The BJP has routed out the Congress across the nation. Ironically, it is the BJP and its style of campaigning that helped the Congress and the Congress-led UDF win 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala.
The May 23 results showed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), riding high on the unparalleled popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, almost steamrolled the length and breadth of the nation. The BJP juggernaut was stopped in Kerala and Tamil Nadu where it failed to win even a single seat. While in Tamil Nadu the party structure is in a poor state, its poor performance in Kerala came as a surprise to many.
The BJP has routed out the Congress across the nation — ironically, it is the BJP and its style of campaigning that helped the Congress and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) win 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats in Kerala.
Since the results were announced, social media is packed with memes and messages of how both Kerala and Tamil Nadu are different from the rest of the nation. One particular message doing the rounds on WhatsApp attributes the high literacy rates in these two states to denying the BJP a seat. As most things on ‘WhatsApp University’ this is also false. If this was true, how does one explain the BJP winning all seats in Himachal Pradesh and its near sweep in Maharashtra — both states that have a better literacy rate than Tamil Nadu?
Electoral outcomes are a combination of various factors, and it is important to recognise them to know why the BJP failed in the two southern states. In Tamil Nadu, the BJP not only took the wrong decisions, but was seen to be on the wrong side. In Tamil Nadu, where regional sentiments run high, the Centre was perceived as favouring Karnataka when it came to the Cauvery water dispute. Chennai protested, tooth and nail, against the Centre-imposed National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) for medical education across India. The 2017 pro-Jallikattu protests, where the Centre was seen as opposing an event what many in Tamil Nadu described as an essential part of their identity, further tipped the scales.
Politically, the BJP further reduced its chances when it formed an alliance with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK). The AIADMK, which runs the state government, has been diminishing as a political force ever since the death of its leader J Jayalalthiaa. In 2014 the AIADMK won 36 of the 39 Lok Sabha seats in the state; this time it managed just one. The BJP could have done without the support of the AIADMK — this would have helped test the depth of the party’s infrastructure, given a boost to its cadre and helped in the building of the party machinery in the state.
In Kerala the BJP was supposed to ride high on the sentiments created by the Sabarimala protests. After the Supreme Court ordered that women (within the age of 10 and 50) could enter the temple, there was widespread protests against the court order. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government stepped in to ensure the safety and protection of women who wanted to pray at the temple. The BJP and the Congress opposed this move. BJP leaders spearheaded the protests, some of which turned violent.
The BJP in Kerala made the protection of religious rights an important poll promise but misread the tea leaves. The communalisation of the Sabarimala issue did not go down well with the electorate in Kerala. The party saw a nominal increase of two percentage points in its vote share to 12.93 percent in 2019.
The Congress, now in opposition in the state assembly, has not really got its act together. The BJP’s politicisation of the Sabarimala protests gave the Congress an advantage (because the previous Congress government led by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had moved an affidavit requesting that the interests and sentiments of the believers be protected), and helped it suppress the Left (Congress’ main opposition in Kerala).
If the BJP had ran a non-communal campaign, focusing on the pitfalls of the LDF government at the state and the achievements of the Modi government at the Centre, who knows, the Congress’ national tally would have come down to below its 2014 figure of 44 seats and the BJP would have won its first ever Lok Sabha seat from Kerala.
The adamant nature of the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF in overlooking the sentiments of the believers saw the LDF, which had eight seats in 2014, winning just one seat in 2019. Its vote share also dipped significantly.
In an interview to this author, BJP MP Rajeev Chandrashekar, who is also part of the BJP think tank for the south, was confident that the party “was in strong contention for five seats”. The truth is, of the 140 assembly constituencies across Kerala, the BJP gained a majority only in one! The fact is, except in one Lok Sabha constituency, the BJP was third (a distant third in many) in the other 19 seats.
All this shows that the BJP is yet to get its equations for the two southern states right. It has ambitions, of course. After the 2014 elections, the BJP focused on the eastern flank of the country and today has made considerable inroads in West Bengal and Odisha. Similarly, during the course of the next five years, expect the party to particularly focus on Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
If it goes with its current plan, little gains can be expected — but, the BJP has shown that it is quick to learn from its mistakes, and if that is the case, it won’t be long before the lotus blooms in Kerala as well.For more Opinion pieces, click here.The Great Diwali Discount!
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