BJP’s Kerala Rally Will Strengthen Party, But Challenges Remain
Amit Shah flagged off BJP’s two-week-long Jan Raksha Yatra from Kannur in Kerala in a bid to bolster the party’s prospects in the state ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha, and 2021 assembly elections. The state was witness to a bloody war between the CPM and RSS cadres for past many years. Amit Shah accused Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan of all the political murders in the state.
He even claimed that during the Congress’ regime, no such incident of violence took place, hinting that the CPM is wary of BJP’s rise and the threat the party poses to the Left vote bank. #ShahInKannur and #ShahDaresLeft were trending on Twitter with around 2.2 crore impressions, when combined together.
Factors in Favour of BJP Surge in Kerala
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath participated in the yatra on Wednesday. With this yatra, the party expects to boost the morale of the cadre, something it has been accused of neglecting despite being in power at the centre. BJP has now taken the war to one of the few red bastions left in the country.
The BJP-led alliance recorded an impressive performance in the 2011 Lok Sabha and 2016 assembly polls. It managed to more than double its vote share from six percent in 2011 to 15 percent in 2016, thus opening its account in the assembly.
BJP’s Social Engineering Strategy
The Left Democratic Front (LDF) has been the traditional Hindu party in Kerala, enjoying the support of Ezhavas and Dalits, along with Nairs accounting for approximately 50 percent of the population. Congress, on the other hand, has historically received support from the minorities (Muslims and Christians) and section of upper caste, representing the other half of the population.
BJP’s Hindutva philosophy has attracted the Nairs with an increase in the community’s vote share to 34 percent (one-third) in the 2016 Assembly elections.
Similarly the support from Dalits has also been increasing over the years to 23 percent in 2016. These three caste groups – Ezhava, Nairs and Dalits – account for 43 percent of population. BJP is now the second choice among the Nairs and Scheduled Caste in the state.
BJP gained votes from both the Congress (Nairs 21 percent) and CPM (Ezhavas and Dalits being 17 percent each). This impressive performance highlights that BJP is now increasingly taking over from the Left as the Hindu party of the state. BJP’s strategy is to replicate its ‘Upper Caste (Nairs) plus Dalits plus OBC (Ezhavas)’ vote bank model, successful in other states.
Decline of the Left and Congress
The Left Front is currently ruling in only one state, Tripura, apart from Kerala. The citadel of Tripura is also under threat from the BJP, as it has been expanding in the North East. BJP is also giving tough competition to the Left Front in Bengal, as it is emerging as the principal challenger to Mamata. The Left had to ally with its nemesis, the Congress, to prevent a whitewash in Bengal in the 2016 Assembly elections.
Congress, on the other hand, is losing state after state since 2014. It lost Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand, J&K, Assam, Uttarakhand, Manipur to BJP and Kerala to the Left. If BJP manages to win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, with the odds heavily in its favour, the Congress and Left will be further alienated from voters nationally. This will also have an impact in Kerala.
Ire Against the Incumbent Govt
The CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) have taken turns to form governments in the state since 1977. In 2021, going by the trend, the LDF is likely to be thrown out of power. With the Congress’ graph declining in elections after elections, the BJP hopes to make the contest truly triangular.
Sympathy Factor Could Work
Kerala now accounts for more than 5,000 shakhas or daily morning meetings of RSS members. Among the southern states, BJP has one of the highest number of party workers in Kerala. RSS claims its 120 workers have been killed since 2001, 84 in Kannur alone. It will try to portray that the party has been at the receiving end because it was fighting for the Hindu cause.
Hurdles for BJP
However, it’s not going to be easy for BJP, after all, currently it has just one MLA in the assembly.
Lack of Leadership
Leadership has been one of the key deciding factors in Kerala polls, with elections being personality-driven. The winning coalition in 2001 and 2006 benefitted from the higher popularity ratings of their leaders. BJP doesn’t have leaders of the stature of Vijayan or Chandy or Antony.
BJP has appointed former Kerala IAS officer Alphons Kannanthanam, as minister of state for electronics and IT, in a bid to project a leader from the state. But considering that 2021 is the deadline, four years is a short period to build an aura around a leader.
Difficulties in Polarisation due to Literacy Rate
Many studies have shown that BJP benefits from polarisation. However, the strategy could backfire in Kerala that boasts of 100 percent literacy rate. In the 2016 elections, BJP was expected to perform well, but could manage only one seat. This is brilliantly explained by senior journalist KP Jayadeep:
The Minority Factor
Kerala has one of the highest proportion of minorities in the country, 45 percent (27 percent Muslims and 18 percent Christians). While the state accounts for the highest number of Christians (61 lakh), and it has the sixth highest population of Muslims (89 lakh).
The minorities are in a position to influence the outcome in about 60 seats. Though they have traditionally voted for the Congress-led UDF, they can switch sides to defeat BJP, if it is in the reckoning in 2021. I won’t be surprised if Congress and Left come together, the way they did in Bengal to stop the BJP from marching ahead.
BJP Perceived as a Party of Hindi-Speaking Population
BJP is still perceived as a party of the Hindi-speaking population, primarily of the North, Central and West India. In 10 states, where more than 50 percent population speaks Hindi, BJP is in power in eight states (80 percent).
In 10 states where the Hindi-speaking population is between 5-50 percent, BJP is in power in six states (60 percent).
To conclude, BJP’s strategy is to build on the momentum of 15 percent vote share in assembly polls and push it to 25-30 percent, banked on RSS machinery and dwindling fortunes of the Left-Congress combine. This will put the BJP in a pole position. As a first step its strategy is to make a debut in the state in Lok Sabha polls which will give a fillip to its prospects in 2021.
BJP’s ongoing yatra is surely going to re-juvenate party cadre and strengthen its prospects. However, few challenges will have to be overcome. BJP has to look beyond the three caste groups if it wants to make an impact in the state. It needs to devise a strategy to woo a section of the Christian community, something which it has done successfully to an extent in Goa. It’s an uphill task for the party to lay claim to 2021, but it has nothing to lose.
(Amitabh Tiwari is a former corporate & investment banker, turned political commentator and consultant. He is co-author of ‘Battle of Bihar’ and can be reached @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)