POLITICS

Many Hurdles Face Amit Shah's Dream Of Saffronising Kerala

There is a simple, but age-old, equation that the BJP has to disrupt and rewrite.

06/06/2017 12:37 PM IST | Updated 06/06/2017 2:34 PM IST
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BJP National President Amit Shah addresses the media after winning Assam Assembly election 2016 as the election results of five States - Assam, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Karela, and Pondicherry come out, at BJP HQ, on May 19, 2016 in New Delhi, India.

Ahead of the 2016 assembly elections in Kerala, BJP president Amit Shah had a statistical theory to motivate his workers in the state--that the BJP polled 50,000 votes in 19 out of the 20 constituencies in the state compared to Uttar Pradesh, where in the past, the number of such constituencies were only 17. If the party could make it in UP, why not in Kerala?

It was way back in December 2014, and Amit Shah has trained his guns on Kerala yet again.

Last time, his inspirational trick didn't work and the party barely made it to the state assembly; but this time, it is an order from the supreme commander: the party has to win at any cost. He reportedly warned the state leaders of "dire consequences" if they failed. According to him, the BJP can indeed win in the state.

During the three day visit to Kerala, as part of a three-month national campaign that he has undertaken to prepare the grounds for 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP president was unusually aggressive. He did say that he wouldn't want to leave Kerala aside and wouldn't be satisfied with a mere rise in vote share. "Percentage data is not relevant and victory is a must...," he said.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with BJP President Amit Shah during the BJP public meeting, on September 24, 2016 in Kozhikode, India.

Shah didn't refer to the UP-example or the 15 per cent vote-share that the party had gained in 2016 assembly elections to demand better results from his leaders in the state, probably because he knows that pushing through the stagnation in Kerala requires an unprecedented breakthrough and not progressive statistical improvements. The deep polarisation of the Hindu votes between the CPM-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress led United Democratic Front, and the unusual demographics of the state pose a rather remarkable challenge to the BJP.

Unlike in the other states, BJP cannot hope to win on the strength of the Hindu votes because in Kerala they account for only 55 per cent with the rest split between Muslims (27 per cent) and Christians (18 per cent). Historically, this 55 per cent has been unevenly polarised between the LDF and the UDF (more Hindus favouring the LDF), with alternating swings favouring one of them during the elections. Majority of the Christians and Muslims--through their political parties--side with the UDF. The fence-sitters, who play a vital part in deciding the fate of the two fronts are not politically neutral, but have a propensity to change loyalty based on performances of the fronts when they are in government.

This is the simple, but age-old, equation that the BJP has to disrupt and rewrite.

All that the BJP could do over the last quarter century was to raise the vote share to about 15 per cent. Things have certainly improved. Compared to 2011 assembly elections, when most of its candidates won less than 10,000 votes each, the party has raised its bar remarkably higher in 2016 in which most of them doubled their share of votes. This couldn't have happened without some erosion not only from the LDF and UDF vote banks, but also from the fence-sitters. But gaining additional velocity beyond this stagnation-point is extremely hard unless the state's traditional political patronage, which incidentally also reflects its socio-political ethos of Kerala, changes. Can the BJP rejig the state's unique, century-old essence of socio-political transformation?

It's easier demanded than done. The BJP has to quickly mine into the traditional vote bases of the LDF and the UDF, and also sweet-coax the minorities into believing their secular promises. To reach anywhere near a victory, they have to raise their present numbers to at least 40 per cent of the vote share since it's going to a three-cornered contest as Shah himself has reckoned. It's not just formidable, but rather impossible unless one of the fronts collapses and a sizeable number of the minorities trust them.

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Kerala film actor Suresh Gopi campaigning for BJP candidate O Rajagopala at Aruvikkara By- Election on June 25, 2015 in Trivandrum, India.

Shah knows that without minorities, his party cannot make it anywhere close to the finishing line; therefore, he met the Christian clergy, who had no qualms in breaking bread with a Hindutva leader without raising any uncomfortable questions, and told the party leaders to let people know that the BJP is not against the minorities. To ensure that the backward and oppressed castes that may be disgruntled with the LDF and the UDF are in its net, he also met with an assortment of caste groups and assured them support. Seemingly, the BJP's strategy to garner additional support is to trawl the bottom of the Hindu pyramid and mop up Christian votes through an appropriately incentivised clergy. Still, it's an uphill task because of the huge gap between its best performance so far and the required target. If the BJP has to win, or even get closer there, the Congress has to electorally collapse because the LDF's core support comes from their cadres.

Shah doesn't want to know how, but he wants it to happen. He told Kerala that Narendra Modi's government has been the most generous to the state and has given about ₹150,000 crore under various schemes, and that it's transparent, decisive and humane. He asked his party workers to go to the grassroots and let people know Modi's virtues.

This is the simple, but age-old, equation that the BJP has to disrupt and rewrite.

In his TV interviews during his stay in the state, he took the fight straight to the CPM camp and held them responsible for the political violence. Probably CPM doesn't mind it because by projecting BJP as its main political antagonist, it can sideline the Congress-led UDF and thereby woo the latter's minority vote-base. The Congress has been relatively unsuccessful in taking on the BJP and it might make the nervous minorities, particularly the Muslims without whom the UDF is nonexistent, back the CPM.

Even if the most improbable happens as Shah has decreed, the BJP still has a problem, a debilitating genetic disorder: lack of poll-worthy leaders. Except a handful, it doesn't have people who can contest elections, let alone win them. There's not even a single distinguished person that the party has been able to attract to its fold in the last two years except a failing movie actor who is past his prime (Suresh Gopi). Headhunting will be insurmountable because no public figure would want to endorse an ideology that's antithetical to the state's socio-political character. Whether, Shah will agree or not, winning seats is not as easy as running the second largest number RSS "shakhas" in the country.

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