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Why BJP Central Leadership is to Blame for Their Kerala Bypoll Rout

The BJP high command decided to appoint Kerala unit chief Kummanam Rajashekharan as Mizoram governor a day before Chengannur polling. The party retired its general in the middle of war, and voters responded in kind.

Anu Narayanan |

Updated:May 31, 2018, 3:56 PM IST
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Why BJP Central Leadership is to Blame for Their Kerala Bypoll Rout
File photo of BJP leader Kummanam Rajasekharan. (Qamar Sibtain via Getty Images)
The BJP Kerala state committee office (called Mararji Bhavan) was sparkling on May 19, 2016, when results for the Assembly elections came in. For the first time since Kerala was founded in 1957, the BJP managed to win an Assembly seat as the veteran O Rajagopal won from Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram district.

As cadre milled around distributing sweets, Major (retd) Lal Krishna, who was secretary to BJP state president Kummanam Rajasekharan, said: “Watch out for Chengannur, it’s quite interesting”.

Chengannur in central Kerala is a traditional Congress seat with a sizeable chunk of Hindu votes. But the seat was won by KK Ramachandran Nair of CPM in 2016, defeating PC Vishnunath, two-time MLA of the Congress. The margin was 7,983 votes. PS Sreedharan Pillai, the former state president of BJP finished third with only 2,215 votes behind the Congress candidate. The contest had gone down the wire.

After the untimely demise of Nair, on January 14, the bypoll process was set in motion, and the political parties got nearly five months to gear up to the elections. However, the BJP was the last to declare their candidate. They once again fielded Sreedharan Pillai, a well-known criminal lawyer who hails from the place (though he relocated to Kozhikode in north Kerala).

The state BJP, led by Kummanam, an RSS pracharak, left no stone unturned as they convened a couple of meetings with local RSS leaders to chalk out a strategy. The BJP was trying its level best to outsmart D Vijayakumar, the Congress candidate, who is also the vice president of Ayyappa Seva Sangham, a body which has tremendous say in Sabarimala.

The BJP’s campaign momentum had a good pace as it had enough time to cover all the booths at least two times. The party was hoping to come second in the by-election. But the BJP decided to appoint Kerala unit chief Kummanam Rajasekharan as Mizoram governor a day before Chengannur polling. It was akin to retiring the general in in the middle of a battle.

The decision led to chaos and confusion among its core voters (mostly belonging to the RSS). It was evident that the Sangh in Kerala was not happy with the decision to send Kummanam out of the state without even a hint. Although the BJP brass convinced a reluctant Kummanam to accept the notification, the trust that was enjoyed by the BJP with the parent organisation was in peril.

Kummanam, a senior pracharak, who didn’t even have the primary membership of BJP, was deputed to the party at a time when factionalism was at its peak. Kummanam was given all support in fighting the Assembly elections and it fetched good results for BJP. In seven constituencies, the BJP came second plus a win. The BJP finally seemed poised for a new life in India’s most literate state.

A bunch of state leaders of the BJP had some reservation in Kummanam’s appointment and the style of working, but they had to fall in line. There was a buzz that Kummanam would eventually be inducted into the central government but the notification to appoint him as the Governor of Mizoram came as a surprise to everyone. The party high command thought of this as a reward that could impress the voters in Chengannur, but the result was just the opposite. A three percentage surge in polling compared to 2016 was proof the people wanted to send a political message to BJP bosses.

The LDF government was facing the heat from all corners regarding the custodial death and the law and order problem in the state. Despite all of that, they swept the seat with a huge margin (20956 votes) that came as a shot in the arm for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

The Congress candidate seemed to concede defeat even a day before counting. “There was no wall to paint the picture,” said D Vijayakumar signalling the total collapse of the UDF campaign machinery.

But why did Sreedharan Pillai finish with 7,412 fewer votes than two years ago? The conclusion is that he didn’t get any of the benefits from the 3 percentage surge in polling, he also lost 7,000 votes from his kitty. Pillai must never have thought of a victory, but securing second place would have benefited the BJP immensely ahead of the 2019 general elections in 11 months.

The real political loser of the Chengannur bypoll is certainly the BJP as it squandered away a chance to replace the Congress as the main opposition party in this seat. A grave error, and the blame lies with the BJP’s central leadership.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Kochi. Views are personal.)

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