Failure to Capitalise on the Hindu Sentiment, Lack of Planning: How BJP Lost Sabarimala Momentum in Kerala
In spite of a ‘Modi hurricane’ at the national level, the BJP in Kerala couldn’t even manage to get a seat, and lost Thiruvananthapuram by a margin of 99,989 votes.
The BJP failed to bag a single seat belying expectations that this time around it will break its electoral jinx by riding on the Sabrimala storm.
Work was on at the Kerala House – the administrative headquarters of the southern state’s government in New Delhi – to turn a decrepit building into modern VIP rooms fit to accommodate high-profile people like the governor, chief minister, and others. A prominent Bharatiya Janata Party state general secretary from Kerala was talking to reporters, including this writer, in front of the main building, confidently asserting that “it’s a good thing. In 2021, BJP leaders can have a stay in there.” His taunting remark was, of course, meant to convey that his party would win the 2021 assembly elections and rule the state. This will likely remain a dream after the BJP faced a rout in the by-elections for five assembly seats this week.
It was 2015 when the BJP was in full throttle, sweeping Maharashtra and Haryana, and the prospects in Kerala were very promising, as any political commentator could feel the wind blowing in favour of the saffron party. Mind you, the BJP hadn’t even won a single seat in the assembly till 2016. The results that year showed that the party had opened its account, winning the Nemom constituency in the capital district of Thiruvananthapuram, and losing the nearby Majeswaram seat by merely 85 votes. It came second in another capital district seat, Vattiyoorkavu, pushing the mighty CPI(M) to third place.
Then came the “golden opportunity” (according to BJP state chief PS Sreedharan Pillai). Sabarimala. The Supreme Court allowed the entry of women in the age group of 10-50 into the temple complex, sparking convulsions in the state as the Hindu community under the Karma Samiti by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Nair Service Society (NSS) protested against it. There were fierce demonstrations spearheaded by BJP leader K Surendran, creating a wave in the state in favour of the party.
The prospects of the BJP were sky-high when the Lok Sabha elections were announced. The party managed to get back its trump card Kummanam Rajasekharan, who was the governor of Mizoram, as the candidate in Thiruvananthapuram against Congress’s Shashi Tharoor. The BJP was confident of winning the capital seat as the complete Sangh machinery was deployed in the campaign. But in spite of a ‘Modi hurricane’ at the national level, the BJP in Kerala couldn’t even manage to get a seat, and lost Thiruvananthapuram by a margin of 99,989 votes.
It was a tough blow for the party since it believed that the anti-CPI(M) sentiment would benefit it. But the wounded minds voted for the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) which recorded a thumping win in 19 seats out of 20. The BJP managed to lift its vote share in the state significantly, but failed to cross the finishing line.
It was a different BJP after the parliamentary polls in Kerala. It did not seem interested in contesting the by-elections. The candidates for the five assembly seats were announced just before the last date of filing nomination. The party had a fair chance if Kummanam, still a popular face, contested in Vattiyoorkavu. But instead, it fielded S Suresh, the district president of the party. The BJP and state RSS insiders hinted that a prominent national level leader made the decision not to give the seat to Kummanam.
The by-elections can be seen as a revelation that the BJP is less confident, demoralised, and on no quest to prove its worth in Kerala politics. The crux of winning any election in Kerala is well-trained political movement which starts from the voters’ list. For addition and omission of names from the voters’ list, the local-level party worker has to be sharp and regularly advised by the district president and the general secretary in-charge. It is an arduous process and can only be done on the ground, not in meetings held in hotels.
With the NSS publicly coming out in support of the UDF, the BJP couldn’t manage the political scene in the state. Even in a Hindu-majority constituency like Vattiyoorkavu, the party failed to act as a unifying force. Instead, it was merely a spectator when the votes went to a popular CPI(M) candidate, VK Prasanth, who became a hero for the relief work during the second flood last August.
Konni assembly constituency was the focal point of the Sabarimala agitation, and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls the BJP stood second there. It fielded the same candidate this time, K Surendran, hoping to consolidate the Hindu votes. The situation was in favour of the BJP as former Congress MLA Adoor Prakash was disgruntled as his party didn’t opt for his handpicked nominee. But the BJP was late in fixing its candidate, no ground-level work was done, and the Sangh, which usually plays a prominent role in the campaign, stayed away. Even with this adverse situation, the BJP managed to grab 39,786 votes, which is no mean achievement when compared to the 16,000 in the 2016 elections. Adding to the despair of the BJP, both the Vattoyoorkavu and Konni seats were won by CPI(M) candidates.
It is high time for the BJP to introspect, reach out to people, and fetch good advice from the right quarters. The alliance with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, the political arm of the powerful Ezhava-OBC outfit Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalan Yogam is an utter failure, as they were openly working for the Left Front in recent elections. The party needs to be strengthened from the assembly-level committees, and the right people have to be chosen. The RSS may not come forward to settle the issues of the BJP and the party should realise that it is on its own in addressing these matters. The BJP has to believe in itself as it still has 23.4 per cent of the total votes polled up its sleeve. Do not lose that!
(The author is a freelance writer based in Kochi. Views are personal)
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