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Two steps backward

Updated on: Apr 08, 2016
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In both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which go to polls on May 16, the BJP sees the way forward in wooing the dominant OBC, or other backward class, communities

There was consternation in Kerala’s political circles in early November last year, as results trickled in for the hotly contested municipal elections, which the Congress leader and former Union defence minister AK Anthony had famously dubbed the “semi-finals” to the 2016 Assembly polls. State Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Sreedharan Pillai now crowed in response: “If this was the semi-final, then we have already reached the final.”

That cockiness was with reason. The party had grabbed 34 of the 100 divisions in capital Thiruvananthapuram, pushing the ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) to third place. The Communist-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) was in first place with 42 seats, but that didn’t diminish the BJP’s glee — besides snapping up Palakkad municipality, it won seats in most other municipalities. The urban centres had registered a marked swing in favour of a party that had virtually no presence in this corner of the country for the longest time.

Back in 1984, when it contested its first election in Kerala, the BJP scraped up a meagre 1.75 per cent vote share. Yet to win a single seat in the State, the party has nevertheless steadily shored up its vote share over the years. During the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, its candidate O Rajagopal gave the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor a serious run for his money in Thiruvananthapuram, losing by just 15,470 votes. In Kasaragod, the BJP stood second in a few Assembly segments within the larger Lok Sabha seat. Its vote share had spiked to 10.33 per cent. And this sizeable gain has been mainly at the cost of the Left parties.

Unlike poles attract

In December 2015, pulling off a coup of sorts, the BJP firmed up an alliance with the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a party led by Vellappally Natesan and floated by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a religious outfit with a significant following among the dominant Ezhava caste in the State. The Ezhavas and Nairs together constitute 55 per cent of Kerala’s Hindu population.

“We are mobilising all sections of society,” says Kerala BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan. “We have broadened our vote base and there are many new partners coming in. (The) People coming to BJP have a mass base. Organisations like the SNDP have been working in social reform for decades.”

Rajasekharan was at pains to explain that the tie-up had no casteist overtones. “The BDJS and SNDP are working for a backward community. They are not spreading casteism but spreading welfare and getting the basic needs of the backward community fulfilled. The SNDP is a social movement,” he asserts.

The BJP needs all the help it can get in Kerala. In a State where Muslims constitute 24 per cent of the population and Christians 19 per cent, the party has decided to agressively project a pro-Hindu image, wooing especially the powerful other backward classes (OBCs) like the Ezhavas and the Nairs.

“The BDJS is not an Ezhava party,” insists Natesan. “There are Namboodiris, Nairs and Ezhavas — it is a secular party. After a long time there is an alternative front in Kerala. The Oommen Chandy government has only made adjustments. They have fooled the people. Ten lakh members have filled forms and paid ₹25 for membership in BDJS. There is a large group of people who are affected by LDF and UDF. This group is supporting us. We will be the deciding factor in the Kerala elections,” he says.

Left hurting

The BJP’s move has hit the Left where it hurts the most, and the latter is now determined to expose what it calls the political opportunism of the self-proclaimed leader of the Ezhava community.

“Kerala has a strong tradition of being secular,” says MA Baby, leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s Kerala unit. “Social reform movements have been led by outstanding reformers like Sri Narayana Guru. The BJP has always represented the upper class and they have now formed a mechanical alliance with Vellappally Natesan’s party. As a result of this very strange marriage, people are discussing the opportunism of Natesan and how an organisation which has been fighting upper-class suppression is now joining hands with them,” he says.

Baby is confident that voters will see through the ploy. “The BJP’s attempt to open an account in this Assembly election (May 16) is going to be a grand fiasco,” he predicts. “You cannot say that the CPM influence is only over the Ezhavas. We have our influence among all religious and caste groups in Kerala.”

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, which goes to poll the same day as Kerala, the BJP has not had similar luck with alliances. Even as recently as 2014, the party had cobbled together an impressive alliance of smaller, non-Dravidian parties like Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), Vijaykanth’s Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) and Vaiko’s Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK). The coalition bagged two MP seats — BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan won from Kanyakumari and the former Union health minister Anbumani Ramadoss of the PMK won in Dharmapuri. The BJP’s allies came up second in six constituencies, pushing key rival Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to third place. The BJP’s vote share had more than doubled to five per cent, which analysts pegged to a strong anti-Congress wave across the country. The ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by J Jayalalithaa, swept up the other 37 seats, with a whopping 44 per cent vote share.

Unfriending spree

Today, in a sharp turnaround, no one wants to ally with the BJP in Tamil Nadu. Vaiko, who was the first to reach out in 2014, was also the first to exit the alliance post polls. Ramadoss has stated categorically that the PMK was an ally of the BJP at the Centre but not in TN.

Going one step ahead, he announced his son Anbumani as his party’s chief ministerial candidate.

Vijaykanth, too, has ditched the BJP alliance to join hands with the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) — a motley crew of small parties comprising MDMK, Dalit party Viduthalai Siruthaigal Katchi (VCK) and the Left parties — and has been anointed its chief ministerial candidate.

He now faces mutiny from his cadre and MLAs who say he has disregarded their wish to ally with the DMK.

The BJP is left with slim pickings. Apart from its remaining allies like the Indiya Jananayaga Katchi (IJK) and AC Shanmugam’s New Justice Party, the BJP is now tying up with more than 40 tiny caste-affiliated organisations, many of them apolitical, in a bid for votes from OBC communities such as Thevars, Yadavas and Nadars.

The lack of a strong State-level leader has taken a toll on its prospects and morale. “In Tamil Nadu we rely only on the performance of Modi sarkar,” says H Raja, the party’s National General Secretary in Tamil Nadu. “The Centre has schemes for every individual, especially families below the poverty line. We could not form the same alliance as in 2014 because everyone wants to be the Chief Minister. In 2014 itself the voter has voted only for Modi and we have proven that we will be the third largest force in the State,” he says.

Political analysts disagree.

“Their strategy did not work even in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections,” argues the political commentator Gnani Sankaran. “That is one of the reasons why their allies in 2014 are no longer with them.”

Desperately seeking toehold

Communist Party of India (CPI) MP D Raja is confident that the BJP’s political strategy will not succeed in either TN or Kerala.

“They are desperate to have some kind of foothold in both states,” he says. “In Tamil Nadu no one wants to go with them; they stand isolated. Even in Kerala it is the same, because Vellappally Natesan has lost all his credibility.

The BJP is not going to make any big inroads — given their ideology and their position, they will not make much headway. They are opposed to Periyar’s ideology in Tamil Nadu. They cannot appropriate Ambedkar either,” he adds.

The mood is indeed rather sombre among the BJP cadres in TN after the loss of Vijaykanth to the PWF, but in Kerala the party is raring to go. “Chances and prospects are bright,” says a laughing Rajasekharan. “The vote base has broadened and we will get 15 per cent vote share in Kerala. We can increase the vote base with the people who have come newly into the alliance. We can win most of the Assembly constituencies... more than 71 seats.”

The battle for both these southern states is crucial for the BJP. The party is outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha, with flagship Bills being stalled with embarrassing regularity ever since it came to power at the Centre two years ago. Being able to boast a strong presence only in Karnataka among the five southern states, the national party is readying for a no-holds barred punch-up this May.

(Sandhya Ravishankar is an independent Chennai-based journalist.)

Published on January 20, 2018

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