Analysis: BJP’s Careful Strategy In Kerala Looks Promising

Analysis: BJP’s Careful Strategy In Kerala Looks Promising

Apart from wooing women and celebrities, the BJP’s campaign features ‘vikas’. It has pitched itself as the only party with a blueprint for the development of the nation — and the state

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Wednesday, February 28, 2024, 11:01 PM IST
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The BJP’s ‘Kerala story’ is taking shape. Prime Minister Narendra Modi not only chose to launch the party’s 2024 re-election campaign from the state, but made another two visits within two months. For the BJP, the sheer symbolic value of breaking into Kerala — the hub of pluralism — is of prime importance.

The optics of the PM’s recent visit to Thiruvananthapuram could not have been bettered. He revealed the names of the four Indian astronauts selected for the Gaganyaan mission. Among them was Kerala’s own Group Captain Prashanth B Nair. The astronaut’s instant celebrity was further enhanced by the revelation, a few hours later, that he was married to Malayalam film star Lena.

Meanwhile, another son of the soil, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, declared that the BJP wouldn’t win a single seat in Kerala, because its brand of politics did not fly there. True, Kerala has never been fertile ground for the BJP, despite the RSS’ long history and widespread presence in the state. While Mission 400-plus demands that the party expand its footprint, almost any other state in the country seems more viable.

But the ground has shifted since 2019, and the BJP senses an opportunity to end the drought. How so? For the first time, there is a palpable trust deficit between the two minority communities in Kerala, both of which the Congress regards as vote banks. In 2021, when Bishop Mar Joseph Kallarangatt of the Syro-Malabar Catholic church warned his congregation against ‘Love jihad’ and ‘Narcotics jihad’, he found support within the community.

But it sent alarm bells ringing in the Congress-led United Democratic Front. On the one hand, the Syro-Malabar church is the largest among the dominant Christian denominations. On the other, the Indian Union Muslim League is a valued member of the Congress front. The party had no option but to criticise the church leaders.

The Congress had already suffered a setback, when the Christian-backed Kerala Congress (M) exited the UDF and joined the CPM-led Left Democratic Front. In the subsequent assembly elections, this helped the LDF make inroads into Christian-dominated UDF bastions.

Another reason why the LDF gained was the perception that the IUML was given undue weightage within the UDF. The Congress’ dependence on the Muslim vote has made the IUML increasingly assertive, to the point that it has asked the Congress to cede an extra seat in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But this might alienate the Congress’ Christian voters.

The activities of the Popular Front of India (PFI), a Muslim group with alleged terrorist links, has not helped matters. Incidents of egregious violence by PFI activists — such as chopping the hand of a professor for alleged blasphemy — has created a fear factor.

Hence, the BJP’s outreach to the Christian communities in Kerala. A strategy that has worked very well in the Northeast and in Goa. Of the 25 seats in the Northeast, the BJP now holds 18. In the 2022 Goa assembly elections, a third of all BJP candidates were Catholics. In Christian-dominated Nagaland, the BJP allied with the NDPP and won 12 of the 20 seats it contested. ‘Chrisanghi’, a derogatory term for Christian supporters of the BJP, is now gaining acceptance. This is not to argue that the BJP will get a sizeable chunk of the Christian vote — there are too many denominations at odds with each other. But it might make some inroads among the wealthy elite.

The second aspect of the BJP’s strategy was revealed at the PM’s rally in Thrissur last month. The stree-shakti themed event attracted a huge number of women. Former athlete P T Usha and actor Shobana added the requisite star power. Modi showcased his women-friendly initiatives to Kerala’s ‘mothers and sisters’, from sanitary napkins for a rupee to throwing open Sainik Schools to girls. In a state with the lowest male-female literacy gap, women are a distinct constituency.

Apart from wooing women and celebrities, the BJP’s campaign features ‘vikas’. It has pitched itself as the only party with a blueprint for the development of the nation — and the state. To that end, Modi launched three infrastructure projects worth Rs 4,000 crore in Kochi last month, and held out the promise of ‘Modi’s guarantee’. He also emphasised his government’s initiatives for fishermen.

Sensibly, the BJP has decided to focus on specific seats. The idea is not to rack up numbers, but achieve a symbolic breakthrough. The focus is on four constituencies, two of which the PM has already visited: Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram. In 2019, popular actor and BJP nominee Suresh Gopi came in third, but increased the BJP vote share from 11% to 28%. In Thiruvananthapuram, it was second, with a 31% vote share.

Adding a fillip to the BJP’s campaign in the state is the steady erosion of the Congress since its defeat in the 2023 assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. High-profile defections — including Anil Antony, son of Gandhi loyalist A K Antony — have added to the impression that the party is running out of steam. Then came the news that the BJP had won the Rajya Sabha elections, leaving egg on the faces of the Congress and its alliance partner, the Samajwadi Party.

The BJP is well aware that ideological arguments will not work in Kerala, hence the state-centric strategy: a focus on women and youth, as well as development and outreach to certain Christian denominations.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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