Playing 2nd Fiddle to Community Outfits: BJP’s New Game Plan

Kerala remains the biggest political riddle to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). In a State where two major alliances – the United Democratic Front led by Congress (I) and the Left Democratic Front led by CPI (M) – change the power baton every five years, the inability of the Sangh Parivar to send even a single representative to the State Legislative Assembly or the Parliament since the formation of the State is a topic for discussion among political pundits.

Little wonder, then, that buckling the trend has become a prestigious issue for the Sangh in a State where religious reform movements, agrarian struggles, and progressive social and cultural organisations moulded the political psyche of the people.

It doesn’t mean that BJP always had to content with a third place finish, behind the dominant alliances, in the electoral battles. The party sprang a few surprises in the last two decades, and its best show came when late K G Marar fought hard with Indian Union Muslim League’s Cherkalam Abdulla in the Manjewaram Assembly seat, only to lose by a narrow margin of 1067 votes in 1991.

BJP had to wait more than two decades for a repeat of such a strong showing. O. Rajagopal, who served as Union Minister of State for Defence and Parliamentary Affairs, Urban Development, Law, Justice and Company Affairs and Railways after being elected to the Rajya Sabha from BJP ruled States, appeared to pull off an upset victory in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Pitted against incumbent MP and former Union Minister Shashi Tharoor, Rajagopal maintained a steady lead till the last round of counting. But Tharoor surged ahead in the last lap and won the battle by 15,470 votes.

Amit Shat with Kerala BJP leaders
Amit Shat with Kerala BJP leaders

Rajagopal again tried his electoral luck in the Aruvikkara by-election in 2015, which was held following the death of Congress leader G Karthikeyan. BJP leaders hoped discontent in LDF and UDF camps would swing votes in party’s favour. They also expected support of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), the strongest organisation of backward Ezhava community. But Karthikeyan’s son, Sabarinath, doused its hopes as he retained the seat for Congress. And BJP had to take solace in its increased vote share.

The Sangh’s shrewd political manoeuvres to establish a foothold too came under scanner many times. It had unofficially negotiated with political rivals and sold votes in many constituencies with a hope to get four BJP candidates elected to the Assembly in 1991. The vote selling allegations had rocked the State after it was found that BJP candidates polled just 4 lakh votes at a time when its actual strength was 10.5 lakhs. The incident put the state leadership in the dock and forced them to announce an enquiry commission.

The tacit agreement was confirmed by Advocate A. Ratna Singh, the UDF independent candidate who lost to K.P. Unnikrishnan from the Vatakara Lok Sabha Constituency. In his autobiography, Epilogue, Ratna Singh confessed that he lost as the vote sharing arrangement (between BJP and UDF) didn’t work well with the BJP cadres on the ground.

The faltered experiments notwithstanding, BJP is currently plotting a revival plan with the support of various Hindu community outfits, mainly the SNDP Yogam. It is also wooing other organisations like Vaikunta Swamy Dharma Pracharana Sabha (VSDP), a faction of Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (KPMS) and Dheevara Sabha with a hope to float a third front to fight elections.

SNDP leader Vellappally Natesan’s plan to form a political party for broad Hindu unity should be seen in this context.

Though the BJP wanted all Hindu organisations to be part of the broad coalition, the Nair Service Society (NSS) had backed out of the discussions as it felt such a coalition would not work in Kerala.

But it is still surprising that why BJP that has plenty of seasoned leaders in its ranks, is banking on the 77-year-old Natesan to revive its fortunes. Media reports suggested that SNDP would lead the coalition with Natesan as its chief ministerial candidate. The decision, it is learnt, was taken during Natesan’s meeting with BJP president Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which the party’s State leaders were conspicuous by their absence.

The new electoral formation will test the waters in the local body elections slated for November 2 and 5, and in the Assembly elections next year.

And the big political question that is doing the rounds at the moment is: will the BJP’s ploy to play second fiddle to SNDP and fight election yield dividends? Or will it fizzle out as another failed BJP experiment?

Let’s wait and watch.