No Modi magic: BJP’s bold claims clash with Kerala’s political realities

Despite BJP’s concerted bid to court the Christian community, a disconnect exists between the party’s outreach efforts and ground-level sentiments. 

Published : Apr 17, 2024 15:59 IST - 6 MINS READ

A man walks past cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister and BJP candidate from Attingal constituency V. Muraleedharan, put up as part of an election campaign ahead of Lok Sabha polls, in Thiruvananthapuram, Thursday, April 11, 2024.

A man walks past cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Minister and BJP candidate from Attingal constituency V. Muraleedharan, put up as part of an election campaign ahead of Lok Sabha polls, in Thiruvananthapuram, Thursday, April 11, 2024. | Photo Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often faced flak from detractors for making sweeping claims. But even by his standards, he seemed to be setting himself up for taunts when he said that in Kerala, thanks to “Modi ki guarantee”, he would work to “realise the dreams of Kerala”, and the State would give the BJP double-digit seats in the Lok Sabha election.

The famous Malayali sarcasm did not take long to come. Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP for Thiruvananthapuram, said the double digits would be two zeros, with “no space for BJP’s divisive politics in the State”. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the saffron party would not even come second in the 20 seats, let alone win even a seat.

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In 2019, the BJP vote share was 12.93 per cent, which went down to 11.3 per cent in the 2021 Assembly election. But the party has identified five “A-class constituencies”, where the vote share is higher. Thiruvananthapuram has about 31 per cent, Thrissur about 29 per cent, and Attingal, Pathanamthitta, and Palakkad have about 20 per cent each.

Prakash Javadekar, the BJP Kerala prabhari, reiterated that the party would win at least five seats, and BJP State secretary and Kozhikode candidate M.T. Ramesh said that this number was made on the basis of national surveys, although he did not reveal which these seats were even when Frontline quizzed him.

“The public response is positive with a pro-Modi wave on the ground,” said Ramesh. According to him, the ruling and the opposition Fronts have been campaigning against Modi, which has served to create a pro- and anti-Modi polarisation.

Former Ernakulam MP Sebastian Paul said that the BJP was out of touch even when it came to candidate selection in Kerala. He explained: “The Thiruvananthapuram constituency is one that is filled with contradictions; here, in the past V.K. Krishna Menon has won, and so has the Congress’ A. Charles, who wasn’t even a known face when he first contested in 1984. But it doesn’t look like Rajeev Chandrasekhar has a high profile that will be attractive to the constituents. He speaks Malayalam like a non-native, although that is true of Tharoor too. Pannyan Raveendran, the Left candidate, has a connection with the fishing community and others at the grassroots level.”

According to Sebastian Paul, the BJP’s Thrissur candidate Suresh Gopi “started out with a great show but has not managed to maintain momentum”. The actor-politician has been embroiled in a controversy over the purity of the gold of a crown that he placed on a statue of Mary at Our Lady of Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral in his constituency. “It is not clear that he has the star value to enthuse the people of Thrissur,” he said. “In Kerala, the only actors who have won are Innocent and Mukesh; even Mammootty and Mohanlal know that they will not be able to poll votes, so they steer clear of politics. I don’t think Suresh Gopi will be able to make an impact. At the last minute, the Kerala vote will be highly political and it will be anti-BJP.”

In Pathanamthitta, Anil Antony, son of former Chief Minister and Defence Minister in the UPA government A.K. Antony, has been roped in as the saffron party’s candidate. “His candidature seems to be a miscalculation, because even if the BJP is after the Christian vote in Pathanamthitta, for one, it’s not sure if Antony’s family are practising Christians, and even if they are, they are Catholics, but the denomination in this constituency consists of Orthodox and Marthomites,” said Sebastian Paul.

Although the BJP campaign in the State started with a Christian outreach, observers say the party has not made much progress on that front.

“Kerala’s demographic profile is made up of about 46 per cent of Christian-Muslim minority,” said a veteran journalist. “Their conscious push was towards the Christian community. But instead of focussing, at a political level, to have a connection with Christian parties like the Kerala Congress-Mani or Joseph [groups], they were trying to have a direct bridge with the bishops and clergy, on an individual and collective basis. One indirect impact has been the Idukki diocese recently screening The Kerala Story. But the Manipur violence has had a significant bearing, particularly among ordinary Christian voters.”

Failed strategy

Sebastian Paul said that the BJP strategy to create a rift would not work in Kerala on several levels. “The BJP strategy was to create a Christian-Muslim rift. They succeeded to an extent in creating an anti-Muslim feeling among Christians, and this section also had a leaning towards the BJP. But that has now changed. During the Easter Holy Week, bishops openly opposed the party,” he said, talking about the Good Friday sermons by Archbishop Thomas J. Netto of the Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Thiruvananthapuram and Mar Thomas Tharayil, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Changanassery. The sermons spoke about attacks against Christians in various parts of the country and about the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

“That is not a small thing, and it is not an ordinary sermon. This would be valid during the voting process. Even Hindus of Kerala are not of the Hindutva leaning variety that the BJP visualises. They are very liberal, progressive, and tolerant, like the historical definition of Hindus. Their ideology won’t sell here,” he said. “The BJP’s sight is not on the 20 seats in Kerala; they have their eyes on north India. They can make claims that the children of two former Kerala Chief Ministers—K. Karunakaran and A.K. Antony—have now joined the party. That creates a big impact in the North.”

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Professor Sunil P. Ilayidom, a writer and social observer, said that the Sabarimala Temple women’s entry issue had created some inclination towards the BJP in the last Assembly election. “In 2019, the saffron party managed to take a grip over some communities, but because of some current issues, such as electoral bonds, the CAA, and ED raids, I doubt they have much appeal. It doesn’t look like the BJP will better their vote share. They have managed to put up a strong fight in Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram, but it is unlikely that they will win even these seats. They have spent a lot of money on the campaign and have managed to create an impact, by meeting people, taking out vehicles on the road,” he said.

According to Sebastian Paul, even at the national level, the BJP is facing a loss in popularity and that Modi too does not mention the 400 seats any more. “In the old days, they would just say that they will open an account in Kerala; they didn’t make any claims beyond that. When they say they will win double digits in Kerala, it just goes to show that they know nothing about the State. People have taken the citizenship issue quite seriously. Even more than the time of the Emergency, when there were curbs on the freedom on speech, now there is a big concern about constitutional issues. I experienced this at a meeting recently held in a village near Kalady, when for the first time since 1952 people were discussing the future of parliamentary democracy during these elections,” he said.

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