From just seven states in 2014 to 17 states in 2022, the BJP footprint has grown beyond traditional strongholds to conquer new forts like the Northeast. But the Wall of Vindhyas has been a tough one to crack so far. In this special series on BJP’s Peninsular Pitch, News18 takes a look at the saffron party’s renewed push for electoral success in southern India.
In Part 5 of the series, we assess the BJP’s tactics to establish itself as a serious electoral contender in Kerala where tangible success still eludes it due to unique demographic challenges.
It was a humid yet breezy evening at Kerala’s beautiful Shanmugham beach in Thiruvananthapuram, the place where Narendra Modi had arrived to kick-start his 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign. Just as the beautiful red Kerala sun began to disappear into the Arabian Sea waves, Modi stood up amidst cheers and thunderous clapping to address the well-attended venue. He then announced that in the next few years, the Bharatiya Janata Party would be the “Third Front” — one that would defeat the state’s dominant political blocs UDF and LDF.
Eight years later, the BJP still finds itself a straggler in Kerala’s electoral race, despite the fact that the state has a majority (56 per cent) Hindu population. Amongst all the southern states, Kerala is seen as one of the most challenging ones for the national party, say senior BJP leaders to News18.
Two parliamentary and assembly elections later, the BJP in Kerala suffers due to three major major reasons — lack of a strong mass leader, a weak voter base and probable support with winnability due to demographic challenges with minorities and majority communities split between the UDF and LDF — explain state leaders of the party.
The BJP believes that in order to be a strong contender during the elections, the party should at least command 35 per cent of the vote share. Presently it swings between 16 and 20 per cent.
“There is a need for a strong, mass leader, a face that people can connect with, just like in states such as Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, etc, where we are ruling,” said a party leader.
The BJP’s “double-engine sarkar” concept has also found interest among voters in the coastal state. The party is viewed as an alternative which has focused on better sanitation, drinking water, skill development, rural employment, and new and innovative forms of governance. The stand taken by the party during the Sabarimala issue too gave it a slight boost, leaders believe.
Senior Kerala BJP leaders accept the fact that though they have been gaining ground electorally in the local body units, they are unable to break the hold of the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) or the United Democratic Front (UDF).
Last year, while addressing the core committee of the BJP in the state, PM Modi stated that he wanted the party to win at least 71 seats in the 140-member assembly — seventy more than its present strength.
We have a strong cadre base, but our vote bank is weak. The challenges we face are quite unique in Kerala
According to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the LDF-ruled Kerala has close to 3 million cadres in the state and accounts for more than 5,000 RSS shakhas.
“We have a strong cadre base, but our vote bank is weak. The challenges we face are quite unique in Kerala. While the constituencies are split between majority and minority communities, a large part of the Hindu community votes in favour of the Left. We need to get at least one community — the Muslims or the Christians— on our side. That is when we can win seats,” explains CT Ravi, BJP’s national general secretary.
The BJP central leadership is also in search of a strong mass leader for the Kerala BJP. According to former BJP state president CK Padmanabhan, the party needs a “winnability combination”.
“Day by day we are growing stronger. The task is cut out for the party. It is in gaining the support and confidence of the state’s minorities which would be the smartest way to gain ground and make the BJP a formidable force,” said K Surendran, Kerala BJP chief.
Our win in the north-eastern states that are Christian-dominated clearly shows that it is only a matter of time before we become the favourable option for Malayalis
The BJP’s action plan to win over Kerala includes popularising a programme called Akshayashree under the Sahakar Bharathi programme. Sahakar Bharathi, the BJP says, is a non-political NGO “for spreading, purifying and strengthening the co-operative movement”. Through this, it has also been encouraging Gramin Samrudhi stores, Hindustan banks, and Mahila cells. The RSS and BJP have been using this to build on the cooperative movement and using self-help groups (SHGs) to make political inroads.
“Our win in the north-eastern states that are Christian-dominated clearly shows that it is only a matter of time before we become the favourable option for Malayalis. As a unit we are strong and are confident of making PM Modi’s dream of 71-plus seats a reality soon,” Surendran said.