Monday, April 07, 2014

Why Has Kerala Remained Out Of Bounds For The BJP?

By Suresh Menon (Guest Writer)

ANALYSIS As the first phase of elections to the 16th Lok Sabha begins, the question that nags the Sangh Parivar in Kerala is: Will God’s Own Country at last yield at least one parliamentary seat to the Bharatiya Janata Party?

After the BJP swept to power in Karnataka in 2008, many started wondering if the BJP will push further down in its march on the other southern states, which for decades have been elusive for the saffron party. Kerala is, in a geographical sense, the final frontier for the BJP; it has never won an Assembly or a Parliamentary seat from this southernmost State.
So why has the BJP been a perennial also-ran in a State that still has a Hindu majority? Still, because according to the 2001 census, 56.2 percent of Keralites were Hindus, but it represents a fall of almost 1.5 percent from the 1991 figure. And the 2011 census figures will show the number, many suspect, to have gone down even further. 

For a party that wears its Hindu-nationalist moorings on its sleeves, that is bad news, assuming that it won’t be able to win over a significant percentage of Christians (19 percent of the population) to offset that demographic trend. That Muslims, who naturally would not vote for the BJP, make up 25 percent – and counting – of the population makes it doubly difficult for the party.

There is a subtler demographic danger to the BJP’s electoral fortunes. Even within the Hindu voters, the Ezhavas constitute the highest chunk – about 27 percent – and the Scheduled Castes and Tribes together around 12 percent. The Ezhavas are historically a Communist vote-bank, but now have a slightly independent voice, thanks in large measure to the more assertive but politically neutral Sree Narayana Dharma Paripaalana Yogam (SNDP), which purportedly speaks for this traditionally backward community. 

The ST/SC communities have no particular fondness for the BJP – there are some changes this time round, but more on that later – which is still largely seen as an upper-caste Hindu outfit among these sections. In other words, the BJP has never found traction among vast sections within the Hindu community of Kerala because of this misperception. Worse, the party has not taken any trouble to correct this ‘wrong’ image.

Lone furrow
This warped image has made it difficult for the party to find political allies in the State. But note that when it did find one – as in 2004, when a breakaway faction of the Christian-dominated Kerala Congress led by P. C. Thomas won the Muvattupuzha parliamentary seat with BJP support – the result was almost dramatic, if not sensational. But that was more like a one-off rather than a trend that was gaining ground.

In this election, however, some Church leaders have asked their people not to take a biased view of Narendra Modi, but it would be fanciful to take it as necessarily the beginning of a wholesale change in the way the Christian community looks at the “Hindu chauvinist” party. Nor, indeed, could the support the Pulaya Mahasabha (a Scheduled Caste outfit) and the Viswakarmas (the artisan caste) have extended to BJP veteran O. Rajagopal in the Thiruvananthapuram constituency be seen as the harbinger of an enduring liaison between the BJP and the Hindu backward castes. Even the so-called NaMo effect might be found wanting in winning over these chronically BJP-averse sections.

This is largely because in Kerala the party has no strategy worth the name for broadbasing its appeal not just among the Hindu backward classes but also among others. For instance, though Kerala is technically the most literate State, how many voters here actually know that Modi belongs to a backward caste? This reflects poorly on the BJP campaign machinery in the state.

Granted, this is easier said than done. Because, among other factors, the recent, but barely articulated, pro-Mandal shift in the party’s posturing could possibly alienate the educated Hindu middle classes. So it is a tightrope walk. But then politics is the art of the possible and the fact is the BJP’s minders have not succeeded, even partially, in pursuing a more nuanced approach to the diverse Hindu vote banks. Because of this, both the two major caste outfits – the SNDP and the Nair Service Society (NSS) – have cold-shouldered the BJP’s attempts to forge an alliance with them despite SNDP chief Vellapally Natesan praising Modi.

Literacy & the Left
Now look at the flip side: The high literacy in Kerala has contributed not a little to the State’s enduring affair with Leftist politics. Ironically, it is some of the decidedly non-/anti-Left – or even plain apolitical – movements that helped nurture the Marxists in Kerala. Take for example the “empower-yourself-with-education” slogan that the Advaita exponent, Narayana Guru, gave the downtrodden Ezhava community.

Along with the Christian missionaries, who down centuries contributed radically to the spread and growth of Western education in the State, this helped in no small measure the Leftist movement to strike roots in a chokingly feudalist, caste-blighted State and eventually entrench itself as an overwhelming political force. Small wonder this is a State where, not long ago, even the thatch-roofed village tea-shops and barber shops used to be noisy forums of mostly Leftist political debates.

This sort of mass literacy helped in sharply polarizing Malayalees between the Left and the Congress, leaving little or no space for other parties, except in the Muslim-majority Malabar region and Christian-dominated Central Travancore. And a significant section of the newly empowered Ezhavas, the predominant caste among Hindus in terms of sheer numbers, found a natural ally in the Leftists, virtually making the under-class of Kerala out of bounds for parties such as the then-Jan Sangh (the forerunner of the BJP).

Equally important, the BJP in Kerala has never managed to present itself as a party with a genuine difference, by offering a credible ideological alternative. So, to a good chunk of the educated middleclass in Kerala, it is a case of choosing between Tweeledum and Tweedledee. Thus the BJP remains, to this section, a more-Hindu-than-thou version of the Congress.

Further, the Karnataka disaster has sullied the BJP’s image as a relatively clean party. Though the educated do realize that the BJP under Narendra Modi would go for a more forthright pro-business policy of liberalization, some of them fear that the Swadeshi plank (remember “Gandhian socialism”) could be blatantly morphed into a sort of crony capitalism with all its attendant evils.

Its ill-delineated economics apart, the BJP’s vision of India is perceived by many intellectual types in Kerala as regressive rather than truly resurgent. Even those who have no quarrel with the party’s Hindutva orientation are tempted to think that the party has never really made any serious attempt to harness the noble values and mighty resources that Vedic literature and the Vedantic schools of thought offer in abundance. For example, they feel that the BJP merely uses Swami Vivekananda (much like the Marxists use Che Guevara) as a mere charismatic symbol to win votes and not a whole lot more.

Getting the Bhasmasuras to behave
To make things worse, the BJP in Kerala has made it a habit of shooting itself in the feet, thanks to internecine groupism. And the infighting itself is largely a result of the fact that there is no towering personality in the State BJP to keep its house in order. The respected ideologue, P. Parameswaran, has largely remained in the background and the battle-scarred old warhorse, O. Rajagopal, hasn’t quite the mass appeal that, say, a Vajpayee or Advani or Modi has.

Besides, the local BJP leaders hardly seem to have learnt any lesson from the debacle of adjacent Karnataka, where factionalism and corruption combined to discredit the party’s first-ever government in the South. Even in the run-up to this election the groupist loose cannons were getting so out of hand that the RSS itself decided to step in to set things right. As a result, BJP hopes are definitely getting reinforced by the day in Thiruvananthapuram, but less so in Kasargod, the other constituency where, but for factionalism of the sons-of-the-soil variety, it still has had an outside chance of winning.

Maybe the BJP will have to take a closer and unblinking look at itself after the 2014 elections if it is to make sure that this final frontier too eventually becomes its stomping ground!

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