An Opportunistic March Is Far From Enough to Give BJP a Hold on Kerala

While state-level leaders insist otherwise, Amit Shah's early exit from the 'Jana Raksha Yatra' suggests even the BJP recognises its failure.

New Delhi: The abrupt withdrawal of BJP national president Amit Shah from the ‘Jana Raksha Yatra’ in Kerala against the recent killings of RSS workers, after he flagged it off with much fanfare, left many wondering about what went wrong.

At the party’s recent “extended” national executive meet in New Delhi, top leaders repeatedly talked about intensifying their campaign against political violence in opposition-ruled states like Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura. It was apparent that raking up the issue of political murders of BJP and RSS activists would be one of the prioritised strategies for the party against the opposition it is facing from the Trinamool Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) at the state and national levels.

The 15-day march to take on what the BJP had termed as “Left-jihadi terror”, which began on October 3, was supposed to be the party’s first full-fledged, big-budget initiative on this count. But as Shah left the march midway for “emergency work” in Delhi (according to state-level party leaders), many observers felt that was a subdued end for the march, which is now progressing under the stewardship of state BJP president Kummanam Rajasekharan.

Many were of the opinion that the tepid media and crowd response to the march, despite having passed through politically-volatile districts of northern Kerala, was one of the primary reasons behind Shah’s departure. The Malayalam media, instead, remained occupied with actor Dileep, who was released on bail after being in custody for 86 days for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a Mollywood actress.

Shah’s aides, however, have claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought the BJP president’s presence in Delhi for the cabinet meeting in which the government decided to relax GST norms for small and medium traders on October 6 – a day before Modi embarked on his campaign trail in poll-bound Gujarat.

Either way, BJP insiders told The Wire that Shah’s presence in Delhi to micro-manage Modi’s visit to Gujarat was deemed much more important than the Jana Raksha Yatra, which does not hold any immediate value for the party.

Why the BJP’s strategy did not work

The BJP has used political violence in Kerala and West Bengal as an effective counterpoint to criticisms that the Modi government has been facing over its failure to control violence against minorities and dissenters. In recent times, the party has used the killings of RSS workers politically against opposition parties and civil society activists who launched a nation-wide protest against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. In the three-and-a-half years of Modi’s regime, the BJP has developed this strategy as a compelling ploy to consolidate its supporters who have been facing ground-level opposition wrath over a systematic Sangh parivar-led cow vigilantism campaign against Muslims and Dalits.

But while this political rhetoric appears to have worked to a certain extent nationally for the BJP, it has proven to be a dampener in a state like Kerala, where politics has been marred by violence since colonial times.

First, the problem of political violence is nothing new in Kerala. While the CPI(M) and some Islamist organisations have been battling it out for many decades, many parts of northern Kerala have witnessed intermittent sanguineous fights between the RSS – a relatively new player in the political ring – and the the CPI(M).

In a state like Kerala, where political consciousness is relatively higher than the rest of India owing to better human development indices, the BJP’s single-point strategy to gain ground is unlikely to be accepted uncritically.

Second, the BJP has not been able to devise a clear strategy to challenge the bipolar United Democratic Front (UDF)-Left Democratic Front (LDF) consensus in Kerala. Although it improved its performance by managing 14.8% votes in the last assembly elections, much of that was credited to its pre-poll alliances with groups representing a section of dominant Ezhava and Adivasi communities. The party has struggled to position itself within this dynamic. While it started off as a militant Hindu nationalist party in northern Kerala around two decades ago, it failed to grow beyond a point.

With Modi’s popularity driving its campaign now, the BJP is trying to assume a centrist image – but not without its pro-Hindu political leanings. With around 46% minorities – comprising both Muslims and Christians – in the state, the BJP’s Hindu consolidation strategy, which may come handy in north India, is bound to be counter-productive here.

Third, the BJP has also failed to advance its Gujarat model of development as an alternative to a starkly opposite Kerala social development model beyond a small section of aspirational youth. The lack of a clear-cut political strategy has resulted in the BJP struggling to challenge a largely-secular political framework espoused by both the UDF and the LDF. In such a scenario, the BJP has been confused on whether to advance development issues or Hindutva as its primary agenda. For instance, it has tried to sell the reformist dream in the state but at the same time has been raking up polarising issues like “love jihad” and “minority appeasement”.

The BJP had thought the yatra against political violence could also be a platform to attract a section of moderate self-employed Hindus, who have been insecure about the growing prosperity of minorities. It had hoped that the presence of Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindutva hardliner Adityanath, who openly raked up the polarising issue of love jihad in the context of another burning issue, the conversion of Hadiya, would accentuate its appeal as a Hindu nationalist party.

Also read: With Scam After Scam, the BJP Is Struggling in Kerala

But both the LDF and UDF have been spearheading aggressive campaigns against the BJP on evocative issues like the imposition of Hindi, the beef ban and so on. On top of this, charges of corruption against Kerala’s BJP leaders, like in the case where BJP leaders were alleged to have accepted bribes to grant Medical Council of India licenses to certain private colleges, have only tarnished the party’s image.

The allegations of scams against BJP leaders also brought to light the rampant infighting among four different camps – led by state unit president Rajasekharan, lone MLA in the state assembly O.Rajagopal and former state unit presidents P.S Sreedharan Pillai and V. Muraleedharan – within the state leadership.

Kerala BJP insiders told The Wire that Shah has been very upset with the infighting in the party and cited this as one of the reasons behind his abrupt exit from the yatra. Apparently, Shah also left strict instructions asking the party unit to put its house in order.

In this context, merely flagging off a campaign on the issue of political violence turned out to be more an exercise in whataboutery than a sincere effort to consolidate ground support.

Amit Shah during the 'Jana Raksha Yatra' in Payyannur, Kerala. Credit: Twitter/Amit Shah

Amit Shah during the ‘Jana Raksha Yatra’ in Payyannur, Kerala. Credit: Twitter/Amit Shah

According to Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, Frontline‘s senior associate editor, the yatra was a part of BJP’s multi-pronged approach to corner the opposition. “One, it was one of the ways to divert attention from the core issues of economic decline and rising unemployment. Two, the BJP hoped to attract a section of Hindus within the Congress fold. This section has always been inimical to the CPI(M) and by taking aim at the Left, it hoped to gain the confidence of this section. Three, the yatra was also a tactic to bring together different hostile camps within the party. However, on all three counts, the yatra has not just failed but also backfired.”

“Backfired,” he added, “because political violence as an issue did not cut much ice in Kerala as people know that not only the Left but also the RSS-BJP thrive on the culture of political violence. The very organisational make up of both is built on this culture of political violence.”

He said that even the Congress, which was wary initially, seems to have relaxed as the yatra failed to attract any attention. With Shah’s sudden exit, he said, the infighting within the BJP continues as before.

Also read: In Kerala, a Beef Fry Dilemma For the BJP

“The timing of the yatra was also poorly chosen. The march began at a time when no killings have happened since July. Both the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan and the RSS-BJP leadership had already agreed to de-escalate in a meeting after RSS worker Rajesh was killed in July. There was growing drawing room acceptance to Hindutva politics in Kerala, say over the last ten years. But some recent corruption cases against some top state-level leaders of the BJP, which unravelled the divisions within the party, have not done it any good. Now with the failure of the yatra, the BJP’s plan to gain a foothold in Kerala polity appears to have boomeranged at the moment,” said Ramakrishnan.

Speaking to The Wire, P.C. Chacko of the Congress, which was initially cautious in responding to the yatra amidst speculations that the BJP was targeting Congress’s Hindu votes, seemed to agree. “The BJP rally has failed. It may have given some inspiration to its rank and file but for people of Kerala it was nothing more than a tamasha.”

“We have always condemned this barbaric culture of violence. We hold the RSS-BJP equally responsible for the culture of political violence in Kerala. In fact, we staged one full-day satyagraha concurrently with BJP’s yatra to demand that both these parties should lay down their arms,” added Chacko.

To a question whether the BJP is looking to dent the Congress’s Hindu votes, as per speculation raised by many observers, he replied, “The BJP does not have more than 15% votes. It is only a poor third. Nobody is taking them seriously. In so many years, it has managed to win only one assembly seat. We are a very organised, cadre-driven party in Kerala, unlike in other states where other factors also influence Congress’s performance. Successive elections will show that the strength of both the Congress and the Left will more or less remain the same, with BJP nowhere close to these two fronts.”

Back in 2016, Modi had caused a row when he compared Kerala’s infant mortality rates among scheduled tribes with that of Somalia. More recently, during the yatra, Adityanath, while invoking the recent dengue deaths in the state, asked the Kerala government to learn hospital management from UP.

Such foot-in-mouth statements from top BJP leaders have only fomented more troubles for the state-level party leaders. Both the LDF and UDF, which take pride in having placed Kerala on top on all major social development indicators, have naturally found in these statements great opportunities to hit back at the BJP’s own record on the social development front.

Against this backdrop, the Jana Raksha Yatra has failed to capture political attention, though the state-level BJP leaders remain in damage-control mode, claiming to be strong enough to lead the yatra. The negative publicity around the march, however, indicates otherwise.

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