraleedharan and former BJP state president P K Krishnadas. The feud has acquired added traction ever since Muraleedharan became a minister at the Centre, and his protégé K Surendran took over as the BJP state chief. A senior leader of the party in Kerala, Sobha Surendran has become totally inactive thanks to the shabby treatment meted out by the new party state chief.
Despite instructions from the central leadership following a letter from Sobha, Surendran has not deemed it fit to address the problem. Consequently, Sobha and her supporters kept themselves away from the campaigning for the local body elections. At one stage, the state leadership seriously considered action against party leaders who boycotted the election campaign. The dangerous move was dropped thanks to the intervention of state leaders. And it is not as if Sobha does not have support in the state unit. A senior BJP state general secretary, MT Ramesh openly backed Sobha by saying that leaders who voice a different opinion should not be treated as anti-party elements. No wonder, the non-cooperation of the dissident leaders led by Sobha also told severely on the party’s show in the local body polls.
Interestingly, in effort to expand its base beyond the core Hindu constituency, the BJP initiated a dialogue with leaders of the Christian community. Former BJP state chief and currently Mizoram Governor, P S Sreedharan Pillai took the initiative for a meeting of Christian community leaders with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Two rounds of talks have taken place so far. Of course, the talks were held with an eye on the assembly elections despite the BJP leaders’ denial that there was nothing political about it. The only positive thing that has emerged from the meeting is the PM’s readiness to invite the Pope to India.
The BJP also tried to woo the Muslims in the State by making AP Abdullakutty vice president of the BJP in the State. But such tokenism won’t have the desired effect unless it is backed by solid action on the ground to address the problems faced by the Muslim community. The party also fielded a large number of Muslim candidates in the local body election. But the community continues to be wary of the BJP.
The same is the case with the BJP’s attempts to secure the votes of the Nair community by mollifying the Nair Service Society (NSS). Much is being read into the messages sent by the Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister on the occasion of the jayanti of Mannath Padmanabhan, the founder of the NSS. The NSS is on record expressing its gratitude for the gesture from the PM and the HM. But the organization leaders deny the possibility of the NSS cosying up to the BJP. The NSS continues to say that it will stick to the policy of equidistance from all political parties.
Formal talks on candidate selection are yet to begin as BJP state chief K Surendran has turned covid positive. Until he is back on feet, the talks will be stalled. But there are indications that most of the top party leaders, among them V Muraleedharan, PK Krishnadas, Kummanam Rajasekharan, will contest the assembly elections. But the hottest debate in the party and outside is whether Sobha Surendran will be given a ticket. Failure to do so would only aggravate the ferocity of the factional feud. That is for sure.
The BJP has singled out 35 constituencies where it polled more than 20,000 votes in the local body elections for special attention. In the 2015 local body elections, the BJP polled 13.3 per cent votes. Its vote percentage in the 2020 local body polls increased to 15 per cent. The big question is: will the party manage to go beyond the 15 per cent point in the assembly elections? Incidentally, a recent survey says the LDF will retain power, winning around 89-91 seats. The BJP, the survey says, will increase its vote percentage to around 20 per cent, but may not win more than two seats.
That said, the fact remains that the BJP is unlikely to make any appreciable advance in the state unless it reinvents itself. The secular soil of Kerala is not conducive for the blooming of the Lotus. The BJP’s time-tested policy of religious polarisation, which it has successfully implemented in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, won’t succeed in Kerala known for its strong secular foundation. This being the ground reality, the BJP’s wish to emerge as the party that would end the domination of the CPI-M-led LDF and the Congress-headed United Democratic Front (UDF) is unlikely to be realized. (IPA Service)