29/04/2016 8:37 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

BJP's Big Kerala Push A Battle Of Prestige For Narendra Modi And Amit Shah

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A pedestrian walks past a billboard for the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) picturing its prime ministerial candidate Narenda Modi as the third phase of voting for national elections commences in New Delhi, India, on Thursday, April 10, 2014. About 13 million voters spread across seven constituencies in Delhi will elect representatives along with voters in parts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Orissa and Kerala. Ninety-two seats will be decided today, although results from all 543 constituencies will be announced together on May 16. Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Karnataka may be the only southern state where the Bharatiya Janata Party has ever held the seat of power but this poll season, the national party is making a big push to open its account in the Assembly elections in Kerala. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah have raised their stakes to achieve what is considered an uphill task.

Modi will be spending six days (May 6 to 11) in Kerala for electioneering while Shah is to stay put in the state for two weeks (from May 1 to the end of the campaign on May 14). Nine Central Ministers will be joining them for the campaign. Well known Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi, who was recently nominated to the Rajya Sabha, will travel all over the state.

What likely gives confidence to Modi and Shah is the fact that BJP had led in some Assembly segments in the 2014 Parliament elections. The party also has a new ally in Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) — a new party formed by the leader of the dominant Ezhava community in the state, Vellappally Natesan.

The party is also trying a new strategy to win the elections under the direct diktat of its Central leadership. The Sangh Parivar organisations, especially Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) cadre, have been mobilised and the leader of sister saffron outfit, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), has been nominated as state president of the party. The trick is to create the impression that BJP could win in Kerala where its vote share had always hovered from 5 to 12% in the past 25 years.

“We have to generate confidence among the people that the party will come to power," Shah told a meeting of the Kerala core committee of the party in Kochi in February. He told state leaders that the BJP is contesting “to win and rule”. The idea was to increase the confidence of party cadre who had not fought to win in the past and occasionally even traded in votes.

However, the national leadership’s strategy of inducting an ‘outsider’ as state president and candidates from the film world has not pleased some of the party leaders in the state who were hoping to climb the ladder as candidates and nominees to various posts. Their silence, despite obvious displeasure though, is indicative of the party mandate - dissidence would not be tolerated by the Central leadership.

An unhappy state leadership though could well mean a lacklustre campaign. The party hopes to make up for this with the whirlwind campaigns of Modi and Shah.

The BJP was a divided house even when the alliance with the BDJS was cemented. BDJS has been allocated 37 of the 140 seats to contest. Local leaders feel there is uncertainty about the number of votes that the new party can sway as its prowess is yet to be tested. Its performance as a fledgling in the civic elections was not very promising. Besides, the party does not have the full support of all units of the grassroots organisation of Ezhavas, Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, which Natesan heads.

The battle is one of prestige for both Modi and Shah, both of whom have been running the campaign strategy from Delhi. Another failure, after the rout in the Bihar elections, could dent their standing.

In the Lok Sabha elections, the BJP led in four Assembly segments within the Thiruvananthapuram Parliamentary constituency. Former Minister of State O Rajagopal was the party’s candidate in Thiruvananthapuram and he was pitted against Congress’ Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor won with a margin of more than 15,000 votes. However, he had trailed behind Rajagopal in Kazhakoottam, Vattiyoorkavu, Thiruvananthapuram and Nemom Assembly segments.

Rajagopal, a popular leader with the BJP, is now contesting for the Assembly seat from Nemom where he had a lead of 18,000 votes in the 2014 Parliament elections. Though it may appear to be a walk over for Rajagopal, given this lead two years ago, analysts feel the battle may not be won so easily this time.

Rajagopal stole a lead over Shashi Tharoor a time when Tharoor was going through a bad patch and his popularity was at its lowest ebb, following allegations over the death of his wife Sunanda Pushkar. Besides, Kerala votes differently for Parliamentary polls and for the state polls. The BJP has often scored higher percentage of votes in the Parliamentary elections but failed to do so in the Assembly elections where the contest is between two leading political fronts (Congress-led United Democratic Front and Communist-led Left Democratic Front) to capture power.

Rajagopal is pitted against sitting member V Sivankutty of CPI(M) and V Surendran Pillai of Janata Dal (U). In the Vattiyoorkavu segment, the state president of the BJP, Kummanam Rajasekharan is contesting against TN Seema of CPI(M), and sitting member K Muraleedharan (Congress) who is also the son of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran. In Kazhakoottam, former state president of the party K Muraleedharan is pitted against sitting member MA Waheed (Congress) and Kadakampally Surendran (CPI(M)).

The BJP has fielded cricketer S Sreesanth from the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. He is batting against state Health Minister VS Sivakumar and Antony Raju of Kerala Congresss (D). Fielding Sreesanth in Thiruvananthapuram at the initiative of the national leadership has not gone down well with a section of party workers in the city. Sreesanth, a political greenhorn also faces strong, experienced contenders.

In Manjeswaram constituency in Kasaragod district, the BJP has been runner-up for decades in the Assembly elections. The party also used to arrive second in Kasaragod constituency, with victory always eluding it. One factor that could go against the BJP in North Kerala is the shift in the Muslim voter’s preference in favour of CPI (M)-led LDF.

The BJP is sensing an opportunity in the coastal state, however slim it may seem. The battle is one of prestige for both Modi and Shah, both of whom have been running the campaign strategy from Delhi. Another failure, after the rout in the Bihar elections, could dent their standing. Will the BJP open its account in Kerala? Political observers are noncommittal on that – but they do agree that the party will definitely improve its vote share in the state this May.

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