The BJP has been making concerted efforts to make inroads into Kerala’s politics. The party’s game plan to woo the Christian community in the state seems to be entering its next phase, with a new party all set to be launched on April 22.
The idea of floating a party with the blessings of both the church and the BJP, proposed by the Sangh Parivar leadership, has been circulating for some time now. With former MLA Johnny Nellore resigning from his positions in the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) and Kerala Congress (J) on Wednesday, the new party is poised to set sail.
“I will not be joining any existing parties. Instead, I will launch an independent party with a nationalistic and secular outlook,” said Nellore after announcing his resignation. “I have consistently supported farmers. My goal is to found a national party that advocates for farmers,” he added.
Nellore, a three-time MLA from Muvattupuzha constituency, was previously the chairman of the Kerala Congress (Jacob) and later the deputy chairman of the other faction, Kerala Congress (Joseph).
Joining Nellore at the helm of the new party will be former MLAs and leaders of different Kerala Congress factions, Mathew Stephen and George J Mathew. The new party, likely to be named National Progressive Party (NPP), will be formally announced in Kochi on Saturday.
On Thursday, another leader of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) faction resigned. Former MLA Mathew Stephen, who was the vice-chairman of the party, tendered his resignation, citing personal reasons. He was a member of the Assembly from Udumbanchola constituency in Idukki district during 1991-96.
Building a new political base
Incidentally, Nellore was one of the political leaders who attended the meeting held on September 17, 2022, at the Ashish Convention Centre in Kalamassery, Kochi, under the auspices of the newly-formed Bhartiya Christian Sangamam (BCS).
The meeting was attended by over a thousand laypeople from various church denominations in Kerala, including former Kanjirappally bishop Mar Mathew Arackal. Other leaders present at the meeting included Mathew Stephen, George J. Mathew, and V.V. Augustine, a former member of the national minority commission, who has direct link with the BJP.
Also read: Kerala Congress leader Nelloor resigns; ploy to join BJP-led NDA?
According to the former UDF leader, the need for a party with a national vision that would speak up for farmers inspired the idea for NPP, a prospective partner of the NDA. “We demand an increase in the price of rubber to a minimum of Rs 300. The classification of rubber as an agricultural product is still pending. Kerala’s agricultural industry is in ruins,” said Nellore.
Interestingly the price hike of rubber was the very demand that had been put forward by the Kannur Bishop, Joseph Pamplany, as a pre-requisite for supporting the BJP, last month. In a controversial statement, the bishop had stated that his community was ready to support the BJP if they stood with the settler farmers, who are predominantly Christians.
Although his comments drew criticism from a variety of quarters, he received backing from the hierarchy of the church denomination, with Cardinal George Alencherry of Syro-Malabar Catholic church and Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil of its Thamarassery Diocese coming up with statements in favour of the BJP and the Union Government.
Will the party gain ground?
It is significant that the formation of the new party comes close on the heels of the BJP’s outreach programme held on Easter Sunday as part of its attempts to gain a foothold among Kerala’s Christian community, with party leaders visiting Catholic Bishops and a few of the chosen faithful in various parts of the state.
According to a state-level BJP leader, the party has chalked out a multipronged strategy to bring the minority communities, especially Christians, to their fold. As part of this strategy, some leaders will be directly inducted into the party by providing membership, whereas others will be advised to join the new party.
Two more leaders of the UDF, who quit Congress and Kerala Congress this week, are rumoured to be getting closer to the saffron party. Victor T. Thomas of the Kerala Congress, who severed ties with the UDF recently, told The Federal that he is keeping all options open, including joining the BJP.
“The Christian community had significant misgivings about the Communists in the 1950s. However, these concerns were dispelled when K.M. Mani and A.K. Antony aligned with them in 1980 to become a part of the Left front and the EK Nayanar ministry. I now see it positively when the BJP extends an invitation to minority communities. There must be peaceful coexistence between all parties and religions, and working with the BJP won’t hurt in these circumstances, Thomas told The Federal, adding that he had not yet made up his mind about his political future.
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Babu George, who was the Pathanamthitta district president of the Congress, is also maintaining an open-door policy. “Anything is possible, but to join the BJP, I have to prepare myself mentally, I am out of town for a couple of days, and will take a decision once I get back home,” George told The Federal from Hyderabad over phone.
When contacted, BJP state spokesperson Sandeep Vachaspati treaded with caution in his reaction. “We have not chalked out any plan to induct leaders who come out of the UDF. But decisions will be made once the situation unfolds fully,” said Vachaspati.
On the other hand, the Congress attempted to downplay the developments, pointing out that the exit of some leaders from the UDF would have little impact. V D Satheesan, the opposition leader, stated that Nellore had been inactive for the past couple of years as he was denied a seat in the 2021 assembly election and Babu George was suspended from the party for anti-party activities.
It is unclear how much impact Nellore or Thomas—who neither commands significant influence nor have a solid support base in the party or the community —can have in shifting the balance in favour of the NDA.
Political analysts suggest that simply bringing politically worn-out veterans from the UDF into a new party like the NPP may not be enough for the party to gain significant ground.
The BJP has previously made similar overtures in Kerala. They even succeeded in winning a Lok Sabha seat in 2004 by supporting P C Thomas and the Indian Federal Development Party (IFDP), a party that had the same level of support from the church and the Christian settler farmer community.
What makes the situation a little more favourable for them this time is the rift between the Christian and Muslim communities, which they are fervently attempting to capitalise on. The BJP was prepared to visit Muslim households during Eid al-Fitr after the success of the Easter day house visits in Christian neighbourhoods. They appear to be soft-pedalling it, though, out of concern for the church’s wrath.
Even though Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took a dig at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for visiting a church on Easter, saying it would have been better if it had been “atonement for the past deeds” of the Sangh Parivar, his party had been playing a watch and wait game on these developments.
According to a party insider, the CPI(M) is not particularly concerned about the recent developments since it believes that if the political overture of the Sangh Parivar is successful, it will be the UDF that suffers the most.
Kerala’s Catholic Church has historically maintained an anti-Communist and pro-congress stance since the infamous liberation struggle of 1958-59, which resulted in the dismissal of the first Communist government. Although they have been maintaining a more cordial relationship with the CPI(M) leadership in recent years, deep down the Church believes that the CPI(M) is engaging in appeasement politics to win over Muslim organisations.
This is where the BJP is fancying their chances, by backing the dominant Christian denominations. The formation of a new party dominated by the upper strata of Christian could be another opening move by the Hindu nationalist party.
Meanwhile, to counter the BJP’s church outreach programme, the Congress is planning to engage with the community leadership, cutting across the church denominations. A meeting of state congress leaders took stock of the situation in the wake of the political overtures of the BJP. The party plans to conduct a house-visit campaign next month.