The BJP’s surge across India was checked in 3 states in the south—Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala—where it failed to win even a single seat. But while this was not a surprise in the first two states, in Kerala, where the BJP had conducted a high-pitched campaign around the Sabarimala issue, the results hit hard.
The BJP had hopes from three constituencies—Thiruvananthapuram, Pathanamthitta and Thrissur—but the Congress won all of them. The biggest shock to the party was the defeat of former Mizoram governor Kummanam Rajasekharan in Thiruvananthapuram, where diplomat-turned-Congress leader Shashi Tharoor managed a hat-trick victory. The only consolation for the party was that it was in the second position, ahead of C. Divakaran from the state’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).
The BJP national leadership had calculated that it could easily wrest Thiruvananthapuram, given that senior BJP leader O. Rajagopal had given Tharoor a scare in 2014, reducing his majority to less than 16,000 votes. This time, Tharoor managed to win with a margin for more than 1 lakh votes over Rajasekharan.
In Pathanamthitta, the epicentre of the Sabarimala protests, BJP’s K. Surendran had hoped to win with a comfortable majority, backing on the “hurt sentiments” of Hindu devotees. The only solace for the BJP was it managed 2,95,627 votes in the constituency where it had polled 1,38,954 votes in 2014.
Actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi, BJP’s Thrissur candidate, also managed to get almost 3 lakh votes, but had to accept defeat, placing third after Congress and CPI. The defeats in Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta are a setback to the RSS, who had nominated Rajasekharan and Surendran.
The Kerala unit of the BJP had long been plagued by factionalism, weak organisational network and the fast consolidation of the minority vote banks of the Congress and Left. Despite the high-voltage hate campaign undertaken by it this time, the BJP was not able to substantially increase its vote share, getting 12.9%, up about 2% from 2014’s 10.8%.
The BJP has got 26 lakh votes in Kerala this time, up from 18.5 lakh in 2014. However, this has to be seen in the context of a 4% increase in the state’s voter turnout.
In 11 out of the 14 constituencies where BJP fought directly with Congress and Left parties, it was able to get more than 1 lakh votes. In five of these seats, the party crossed 2 lakh votes but came third in all of them except Thiruvananthapuram. BJP allies BDJS and Kerala Congress polled more than 1 lakh in one constituency each.
As HuffPost India reported earlier, BJP had initially welcomed the Supreme Court order allowing the entry of all women into Sabarimala, along with the Left parties. However, sensing a political opportunity, it shifted its tactics soon, calling the implementation of the court order by the LDF government a violation of traditions and disrespect to believers.
Even Narendra Modi and Amit Shah visited Kerala to allege that the LDF government was following the court order only because it had no regard for Hindu faith. Hoping to easily convert the issue to votes, the party organised a number of violent protest marches and hartals bringing normal life to a stand still. On its part, the LDF government arrested many BJP state leaders for disrupting law and order and several cases were charged against them. The issue turned vicious when young women who wanted to visit Sabarimala were prevented from doing so, often violently. Those who tried to enter the temple are being hounded even now.
The first major obstacle for BJP in using Sabarimala as an electoral issue was Kerala’s chief electoral officer, Teeka Ram Meena, who gave a clear warning against this. So the party candidates and even PM Modi were unable to mention the issue directly or indirectly during their campaign. In Thrissur, Suresh Gopi landed in trouble for using the name of Lord Ayyappa in his campaign speeches.
The BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat in Kerala—it had hoped to open its account this time by terming the LDF government as anti-Hindu and Congress as its ‘B-team’. This backfired and the Congress swept the state by taking a middle path in the Sabarimala issue and facilitating a consolidation of minority votes.
In the last five years, BJP’s national leadership has made many efforts to improve the party’s performance in Kerala. This included sending then IAS officer Alphons Kannanthanam to the Rajya Sabha from Rajasthan and making him a minister in the Modi government. Another leader, V Muraleedharan, was made a Rajya Sabha member from Maharashtra. Even Kummanam was appointed Mizoram governor. But none of these steps have worked for the party, indicating the national leadership will be cautious in its future dealings with the state ideologues. For the Sangh Parivar and its ideologies, Kerala remains a tough nut to crack.