‘Metro Man’ E Sreedharan’s decision to join the BJP ahead of the Kerala assembly election has taken many people by surprise. According to him, he will try to help the ‘national party’ expand in the state and to make the BJP in Kerala a party that has “a substantial role in governance”.
In a conversation with The Federal, Sreedharan said his intention is not to become an MLA but help the party win more votes and seats. He believes that his image — as a committed technocrat with honesty and integrity — would help the saffron party in the state, which so far has been alternately ruled by LDF and UDF governments. He wants the party to form a government in the style of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, he said.
Political commentators say Sreedharan’s entry will indeed boost the Kerala BJP, as the party is riven with internal conflicts and lacks an efficient leadership.
“If he is fielded in an appropriate constituency, he will be able to gather a substantial number of votes, especially from urban voters, but I don’t think it will be a game-changer,” said Dr J Prabhash, former professor of political science department of Kerala University. “Kerala is a highly politicised state. There are two major factors that influence a voter — one is his/her political affiliation and the second is the winning possibility.”
A closer look at the growth of the BJP’s vote share in Kerala substantiates this view. Despite many favourable factors in its favour — including the RSS’ strong presence in the state and being in power at the Centre — the BJP is not expected to achieve a proportional growth in terms of vote share in the state.
Until 2004, the party’s vote share in Kerala had never gone beyond 6 per cent. A substantial growth was achieved in the 2004 parliament election, in which BJP achieved 10 per cent votes. But it could not maintain the same in the 2006 assembly election, when the vote share dropped to 6 per cent again. In 2014, when the BJP came to power at the Centre, the party managed to win only 10 per cent votes. The BJP had a leap in vote share in the 2016 assembly election (15 per cent), which could probably be attributed to the ‘Modi Wave’. But since then the party has not made any progress. It managed to win 15.56 per cent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha election and 15.5 per cent in the recently held local body election.
‘The RSS is a hindrance rather than strength’
“In Kerala the BJP has not been able to escape the RSS’ control. There has always been a conflict between the RSS and BJP [in the state,” Puthezhath Ramachandran, a former RSS insider who was the national vice-president of the VHP, told The Federal. (Ramachandran quit the RSS and VHP and later joined KN Govindacharya, associating with his ‘Swabhiman Movement’.)
He said that the strategies adopted by the BJP were often in conflict with the interests and ideals of the RSS. “The RSS always wanted ‘their men’ to lead the party rather than someone having a mass base. It is very tough for those who do not have much of an RSS background to ascend to leadership position in Kerala,” he said.
Dr Prabhash also thinks that resolving internal fights and having a strong leadership would be a game-changer for the BJP in Kerala rather than bringing in technocrats and celebrities.
‘The decisive minority slows BJP’s growth’
Muslim and Christian consolidation in Kerala is another impediment to the BJP’s growth. Muslims make up 27 per cent of Kerala’s population, and Christians 18 per cent, and they play a crucial role in deciding the power equations in the state.
“As long as the BJP goes in with its aggressive Hindutva politics, the minority consolidation against the party would only be stronger,” said Dr Prabhash.
However, it seems that the BJP has started realising this and has been planning strategies to gather the support of Christian minorities. The recent meeting held by the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, with the representatives of Orthodox and Jacobite factions in order to resolve the conflict between the two was a tangible step in this regard. The meeting was organised by former state president and the present Mizoram governor Sreedharan Pillai.
The attempt to bring the Christians closer started when Pillai was the state BJP president. Two prominent priests of the Jacobite Syrian church in Pala, in Kottayam, the district where the community has a strong presence, joined the BJP in 2018.
“We hope that the Christian community in Kerala will support the BJP,” said a party insider. He says the recently held local body election gives some indications in this regard. The BJP fielded a few Christian candidates in Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts in the local body election held last year. However, community leaders do not think it would be sufficient for the BJP to make inroads into the community.
“It is very evident that the BJP is trying its level best (to win favour of the Christian community). It may yield some results, but not in the near future,” Dr Geevarghese Mor Coorilose, the metropolitan of Niranam Diocese of Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church, told The Federal.
He said the BJP is trying to woo the community by all means — even by creating communal polarisation. “There’s an attempt to create hate against the Muslim community. Allegations like ‘love jihad’ are being used for this. There are a lot of Christian parents who are worried about their daughters marrying out of their religion. Besides, there is also a campaign that Muslims get more share of funds from the government, which is actually baseless,” he said.
Dr Coorilose feels the BJP’s strategy to win the trust of the community will have some impact. “Steps like the intervention by the prime minister in resolving the dispute with the Orthodox faction may make an impact in the long run, but I don’t think this will get translated to votes in the upcoming election. There are many other factors that influence an election. Aggressive Hindutva will not work in Kerala. People generally do not want to lose the balance, it seems,” he says.
However, everyone agrees on one point: Voters in Kerala cast their vote meticulously. Personal charisma and celebrity status do not win in general, although there are a few exceptions. Film stars and celebrities take a back seat when it comes to electoral politics in Kerala, no matter how much they are loved or adored. Politics is what that matters.