Launching the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign for the Kerala assembly elections from Palakkad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the trend of alternate tenures of the Left Democratic Front and United Democratic Front in the state as a fixed match, indicating them to be in some sort of power-sharing agreement. The LDF government has betrayed the people of Kerala as Judas betrayed Lord Jesus for a few pieces of silver, Modi said while recalling the role of the state government in the gold smuggling case. With force Modi behind it, the BJP in Kerala hopes to make inroads into a new territory. But many are speculating whether the party’s calibrated strategy of pegging its campaign on an issue like Sabarimala will erase its earlier image as a vote-cutter. The BJP has been accused earlier of secret deals with LDF and UDF. But with the double combination of Modi magic and Metro man E. Sreedharan, there are incredibly exaggerated claims elevating the party as the alternative-in-waiting.
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BJP’s Sabarimala hope
The BJP has been following a calibrated strategy of holding on to its Hindutva agenda with appropriate emphasis placed on local requirements. For assembly elections, the party has identified Sabarimala as the core theme for undergirding the Hindutva agenda. So the BJP leaders, one after another, are calling to vote against the Left Democratic Front for trampling down the Hindu religious sentiments by allowing menstrual-age women to enter Sabarimala, based on a Supreme Court verdict. Union Minister Smriti Irani said the people will not forgive LDF for attacking believers. Shobha Surendran, a woman BJP leader contesting from Kazhakoottam near Thiruvananthapuram, has repeatedly stated that Kadakampally Surendran, her LDF opponent and Devaswom minister in the present LDF government, would face the wrath of mothers for the oppression in Sabarimala.
Along with the highly inflammatory campaign on Sabarimala, the BJP is also harping on ‘love jihad’ and its newfound theme of alleged discrimination against eateries serving only Halal food preparations. The BJP manifesto has promised a law against ‘love jihad’ if voted to power in Kerala. The arrival of Yogi Aditaynath is expected to further intensify such themes in the coming days. Corruption charges, especially the sleazy details linked to a gold smuggling case, are the other main target of attack against the Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government. In the BJP narrative, the Congress has been castigated as a party in its deathbed, struggling to stay alive with support from communal entities such as the Indian Union Muslim League.
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Although a number of BJP central leaders and ministers are criss-crossing Kerala, spitting fire and brimstone against the LDF and UDF, the party’s campaign in the state has the worst possible take-off with a series of embarrassing developments, including the rejection of nomination papers of two important party candidates – N. Haridas and Adv Nivedita — on technical grounds.
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The rejection of nomination papers has revived charges of the BJP entering into a vote bartering deal with Congress-led UDF in these constituencies. The CPM-led LDF has been vociferous about such a deal as it wanted to project a BJP-UDF pact to crush the Left. The LDF also wanted to blunt the allegation of a CPM-BJP alliance. R. Balashankar, former editor of RSS mouthpiece Organiser, charged that BJP state president K. Surendran and his mentor Union minister V. Muraleedharan brokered a deal with CPM for ensuring the victory of Surendran in the Konni assembly seat. The vote bartering charges gained further credence with O. Rajagopal, senior-most BJP leader in the state, confirming that the saffron party had entered into a tactical alliance with the Congress and Indian Union Muslim League in 1991 to defeat CPM. Rajagopal, who ended the BJP’s electoral drought in Kerala by winning the Nemam assembly seat in the 2016 elections, said there was nothing unusual in such deals.
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The Modi magic
The question is whether the Modi magic would be able to banish the vote bartering charges and rev-up the saffron enthusiasts with his high-voltage rhetoric. The tone set by Home Minister Amit Shah in the state was an indication of things to come — Modi Tuesday launched a frontal assault against the LDF and the Congress-led UDF focusing on corruption and Sabarimala.
Shah, in his two rounds of campaigning, had launched blistering attacks against the LDF government, alleging its role in gold smuggling and various other offenses. The Kerala Infrastructure Investment Board, a special purpose vehicle floated by the state government for facilitating off-budget borrowings, is also under attack for alleged violations of foreign exchange regulations.
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The BJP has been in search of a strategy to overcome the peculiar demographic profile of Kerala — comprising 55-56 percent Hindus and 45-46 percent combined Christian and Muslim population — for expanding its political footprint in the state. The BJP think-tank realises that the party won’t be in a position to conquer power in the state without the support of one of the minority communities. The Christian minority has been identified as the potential ally and the saffron brigade is hoping that the concerted steps taken to make inroads into the Christian community would result in electoral dividends for the party.
The increasing Islamophobia among a section of Christians in the state due to certain developments at the local and global levels has given the much-needed leverage to the BJP to pursue its goal. The visible disquiet among the Christian clergy over the Turkish government converting the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque was a great opportunity for the saffron brigade to break bread with the church. Prior to that the Christian clergy openly expressing its apprehensions over ‘love jihad’ was music to the ears of the BJP ideologues. The Congress losing power in the Centre and the state unit of the party becoming increasingly dependent on the Indian Union Muslim League for survival was also not seen as a good sign by the clergy. This was the perfect opportunity the BJP has been waiting for years and the saffron think-tank is confident of leveraging these developments to further its political goal. That the overtures towards the Christian minority have been made without diluting the core themes of the Hindutva is evident from attacks against Christian missionaries working in different parts of North India.
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E. Sreedharan, the architect of the metro rail system in the country, joining the BJP on the eve of assembly elections was a much-celebrated event among the saffron brigade. Although Kerala BJP state president K. Surendran declared Sreedharan as the NDA chief ministerial candidate, he was forced to withdraw the statement.
Selected to contest from the Palakkad assembly seat, Sreedharan was not given any opportunity for any state-wide campaign by the party. Apart from a couple of interviews given to the media by him on fast-tracking development projects in the state, Sreedharan has been confined to his constituency in Palakkad. His election campaign has taken off on a controversial note with some people seen washing his feet while others prostrated before him. Sreedharan dismissed the criticism by stating that his detractors are those having no respect for Indian culture. The BJP has high hopes in Palakkad despite the incumbent MLA Shafi Parambil having a majority of nearly 17,000 votes in the 2016 elections. The success would depend on the Metro man’s ability to engineer the shifting of nearly 18,000 votes from the Congress towards the BJP. Apart from Nemam, the BJP is hoping for a breakthrough in Kazhakoottam, which it lost in 2016 with a margin of 7,347 votes.
The author is a journalist and former senior editor at Deccan Chronicle. Views are personal.
Edited by Anurag Chaubey