Elections 2019: In Kerala, A Lesson For The BJP

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - May 28, 2019 04:34 PM +05:30 IST
Elections  2019: In Kerala, A Lesson For The BJPAmit Shah meeting Kerala BJP leaders during July 2018 visit (pic via twitter @advssuresh )
  • Looking at the electoral debacle that BJP faced in Kerala it appears that the BJP’s state political leadership could neither exude the charisma necessary to cut across social divides, nor rise suitably enough above their own individual identities, to command the respect of all.

    The BJP will have to face up to certain truths and reorganize themselves accordingly. The way forward is to examine how and why the party lost and what they can do to better their performance going forward.

While the BJP won India in the recently concluded general elections, it was roundly trounced in Kerala. In a cogently-argued article, M R Subramani, Executive Editor of Swarajya, detailed six reasons why the Congress and its allies swept the state, winning 19 out of 20 seats. In this piece, we look at the other side of the coin, and try to figure out why the BJP lost – and, more importantly, what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

Broadly speaking, the BJP’s state political leadership could neither exude the charisma necessary to cut across social divides, nor rise suitably enough above their own individual identities, to command the respect of all. They presented no attractive, new economic plan for Kerala.

They didn’t fully understand the perils of operating in a relatively wealthy, healthy, genuine remittance economy, insulated and rather distanced from the economic fortunes of the rest of India. Jan Dhan, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Ujjwala, or Swachh Bharat had far less resonance in a state like Kerala – where issues of housing or sanitation or education were largely resolved half a century ago – than these schemes had in less-developed parts of this country.

Their political strategy remained unclear, their electoral tactics were unsound, their media management was inadequate, the depth of their grassroots organization was found wanting in many constituencies, and puzzlingly, they outsourced vital portions of their vote-gathering to popular fringe elements of the Praveen Togadia variety. To wit, they made many mistakes.

Avoiding the grave mistake

At this point, the worst thing the BJP can do is adopt a self-righteous ‘heads-will-roll’, chop-and-change-approach. No, that would be a mistake – a grave mistake.

The party’s state unit and workers have just been through a grueling campaign, in which they were bested by forces far beyond their control. A fresh generation has been blooded in a trial by fire.

The party would be better served instead, if the many painful, new learnings acquired by the state unit from their defeat, were rigorously integrated with ground realities, to honestly arrive at something better, more meaningful, and more electorally successful. It can be genuine introspection only when the truth is accepted freely. Anything else is a waste of time.

So what is the truth?

The BJP contested 15 seats in Kerala under the NDA banner, along with the BDJS who contested four, and the Kerala Congress, who contested in Kottayam. NDA candidates lost their deposits in thirteen constituencies. Alliance vote share stayed stuck at 16 per cent, barely a notch up from the 2016 assembly elections.

K Surendran, the hero of the Sabarimala agitation, and the one who was expected to win hands down from Pathanamthitta, in fact came third. Kummanam Rajashekharan, for whom surveys projected as set to unseat the flamboyant two-time Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, lost the race and one per cent of the vote share from 2014. Film star Suresh Gopi too came third in Thrissur.

There were admittedly a few points for the BJP supporters to cheer about – like a doubling of their vote share in Attingal, but the truth remains that this was a campaign from above, not from below. Yes, Modi was a huge draw, but he was not enough.

It demonstrated that there was no alternative to good old-fashioned ground work. Sabarimala might have been an emotive issue, useful for garnering attention, and engendering a long-overdue and much-awaited supra-caste consolidation amongst the Hindus. Yet in the end, it simply didn’t pay out.

The role of sub-regional identities and Hindu consolidation

It was senseless to try and employ caste consolidation as an election plank, without first establishing cross-caste, cross-state leadership. Don’t forget that there exists an extremely high degree of heterogeneity in Kerala, particularly amongst the Hindus. This, over time, fashioned strong sub-regional identities in Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, all nearly as powerful as a broader ‘Malayalee’ identity.

Be it dialect, diet or deity, there are old, sub-regional preferences and traditions which make the rise of a pan-Kerala leader a rarity. That is why political parties spend so much time on building intensive local units – the ubiquitous ‘ward office’. And that is why independents win so often in Kerala.

It was equally senseless to try and effect Hindu consolidation – noble as that effort might have been – without compensating for the inevitable counter-consolidation that was sure to follow. Here, part of the problem lay in the nature of political messaging, and the perils of perception management in a hostile environment. This was not for want of talent.

For example, Valsan Thillenkeri is probably the finest orator in Kerala today. He was at the forefront of the Sabarimala agitation. Some of his speeches, intensely passionate, and filled with soaring literary delights, while sticking to relevant, practical topics, moved audiences to tears.

And yet, the media image successfully spun around him, was of an overbearing functionary, who checked the ages of policewomen on duty at Sabarimala; and of a man who dared to stand on the holy 18 steps without an irumudikettu (the bag held by devotees over their heads while ascending the shrine’s access steps). A Sanghi who broke tradition while protecting it. True or false, the BJP had no answer to this spin.

BJP state unit president Sreedharan Pillai, too, fell victim to this general malaise in the most hapless manner. Whatever gains the Kerala BJP made in 2019, are due in some significant part to his tireless efforts. And yet, Manorama TV’s formidable anchor, Shani Prabhakaran, had Pillai on the back foot with her very first question during a campaign interview: ‘Why is the BJP faring so poorly?’

If professional media advisors had been part of the state team, they would have tutored Pillai well in advance – to expect, and how to best answer such expected questions, from journalists with an openly anti-BJP position. That unfortunately didn’t happen. Ms. Prabhakaran bored in like a needle, in the best traditions of a ‘Laphroaig Liberal’, leaving Pillai to respond in a mixture of affront, indignation and restrained pique.

The cost of not leveraging T G Mohandas

In fact, the BJP’s media star during the campaign was the most innocuous, unassuming character one may imagine – a mousey old man named TG Mohandas. Unfortunately, his brilliance remained restricted to Janam TV, and snared him in an echo chamber trap.

A pity, because if the BJP had taken the effort to raise a phalanx of people like Mohandas, a year or two in advance, the 2019 Kerala verdict could have been quite different. The dry wit that Mohandas employed to politely, methodically and factually take apart the Congress, and the Communists, had more impact than the most rabble-rousing of speeches.

For a party like the BJP, which took political messaging to new heights at the national level, and turned that into a fine art, it was bewilderingly strange to see its Kerala unit flounder thus. So yes, they may have managed to beat the odds to some extent, courtesy the gallant efforts of Janam TV, yet in the final analysis, they were still only successful in creating a larger echo chamber – not a mass movement.

The truth about BJP-BDJS alliance

Another painful truth is that the BJP-BDJS alliance has now flopped twice in a row. It is hurting the BJP’s chances more than helping them. The rise of a pan-Kerala leader will remain a pipe dream for as long as this alliance remains. This is because, while a majority of the Nair vote has shifted comprehensively to the BJP, loyalties of the Ezhava OBC vote remain split between the NDA, the BDJS’s parent organization – the SNDP (a social outfit committed to the interests of the Ezhava community), and the Marxists.

One problem for the BJP here is that the SNDP/BDJS have a well-established organizational network spanning Kerala, which the BJP needs for elections. A second problem is that going against the BDJS, in the short term, would cause the BJP to lose a number of the Ezhava votes it has attracted of late. So what to do?

A test case is the half-dozen assembly seats, which come up for by-election within six months. If the NDA does not win materially, the virtue of continuing this alliance will have to be brought into question. Yet in another sense, even a win in these by-elections would at best only postpone such a divorce, because in the final analysis, the BJP will be forced to go it alone in a state like Kerala.

The wise move would then be to build up a supra-caste leadership before breaking the alliance, because it has now been demonstrated that the block Nair vote is simply not enough to return necessary electoral dividends. That means going back to the blackboard and starting over. A dreary, dismal task no doubt, and filled with potential heartburn, but it will have to be taken up tomorrow, if not the day after.

Countering the IUML head-on

A separate, solemn truth is that as some point or the other, the BJP will have to take the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) head on – politically. The Christian community is not an issue; they have begun to slowly – very, very, slowly, gravitate towards the BJP. But the IUML is different for a curious political fact.

Paradoxically, while the Congress is nothing without the League, the League can survive without the Congress. That is the power of demographics and gerrymandering. By that truth, if the BJP ever hopes to become the natural party of governance in Kerala, then it will necessarily have to come into political conflict with the League. The weak may wring their hands at the prospects of facing such an eventuality, but the wise know that in the end, the truth alone triumphs.

In strategic terms, this approach has multiple benefits and few negatives: it will offer the BJP a stage to test its new slogan of ‘Sabka Vishwas’ without damaging its electoral prospects in Kerala (because the BJP is not yet a force here, and hasn’t yet materially engaged with the Muslim populace).

It will give them a first-mover advantage from a moral high ground. It will give them an opportunity to further expose the ugly hypocrisies of vote-bank politics and appeasement, without fear of harming existing vote bases in their core areas of strength (now, practically, the rest of India). And, it will keep the Congress, and Rahul Gandhi in particular, on the back foot, since he will be forced to defend the indefensible, being an MP from Wayanad.

Structural challenges in the Deep South

At another level, the problems the BJP faces in Kerala are but symptomatic of its structural challenges in the Deep South. Thus, Tamil Nadu mirrors Kerala in the sense that, there are a number of equally-sized communities, with sub-regional areas of predominance, who are as socially alienated from each other, and touched by not a little mutual antagonism, as they are bound by an obdurate truth of having to get along peacefully.

Successful politicians in these states then, are ones who managed to attract a majority of the citizens together, by vending ideas which were slightly above the mess of divides – like the Dravidian identity in Tamil Nadu, or the call for emancipation from Brahmanical thrall in Kerala.

Both these revolutions have run their course, and are now clearly faltering. In Tamil Nadu, the status quo will persist a little longer, until deeply-entrenched personality cults lose their magnetism. In Kerala, the 2019 results show that Hindu-phobia has very successfully taken over as the new glue in town.

Look at 2019 as an important lesson

Consequently, at some point of time, the BJP will have to face up to these truths and reorganize themselves accordingly. Therefore, the abject failures of 2019 must be taken as an important lesson, and as a stepping stone, if indeed the BJP has any serious intentions of ever bringing social harmony and further development to the Deep South. Until that decision is taken, the BJP’s efforts shall remain full of political sound and electoral fury, signifying nothing truly gainful.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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