The final frontier: Why Kerala remains elusive for the BJP juggernaut

By: |
May 24, 2019 6:13 PM

Barring Karnataka - and Telangana to an extent -- the BJP had a dismal outing in the South. The biggest disappointment was that Kerala continued to defy an all-pervading Modi wave and refused to send a BJP member to the Lok Sabha.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party roared back to power in the Lok Sabha elections, winning almost every state in the North and the West. The party’s performance in the eastern states and the northeast also was commendable. Only damper for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, who orchestrated the chart-buster show of the BJP, was the party’s performance in the South. Barring Karnataka – and Telangana to an extent — the BJP had a dismal outing in the South. The biggest disappointment was that Kerala continued to defy an all-pervading Modi wave and refused to send a BJP member to the Lok Sabha.

The setting was perfect in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections. The Supreme Court verdict on the Sabarimala temple entry issue had given the BJP a huge opportunity to occupy the centre stage of Kerala politics. Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan decided to implement the apex court order that scrapped the age-old temple tradition banning the entry of women between 10 and 50 years. Vijayan used strong-arm tactics to quell the protests that erupted across the state. The BJP and the Congress lost no time in joining the protests, but the BJP with its Hindutva edge managed to wrest the leadership of the agitation. Though the agitation ended in a stalemate, it allowed the BJP to widen its political base in the state. This was expected to pay rich dividends for the party.

The results that emerged on May 23 were disappointing for the party to say the least. The BJP lost the prestige battle of Thiruvananthapuram, where its candidate and former Mizoram Governor Kummanam Rajasekharan lost to Congress leader Shashi Tharoor by a huge margin. The party also lost key battles in Pathanamthitta, where it had fielded K Surendran who led the Sabarimala protests, and Trissur where sitting Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi was the candidate. The NDA could secure only 15 per cent of the popular votes, slightly higher than the 14.6 per cent it got in the assembly elections held in 2016.

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A number of factors led to the BJP’s poor show. The party’s image as an upper caste party is a limiting factor for its growth in the state. Other factors like consolidation of both majority and minority votes in favour of UDF and Rahul Gandhi’s candidature from Wayanad also affected the party’s electoral fortunes.

Voter consolidation in favour of UDF

The Sabarimala agitation resulted in a Hindu vote consolidation in favour of the Congress-led United Democratic Front as the BJP was not seen strong enough to defeat the Pinarayi Vijayan-led Left Democratic Front. A section of the minorities that had voted for the LDF in the 2016 assembly elections also shifted allegiance to the UDF in disapproval of the LDF government’s handling of the Sabarimala protests. The BJP’s failure to pacify the leadership of the powerful Nair Service Society also resulted in a number of community members voting for UDF candidates.

Failure to break the image as an upper caste party

The Nair community that comprises around 14.5 per cent of the Kerala population is the mainstay of the BJP support base in Kerala. While the party has managed to have a sway over this community, it also works as a limiting factor for the party to expand its influence over the backward castes and Dalits in the state who have a history of anti-caste struggles. Its uneasy alliance with Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, a political party set up by leaders of the powerful intermediate caste Ezhavas, doesn’t seem to have worked well on the ground.

Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad

The political atmosphere was already favouring the UDF when Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to contest from Wayanad. But the announcement galvanised the fraction-ridden Congress unit into a mean fighting machine. This helped the UDF beat the BJP in key constituencies such as Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamtitta.

The BJP will have to expand beyond its traditional voter base to make any electoral gain in Kerala. It will be a tough task considering the nature of Kerala’s heavily polarised polity.

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