With 2019 Around the Corner, the New Kerala BJP Chief Has His Work Cut Out For Him

P.S. Sreedharan Pillai's appointment put an end to two months of internal wrangling and speculation, but there are a number of challenges ahead for him.

Trivandrum: The uncertainty in the Kerala unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party over its next leader has finally ended, with P.S. Sreedharan Pillai being named president. The vacancy arose when Kummanam Rajasekharan was elevated to the post of governor of Mizoram on the eve of the Chengannur by-poll in May. Not only did the decision come as a bolt from the blue for the state unit and Rajasekharan himself – as he admitted later – on the eve of a crucial election, it also led to a stalemate on the decision on his replacement.

Pillai, 64, is known as a “moderate” face in the party and was the losing candidate in Chengannur. He could not improve upon his third place finish from 2016, but still put up a credible performance, garnering over 35,000 votes. Pillai had earlier served as the party chief in the state from 2003 to 2006. His appointment put an end to two months of internal wrangling and speculation. Although the central leadership was keen to appoint a younger face to lead the party in the state, this was met with strong resistance from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and a prominent faction in the party.

The background

When Amit Shah hand-picked Kummanam Rajasekharan to lead the state unit in 2015, Rajasekharan wasn’t even a member of the BJP. But as a senior Hindutva activist in Kerala who had worked with different Sangh parivar affiliates, he was accepted. His brief back then was to put an end to the factionalism in the state unit and woo minorities and smaller parties to the NDA – while also holding on to the BJP’s traditional vote bank. Although Rajasekharan led the party to a much-improved performance in the 2016 assembly elections – with the BJP finally opening its account in the state – he couldn’t keep up the momentum.

Moreover, despite all his efforts, he couldn’t put an end to the factionalism. The BJP has two prominent factions in Kerala – one led by Rajya Sabha MP V. Muralidharan and the other by former state unit president P.K. Krishnadas. The in-fighting was made a public matter when details of the medical college scam involving some prominent leaders were released (an inside job). That controversy also put paid to the hopes of M.T. Ramesh (of the Krishnadas faction) of becoming state party president, despite being the senior-most general secretary of the party in Kerala.

As for wooing minorities and attracting defectors, Kummanam Rajasekharan did his best to shake off his Hindutva image and didn’t hesitate to prostrate himself before the clergy on occasion, but that wasn’t going to be enough. Attracting defectors from the Congress and smaller parties and expanding the NDA also came a cropper. A restless Amit Shah didn’t think he was getting results, and Rajasekharan was eventually “kicked upstairs” to be the governor of Mizoram.

The deadlock

The ill-timed move to replace Rajasekharan was supposedly aimed at handing the baton over to a younger face, K. Surendran. Surendran had lost the Manjeshwaram constituency bordering Karnataka in 2016 by a mere 89 votes and fulfilled his duties ably during the recent Karnataka assembly elections, thus gaining Shah’s confidence. But that proposal ran into stiff resistance when the RSS leadership in the state vetoed him, and the faction owing allegiance to P.K. Krishnadas too raised the banner of revolt.

The RSS was sulking on account of the shunting out of their fellow pracharak, Kummanam Rajasekharan, to Mizoram. An RSS ideologue who regularly participates in Malayalam talk shows said, “Kummanamji was doing a good job and it was too early to retire him from active politics. Moreover, his acceptability was growing and he had the sympathy of a lot of well-meaning people from different walks of life. To grow in a literate state like Kerala, [the party] needs a more wholesome approach and not ad hoc measures.”

Kummanam Rajasekharan with BJP president Amit Shah. Credit: PTI/Files

Kummanam Rajasekharan with BJP president Amit Shah. Credit: PTI/Files

Kerala is the state with the second-highest number of RSS shakhas, but the organisation has not been able to convert presence on the ground into votes. The BJP’s fortunes were finally beginning to look up as they polled 10% more votes than the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in 2016 among the Nair community. The ideologue also blamed the central leadership for allies deserting the BJP and the running feud with the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) post 2016. “If the central leadership had committed parliamentary positions or something else to the BDJS when the alliance was drawn up, they should have fulfilled that sooner without letting it become an issue for them to go public with it.” The BDJS chose not to outrightly support the BJP in the Chengannur by-polls as a bargaining tactic.

Surendran’s candidature also faced resistance from the Krishnadas faction, as they held the Muralidharan faction responsible for the medical college scam becoming public, possibly to scuttle the chances of M.T. Ramesh’s elevation. (An internal inquiry had found V.V. Rajesh – a prominent leader with the Muralidharan faction – responsible for the leak and suspended him). Moreover, as V. Muralidharan was already bestowed with a Rajya Sabha seat, they expected someone from their own faction to be named party president to balance that out.

How the decision was arrived at

While Amit Shah kept pushing Surendran’s name during the multiple visits to the state and back and forth between Delhi and Kerala, A.N. Radhakrishnan was the candidate of the P.K. Krishnadas faction. However, Radhakrishnan was considered too low-profile for the top job and didn’t have wider acceptability; nor was he acceptable to the Muralidharan faction. Firebrand Shobha Surendran’s name was also debated, but she too didn’t inspire confidence among the stakeholders.

To try break the deadlock, Shah commissioned a poll by an external agency to assess the popularity enjoyed by the possible contenders and other leaders in the state. P.S. Sreedharan Pillai emerged as the most popular choice in the exercise and since Pillai wasn’t part of either faction, he was acceptable, by and large, to everyone. Pillai was also considered the best choice to keep warring factions in check, as a senior statesman with previous experience of steering the ship. Crucially, Pillai being from the Nair caste and being acceptable to the RSS decisively tipped the scales in his favour.

Stiff challenge ahead for Pillai

While Pillai might be the best possible choice for the BJP at this point, there’s a number of challenges ahead for him. The decision to appoint Pillai also comes as a setback to Amit Shah, as he was supposedly readying a blueprint to go ahead with an aggressive approach in the state with Surendran. The entire exercise to move Kummanam Rajasekharan to Mizoram has also come to naught, as Pillai is similar to Rajasekharan in that he is unlikely to adopt the all-out aggressive approach that Shah desires. Most sympathisers of the BJP in Kerala have supported the choice, as they only see incremental growth for the party in Kerala and reckon that Pillai is best placed to deliver that. But things are unlikely to be smooth.

To begin with, he has to placate the disgruntled allies – the BDJS in particular – to stay the course for the crucial 2019 general elections. Even the smaller allies, like the residual faction of the Kerala Congress led by P.C. Thomas (a former Union minister of state in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government), is on course to desert the NDA. Pillai has his task cut out for him in reaching out to the smaller parties in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led UDF. He also has to reach out to various caste and community groups to gain wider acceptability for the party and shed the status of a pariah.

Despite strong booth committees and a well-organised cadre, BJP faces a shortage of credible leaders. Pillai will try to court sulking Congress leaders and get them to switch sides (as the saffron party managed in Tripura), but that will not be easy, with the Congress considerably better placed than the BJP in the state despite organisational weaknesses. He will also need to summon all his diplomatic skills to try and take the minorities into his confidence.

It remains to be seen whether Pillai can build on Rajasekharan’s efforts and hold on to the allies and attract new partners, while keeping factionalism within the BJP in check. To paraphrase the RSS ideologue: Pillai wasn’t the best choice but the only choice for BJP at this point. Now it is up to him to deliver the goods.

Anand Kochukudy is a political journalist and lapsed academic.