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Flag Politics 2.0: Why Mohan Bhagwat is Heading to Kerala Again

The Tricolour controversy is yet another attempt by the RSS-BJP camp to turn the political narrative in Kerala to one of Left vs Right, India vs Marx, National Vs Anti-National.

Achyuth Punnekat | News18

Updated:January 22, 2018, 8:23 AM IST
Flag Politics 2.0: Why Mohan Bhagwat is Heading to Kerala Again
File photo of RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. (PTI)
Thiruvananthapuram: A week from now, a little red-brick building in Palakkad will become the talking point in the battle for Kerala’s Hindu votes.

On August 15 last year, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat raised the Tricolour at a government-aided school, 6 km from Palakkad. He plans to poke the state’s Left government once again, this time on Republic Day at the Sangh-run Bharathiya Vidya Niketan in Kallekadu.

Bhagwat had kicked up a confrontation with the Pinarayi Vijayan government last year, defying a restraining order by the District Collector, who cited a rule that only people’s representatives or school functionaries can preside over Independence Day celebrations at government-aided schools.

This time there is no restraining order. But the RSS is playing it safe by getting its chief to make a point on its own turf, a Sangh-controlled school. No one can stop him there.

“Everyone has the right to hoist the national flag. The controversy (last year) was politically motivated,” an RSS official in the state said.

Officially, Bhagwat is attending a three-day camp of RSS panchayat-level functionaries. But the symbolism of his return to Palakkad is as clear as daylight.

The Tricolour controversy is yet another attempt by the RSS-BJP camp to turn the political narrative in Kerala to one of Left vs Right, India vs Marx, National Vs Anti-National.

The Sangh Parivar has stepped up its campaign against the Left in the past year, locking horns over a spate of political killings and violence, especially in Kannur.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, much like Siddaramaiah in Karnataka, has been carefully cultivating an image as that of the only effective counter to the BJP. The Hindutva brigade, meanwhile, is attempting to paint the Communists as anti-nationals.

Kerala’s unique demography precludes any other strategy. Minorities make up nearly 50% of the population. So the political calculation is straightforward. Both the CPM and the BJP must aim to be voices of Kerala’s Hindu voters. Here, the BJP finds itself at a serious disadvantage.

The CPM traditionally has had a strong Hindu base. Atheism went out the window when the party decided to actively involve itself in the running of temples. More recently, the party has appropriated Hindu festivals like Sree Krishna Jayanti, and even runs yoga camps.

In Kannur, party strongmen like P Jayarajan wooed RSS cadre, like ex-firebrand BJP leader OK Vasu, who is now a CPM loyalist and President of the Malabar Devaswom Board. The Left government has also spearheaded the appointment of non-Brahmin priests at temples, earning brownie points from the sizeable backward communities.

The RSS may have some of its oldest shakhas (branches) in Kerala, but the BJP has taken decades to even be perceived as a serious player. While the Modi-wave resonated in Kerala, with the party garnering 15% votes, the aggressive line later followed by BJP leadership gave it more bad press than good.

The BJP’s much vaunted Janaraksha Yatra in October flopped, thanks to infighting and online trolls. The party’s state president Kummanam Rajasekharan and the only Malayali Union minister, KJ Alphons, have both been at the receiving end of online jokes. Modi’s likening of Kerala with Somalia and Amit Shah’s reference to Onam as ‘Vaman Jayanti’ last year, angered Malayalis and was derisively dismissed by them.

In this context, the Sangh strategy of flag politics shows some method behind madness. For one, there has been a concerted campaign to highlight political killings in a bid to create an impression that Kerala is unsafe. On the other, ‘Islamic terror’ has been clubbed with Maoism to feed into a narrative that Kerala has become a hotbed of ‘anti-nationals’. The fact that Kerala saw fewer terror recruits than Maharashtra in 2016, is lost in the cacophony.

Therefore, when Mohan Bhagwat raises the Indian flag, he intends to give a strong message. The first message is for the RSS-BJP cadre that the organisation still has the power to cock a snook at the CPM in its own bastion. The second message is for Hindu voters that the RSS is not just the defender of the faith, but also the nation.

Bhagwat’s strategy didn’t work the first time because the Left government decided to play it cool. Even the District Collector, who issued the restraining order, was quietly shunted out. There is nothing to suggest the Pinarayi government won’t do the same again.

But it is clearly a Catch-22 situation for the chief minister — don’t oppose and the Saffron camp will claim a virtuous win or oppose and give the rivals ammunition to feed its ‘Left is anti-national’ narrative.

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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