BJP courts Kerala Christians after ‘subaltern Hindutva’ fizzles

The party seeks new allies in its quest for power, but can it overcome its minority hurdle? The 2024 Lok Sabha election will have some answers.

Published : Feb 08, 2024 00:57 IST - 12 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets the bishops of various Christian denominations in Kochi on April 24, 2023. The BJP’s overture to Christians has led to controversy in Kerala.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets the bishops of various Christian denominations in Kochi on April 24, 2023. The BJP’s overture to Christians has led to controversy in Kerala. | Photo Credit: PTI

Two days before his daughter’s wedding ceremony at the Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayur, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended, actor-politician Suresh Gopi, who is the BJP’s prospective candidate from Thrissur in the upcoming Lok Sabha election, arrived with his wife and daughters at the city’s Our Lady of Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral. Their visit was to seek blessings and present a golden crown to the Virgin Mary as an offering before the wedding. But as Gopi and family were praying after placing the crown, weighing five sovereigns, it fell off the statue and broke. Social media went berserk, calling Gopi’s offering as an attempt to appease the influential Christian community before the election. They saw it as a jinx for the BJP in Kerala.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been active in Kerala since the early 1940s, with its national leaders like sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar visiting the region quite a few times. According to the RSS, it had 95 shakhas and 1,200 members in Kerala at the time of Independence. Today, it boasts over 5,000 daily shakhas, which is the largest number after Uttar Pradesh, and 1.75 lakh members in the State. Even Gujarat has only around 1,000 shakhas.

Also Read | How Dravidian politics offers a bulwark against the exclusionary politics of Hindutva

The virulent campaign against “Muslim appeasement” after the CPI(M)-led government, with the Muslim League as its constituent, created Malappuram district, Kerala’s only Muslim majority district, in 1967 led to a spike in RSS membership. Kerala’s first major Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in 1971 in Thalassery in Kannur district, triggered by the RSS, according to a judicial commission. The Emergency became the next opportunity for the RSS to be active again.

The past three decades has seen the Bharatiya Janata Party’s vote share in Kerala growing from around 5 per cent to 15 per cent in Lok Sabha elections and from over 5 per cent to 11 per cent in Assembly elections. Yet, in the State’s 68-year history, the BJP or its predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, has won only a single seat—Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram district in 2016—in the 140-member Assembly. It lost that seat, too, in the next election.

The story has been similar in Lok Sabha elections. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the BJP, has won only one seat in Kerala to date. In 2004, Kerala Congress (T) leader P.C. Thomas contested on the NDA ticket from Muvattupuzha in Ernakulam district and defeated the State’s two dominant alliances, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF). Thomas, a six-time Lok Sabha member, served as Union Minister of State for Law in the NDA government from 2003 to 2004. However, in 2006, the Supreme Court cancelled Thomas’ election and disqualified him for using religion to win votes. Thomas quit the NDA and returned to the UDF in 2021.

The NDA drew a blank in 2019 despite the election being held at the height of a movement it led against the Supreme Court verdict to permit women of menstrual age to visit the Sabarimala Ayyappa shrine. Lady Luck refused to smile even when the BJP fielded celebrities like Suresh Gopi, the technocrat and “Metro Man” E. Sreedharan, cricketer S. Sreesanth, authors, civil servants, and former police chiefs in various elections.

Despite its growing social and political support, a perceived public apathy against the UDF and the LDF, or the growing religiosity in Kerala, seats eluded the BJP. The historian K.N. Panikkar wrote in 2016: “Kerala has witnessed a sudden burgeoning of the lower middle class during the last two decades, whose craving for modernity has created a cultural crisis, a solution for which they sought in superstitious practices and irrational rituals. Their logical destination is the BJP.”

Many scholars have written how remittances from the Malayali diaspora in the Gulf countries have led not just to prosperity but also to the growth of consumerism and religiosity within all communities. But, instead of letting the BJP monopolise the situation, the UDF and the LDF got involved in religious festivals and other events even at the cost of diluting their own secular credentials.

The BJP’s militant movement against women’s entry into Sabarimala did not prove fruitful electorally in 2019; the UDF, which had also opposed the court verdict, reaped its benefits.

Though not in power anywhere in south India, the BJP is most perplexed about its situation in Kerala. It ended its 15-year-drought in Tamil Nadu in 2021 by winning four Assembly seats. This came on the back of its successes in Andhra Pradesh in 2014. The party won four seats in the Assembly and two in the Lok Sabha in the State in alliance with the Telugu Desam Party and the JanaSena Party despite registering a lesser vote share than in Kerala. In the 2019 Assembly election in Andhra Pradesh, it contested alone and drew a blank. Karnataka is the only southern State that has had BJP governments, though it is currently out of power there.

Hence, the BJP national leadership has spared no effort to get a foothold in Kerala. Prime Minister Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have repeatedly stated their intention to capture the State. Even in his victory speech after the elections in Nagaland and Meghalaya in March last year, Modi targeted the southern-most State. “I am confident that in the coming years, as it happened in Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Goa over the years, a BJP-led government will come in Kerala too,” he said. The common factor in these four States is their sizeable Christian population.

The BJP knows its biggest stumbling block in Kerala is the minorities, who form 45 per cent of the State’s population. Hence its ongoing attempts to woo Christians, who constitute 18.4 per cent. (Muslims are 26.6 per cent).

But the Sangh Parivar is yet to find answers to its failure to attract the majority Hindus (55 per cent). Large sections of the dominant caste Nairs (14.6 per cent) continue to favour the Congress, and the marginalised castes remain the CPI(M)’s backbone.

‘De-Brahminised Hinduisation’

It is not as if the BJP has not tried. Kerala was one of the earliest and successful laboratories of the BJP’s “subaltern Hindutva” project driven by Modi to make inroads into the backward caste Hindu political landscape. Modi spearheaded this in Kerala even before he became the Prime Minister and launched this project in the northern States. Called “de-Brahminised Hinduisation” by the political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy, it helped the BJP shed its traditional image as an dominant-caste organisation. In Kerala, it was specially intended to checkmate the communists, who traditionally held these sections.

In September 2013, Modi, as Gujarat Chief Minister, was the chief guest at the influential Mata Amrithanandamayi Mutt. Though the Mata is popular across castes, her backward community roots gave Modi a heft among the marginalised castes. Modi has since been the Mutt’s vocal patron. He returned to Kerala five months later, in February 2014, as the chief guest of the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha (KPMS), an organisation of Pulayas, a prominent Dalit caste traditionally aligned with the Left. Subsequently, the Kerala People’s Front, an umbrella organisation of 21 backward caste Hindu groups, was revived, raising the BJP’s hopes further.

Amit Shah, then BJP national president, during the party’s Jana Raksha Yathra at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram on October 17, 2017.

Amit Shah, then BJP national president, during the party’s Jana Raksha Yathra at Palayam in Thiruvananthapuram on October 17, 2017. | Photo Credit: GOPAKUMAR S

The BJP made a big catch by striking a deal with the powerful Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, the premier organisation of Ezhavas, an OBC, and the largest Hindu caste group (22.2 per cent). Its general secretary, Vellappally Natesan, said he no longer believed Modi was against secularism. In 2016, the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), launched by Natesan’s son Tushar Vellappally, joined the NDA. Clearly, along with the Modi wave, these new allies helped the NDA increase its vote share in the Lok Sabha elections from 6.43 per cent in 2009 to 10.33 per cent in 2014.

Two years later, C.K. Janu, a prominent tribal leader once associated with the CPI(M), launched her party called the Janadhipathya Rashtreeya Sabha. She joined the NDA and contested the Assembly election but lost.

The NDA’s votes more than doubled from 6.03 per cent in 2011 to nearly 15 per cent in 2016. Yet, this was not proportional to the numerical strength of the BJP’s new allies, proving that, unlike their leaders, the rank and file had not shifted their traditional political loyalties.

From then on, saffronisation among the lower castes slowed down. The Supreme Court verdict of 2018 revoking the traditional ban on women of menstrual age entering Sabarimala was a turning point. While the dominant castes rallied behind the Sangh Parivar and the Congress in opposing the court verdict and the LDF government made moves to implement it immediately, the backward castes stayed away. Apparently, when the forest temple became famous and wealthy, the marginalised castes who had previously controlled it were elbowed out by the dominant castes.

The CPI(M) smartly moved in to mobilise 35 backward caste organisations, including the SNDP and the KPMS, to stitch together a “renaissance forum” to checkmate the BJP’s “anti-women” stance. The BJP national leadership’s refusal to grant the demands of backward caste leaders who had allied with it, coupled with the State party leadership’s inability to take them along, hastened the stand-off. As the political scientist Harish S. Wankhede wrote about the BJP’s subaltern Hindutva project in the northern States: “While appearing to be mainly strategic in ensuring the BJP’s electoral victories, [it] offers no mandate to satisfy the aspirations of the worst-off social groups.”

Janu left the NDA in 2018. In the 2021 Assembly election, even as the BJP increased its vote share by about 1 per cent, its ally BDJS’ share fell by 2 per cent. Though the dominant caste Nairs’ organisation, the Nair Service Society, has no ideological differences with the BJP, it has never aligned with it politically.

  • The BJP’s vote share in Kerala has grown from around 5 per cent to 15 per cent in the Lok Sabha election and from over 5 per cent to 11 per cent in the Assembly election but has won only a single seat in the Assembly so far. It lost that, too, in the next election.
  • The BJP’s biggest stumbling block is the minorities, who form 45 per cent of the population. The dominant caste Nairs continue to favour the Congress, and the marginalised castes remain the CPI(M)’s backbone.
  • The BJP has tried to make inroads into the backward caste Hindu political landscape with the “subaltern Hindutva” project. With little success in that, it has now begun wooing Christians.

Reaching out to Christians

Even as the BJP leadership did not do much to bring back the backward Hindus, it began wooing Christians. The latest overture occurred last Christmas when Modi hosted heads of various Christian denominations at his residence in New Delhi. Though the meeting was cordial, it led to a controversy in Kerala. Many questioned the clergy about not raising the atrocities against Christians, particularly in Manipur, at the meeting. According to a report submitted by the United Christian Forum in the Supreme Court, Christians have faced over 400 crimes against them in various parts of the country in the first half of 2023, averaging more than two incidents a day. However, the Central government dismissed it as an exaggeration. In April 2023, Modi visited the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi on Easter day, and Kerala BJP leaders greeted church leaders.

Though the Christian leaders have given no major political message in the BJP’s favour, Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplani, who heads the North Kerala diocese of the Syro-Malabar Roman Catholic Church, stated last year that Christian farmers would vote to help the BJP get its first Parliament seat from Kerala if the Central government raised rubber prices. Christian farmers have, until now, voted in favour of the Congress or the Kerala Congress factions over which the church has great sway.

In October 2023, a 74-year-old vicar of the Syro Malabar Catholic Church joined the BJP, forcing the church to defrock him for violating church laws that barred priests from joining political parties. In December, the BJP received another boost when 47 Christian families led by a priest from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church joined the party in Pathanamthitta in the presence of Union Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan.

But a few days later, the priest, Fr Shaiju Kurien, was suspended from the church pending an inquiry into charges levelled against him a few weeks earlier. The church also sought an explanation from a pro-CPI(M) priest for levelling charges of sexual harassment against Fr Kurien during a TV debate after the latter joined the BJP. Though not sizeable, the growing pro-BJP section among Christians has earned the moniker “Chrisanghis” (referring to the Christian Right). On January 31, P.C. George, a seven-time legislator and the chairman of the Kerala Janapaksham (Secular), joined the BJP.

The clergy’s recent outbursts against what they call “love jehad” and ”narco jehad” were manifestations of their fears of the growing political, economic, and numerical power of Muslims in Kerala. They accused Muslim youths of feigning love and luring Christian girls into terrorist groups, and spreading narcotics on campuses. There were stray cases of Christian girls marrying Muslims and ending up in Afghanistan or Syria to work with terror groups like the ISI. The Sangh Parivar readily backed Christians on these issues.

Also Read | In Karnataka, BJP’s long game reveals a blend of faith, culture, and social issues

There were a few skirmishes at some places between the two communities. In 2010, Muslim fundamentalists chopped off a Christian professor’s palm accusing him of denigrating Prophet Muhammad. Significantly, Prof. T.J. Joseph, the victim, was one of the Prime Minister’s guests when he visited Kochi this January, a week after the first accused in the case was arrested after 13 years.

The 2024 general election may show whether or not the BJP’s deals with the Christian leadership will take the same turn it took with the subaltern Hindutva project.

The RSS shakhas may have established a cultural connect with the people of Kerala, but to convert that into electoral gains of the kind the Hindi heartland delivers will perhaps need more than appeasement of the minorities for the BJP in Kerala.

M.G. Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist based in Thiruvananthapuram, has worked with various print and electronic media organisations.

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