Helicopter politics won’t work with voters in Kerala. It could work in north India but not here," stated CK Padmanabhan, former state President of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who was tasked with contesting against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in the just concluded Kerala assembly elections. Padmanabhan was referring to incumbent state BJP President K Surendran contesting from two constituencies — Manjeshwar and Konni — and the optics generated by shuttling between the two constituencies in north and south Kerala on a helicopter. Surendran would go on to lose both seats, and the BJP lost from all the seats it contested, thereby faring poorly than its performance in 2016 when it won one seat.
The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA)’s poor performance in Kerala is one of the biggest stories of this cycle of assembly polls. This time the saffron party was expected to inch closer to a 20 percent vote share with the Sabarimala agitation poster boy Surendran himself leading from the front. Instead, the NDA finished at 12.30 percent, three percent lower than what it polled in 2016.
Hard Nut To Crack
Kerala has traditionally been a hard nut to crack for the BJP, despite having one of the largest networks of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakhas in the state, particularly on account of its demography. Unlike, say, in West Bengal, where it can work with 70 percent of the electorate (excluding the 30 percent Muslims), in Kerala, the BJP not only has to contend with a 45 percent combined population of Muslims and Christians, but also the Communist vote-bank of Ezhavas, constituting a fourth of the population. The BJP realised long ago that it can only move forward in Kerala by co-opting the Christian community (18 percent); however, it isn’t all that easy.
Along with its frontal organisations and Sangh parivar affiliates, the BJP worked overtime raising the bogey of Love Jihad, and also by going to town that the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) was dominating the Congress in the United Democratic Front (UDF). However, just as its aggressive campaign on the Sabarimala issue ended up helping the UDF to a landslide win in the 2019 general elections, all efforts at pitting Christians against Muslims inadvertently helped the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the assembly polls, with the religious minorities voting for the LDF.
If the results in 2016 gave the impression that the BJP was finding favour among the Ezhavas through a strategic alliance with the Sree Narayana Dharama Paripalana Yogam (SNDP)-backed Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), both the BJP and the BDJS failed to replicate the kind of performance they displayed in the Ezhava-dominated seats in south Kerala in 2016.
The Sabarimala issue resonated deeply with the Ezhavas, but the BJP could not convert it into votes. Moreover, the CPI(M)’s embracing of gods and goddesses of late pushed back the BJP’s efforts to paint the Marxists as ‘godless communists’. What has rankled the BJP more is the fact that it could not even retain a big chunk of its core vote-bank of Nairs this time.
The BJP will have to introspect on its strategy of pursuing aggressive Hindutva in Kerala. Whereas the likes of O Rajagopal and Padmanabhan pursued a more soft-Hindutva approach, the BJP under Surendran has been all bluff and bluster. Even the one-time firebrand Kummanam Rajasekharan adopted a softer approach as state party President to make steady progress.
While Surendran is the toast of the core Hindutva vote-bank, his hardliner approach isn’t finding favour beyond the core BJP voter.
For a party which has been in power in New Delhi since 2014, the BJP has done very little to win hearts in Kerala. V Muraleedharan, the BJP’s Kerala representative in the Narendra Modi government, is often accused of pursuing a negative line of approach, even on issues that require bipartisan consensus.
The BJP in Kerala is also a divided house, with the Muraleedharan-Surendran axis dominating other factions in the state unit. Instead of taking everyone along, Surendran has been accused of running the party in an authoritarian manner, side-lining senior leaders who put in years of work for the party. Unlike in other states, the BJP has also failed to attract talent from other parties, such as Congress. In fact, among the five BJP candidates who were really in the running to win their seats this time, two — E Sreedharan and Suresh Gopi — are lateral entrants to the party.
The BJP will have to find a way to reach out to the masses, and for that it will have to adopt a more conciliatory approach, as also to carry along all the factions within the party together. An overtly communal campaign might not work in Kerala, just as it did not work in West Bengal, as the CSDS-Lokniti post-poll survey has pointed out. Till such time as people become acutely aware of their identities and start voting on that basis, the BJP will have to stay the course and court voters by raising developmental, non-communal issues.