New Delhi: Spurred by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s veiled rebuke earlier this month, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders in Kerala are scrambling to draw up plans on how to expand the party’s base by reaching out to Christians and beneficiaries of central schemes.
Heads are likely to roll, with the central leadership gearing up for an organisational overhaul in its Kerala unit that will begin during BJP president J.P. Nadda’s visit to the state later this week, senior party functionaries told ThePrint.
Attending a BJP core committee meeting in Kochi earlier this month, Modi had expressed displeasure at the inability of the party’s Kerala unit to expand its support base. He also pointed out that the BJP’s tally of MLAs in Kerala dropped to nil in 2021 from the lone seat it won in 2016, a party leader who attended the meeting told ThePrint.
Modi also expressed “unhappiness” about the party’s failure to win over minority communities and people in Kerala who are benefiting from central government schemes, the leader said.
This is not the first time that Modi has emphasised the need to reach out to the Christian community. In his address at the BJP’s national executive meet in July, he had advised party leaders to reach out to non-Hindus and asked those from northeastern states to visit Kerala to “highlight the party’s efforts to protect the interests of the Christian community”.
Barely a week after Modi’s censure at the Kochi meeting, the BJP appointed former Union minister Prakash Javadekar as in-charge of party affairs in Kerala.
Contesting 115 out of 140 seats in the 2021 Kerala assembly election, the BJP secured 11.3 per cent of the total votes polled but failed to win even a single seat. In contrast, the party had contested 98 seats in 2016, securing 10.53 per cent of the vote and winning one seat — Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram District — while its candidates stood second in seven seats.
The BJP’s vote share in Kerala was highest in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when it managed to secure around 13 per cent of the total votes polled but fell short of getting any of its candidates elected to Parliament from the state.
Kerala no exception, says state BJP chief
While admitting that the prime minister did address the core committee meeting earlier this month, Kerala BJP chief K. Surendran claimed Modi only laid emphasis on reaching out to beneficiaries of central schemes in the state. Besides Kerala, PM has also been “attending such meetings and enquiring about the functioning of the units” in other states, he said.
“Similarly, in Kerala also, he attended the core group meet and merely emphasised that the party needs to be more vibrant in reaching out to beneficiaries of central schemes so they are aware of what the BJP government is doing and they can get those benefits easily,” Surendran told ThePrint.
He added that the party will launch a special campaign to identify beneficiaries of central government schemes and reach out to those who are entitled to benefits but are unaware.
The BJP’s central leadership has also directed the Kerala unit to identify assembly segments where the party has some chance of winning, and to initiate a special campaign from Lok Sabha constituencies where it stands to gain ground.
“We are reaching out, not only to beneficiaries but also to specific groups, including those who have been marginalised. We are also reaching out to minorities including Christians and meeting locals in various parts of the state. At the same time, we are also reaching out to the Hindu community and visiting them at their homes and informing them about the party’s vision and the schemes of the central government,” Surendran said.
A senior BJP functionary, who did not wish to be named, said the party’s central leadership wants the Kerala unit to make inroads among minority communities in the state. Pointing out that the BJP has the support of Christians in Goa — where it has MLAs and ministers from that community — the functionary said that “somehow, that has not happened in Kerala”.
“As far as our support base is concerned, we have 10-12 per cent vote and that won’t go anywhere. But the central leadership wants us to reach out to the minorities and increase that percentage. Muslim votes won’t shift to the BJP in the current scenario. They are currently purely aligned with the Congress or the LDF [CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front],” the functionary said.
‘BJP, Church on same page on love jihad’
He added that the challenge for the Kerala BJP is to “gain the confidence of the Church, and a small example of that is the issue of ‘love jihad’ where the Church and the BJP are on the same footing”.
In September last year, Pala Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt stoked a controversy with his statement that the aim of Muslims is to “promote their religion and end non-Muslims” by using “love jihad and narcotic jihad”.
A BJP leader in Delhi, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ThePrint: “In 2019, we concentrated largely on Sabarimala and the anger of the people towards the LDF was quite apparent.”
In 2018, a Supreme Court judgment striking down a prohibition on women aged between 10 and 50 entering Sabarimala temple — a major Hindu pilgrimage site in the state — had led to a mass agitation in which both the Congress and the BJP opposed the LDF government’s attempt to implement the ruling.
“However, the Congress ended up benefiting from it as the minority communities [Christian and Muslims] were under the impression that Rahul Gandhi could become the PM as he contested from here,” added the BJP leader. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) went on to win 19 of Kerala’s 20 seats.
“So, 2024 is like a test for the Christian community as to which side they will choose. In that sense, these elections are quite crucial,” said the BJP leader
Another senior BJP leader said that several rounds of discussion had taken place within the Kerala unit, and concerted efforts are being made to reach out to the Christian community through special programmes. Sources in the BJP said Modi also laid emphasis on bringing prominent leaders from other parties, especially those hailing from the Christian community into the party fold.
“We have been trying to reach out to several leaders, but it will take some time as we need to give them the confidence they want from a party,” said the functionary quoted earlier.
BJP national spokesperson Tom Vadakkan conceded that the party’s electoral returns in Kerala “have not been to the satisfaction of party leaders”.
“But our voting percentage has increased. Challenges are being taken up. We are now focussing in a big way on the business of communication of the development agenda on which the double engine governments work, as there is unity in the thought process,” Vadakkan said.
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)