The party has to rework its strategies to get the better of a ruthless, politically savvy opponent.
With the current thrashing of Communist Party of India-Marxist or CPI-M by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Tripura and in Kerala, the complete failure of the Pinarayi Vijayan government in almost everything ranging from health care, law and order, finance, corruption, coupled with a moribund Indian National Congress (INC), offers BJP a once in a life time opportunity.
Just like North East India, the social structure in Kerala is a lot different from other parts of the country.
The current structure is owing to four key socio-political factors:
1. Role of Hindu reformist movements – Right from 1800s Kerala has been at the forefront of Hindu reformist movements. Saints like Sree Narayana Guru, Ayyankali, Chattampi Swamikal effected changes in the Hindu social structure probably unlike any other state in India. Hence one will never see the internecine caste wars seen in other parts of India like Goundar vs Thevar, Rajput vs Bhumihar, Reddy vs Naidu, or upper caste vs Dalits etc. So, Hindu caste pride is not that much of a decisive factor.
2. Role of communist movements and land reforms - Kerala has been the land of the world's first ever democratically elected communist government. It has withstood split on ideology (Communist Party of India vs CPI-M) of the 60s as well as the influence of the Naxalbari movement of the 70s. A big reason was the personal integrity of the founding fathers as well as they being actively involved in the Hindu reformist causes. Right economics or not, the communist government in Kerala also effected land reforms which altered the social structure once and for all
3. Minorities - Kerala has about 18 per cent Christians and they are concentrated in pockets. There are multiple subsections, which are also concentrated in pockets. The earlier generation made it big by cultivating cash crops and the later generation through education and business. Church plays a big role in politics, education and healthcare and hence affects the social life of almost everyone in much larger degree than their numerical strength.
Also, quite unlike counterparts in other parts of the country, the education levels and per capita income of Muslims is much higher. This can be attributed to the earlier generation getting rich through trade and later generation through education, business and gulf remittances etc. They are also socially very active and the most prominent of them play a key role in mainstream politics by allying with INC-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and CPI(M).
In a nutshell, the deeply ingrained psyche of Kerala is of religious tolerance. Festivals and weddings are occasions when they get together and the core idea is to be inclusive and not segregate. To drive home the point, take the case of constituencies housing holy sites where the MLA is from a different religion (like Guruvayur has Muslim MLA, Aranmula has Christian MLA, Ponnani has Hindu MLA, Arthumkal has a Hindu MLA etc.
Having said all this, it’s no la-la land. Due to multiple social factors, the basic structure is getting ruptured. While it is often quoted in social media that Hindus (read Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) are under attack in Kerala, it's conveniently forgotten that the perpetrators are also mostly Hindu (read CPI-M). Why that's happening is, anyhow, not the focus of this article.
Many would argue that 2016 was by far the best possible opening the BJP got in Kerala and that number wouldn’t rise further. May be it’s partly true, but a lot more could be done as well.
1. Hate-based campaigns will not work here, but building a positive campaign from ground up, will. The so called leaders of Kerala BJP who frequently appear on TV channels can't even win a Panchayat seat. Provide candidates, who have given very tough fight in the assembly, with state-level roles (like Malampuzha). It’s tough but an alternate narrative needs to be set. Why BJP needs to be considered has to be communicated in a better fashion.
2. According to the recent Indian Readership Survey, Kerala has two of the largest vernacular dailies, one of the largest weeklies, one of the largest monthlies. And there are almost 10 vernacular news channels. The point being Kerala has high media penetration with most of journalists following CPI-M, Students Federation of India (SFI) and Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) ideology. They are ruthless in destroying the credibility of any opposing leader. The challenge before the BJP is to nurture a not over exposed, young, smart and non controversial leader, which they currently don't have at all in their arsenal.
3. BJP is very strong #2 in few constituencies according to the 2016 elections. Two subsections, youth and women, have to be targeted and there is a dearth of political parties occupying this mindspace. Instead of focusing to become pan Kerala party, they just have to concentrate on a smaller geography.
4. It's actually laughable that a party with one MLA, 0 MPs, one corporation mayorship and few councillors and Panchayat members have three to four factions in the state unit. Too many people have got triple quadruple promotions not befitting the stature and talent they have. It’s even surprising that all this happens in a small state which has the highest number of RSS shakhas (5,000 against 1,000 approximately in Gujarat) .
5. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah shouldn't leave it to the local leadership to explain central government policies and measures which have helped Kerala, like for instance, Mudra yojana or Pahal yojana. The language barrier should not end up becoming a problem for the best political communicators in the recent era. Most of the local TV spokespersons try to curry favour with the channel anchors and are neither well read nor well spoken (You may please Google the Savarkar gaffe by one spokesperson).
Kerala is like a Gordian Knot. BJP will never win 140/140 or even 71/140. The day BJP realises it can achieve a maximum of 30 in assembly and four in Lok Sabha and work towards it, it can grow. If BJP (National Democratic Alliance) vote share moves from 16 per cent to say 25 per cent, the subsequent reduction in vote percentage will simply unravel the coalition schema of Left Democratic Front or LDF-UDF, thereby opening up scope for new alliances and mergers.
With CPI-M gunning for its Muslim and Christian vote and BJP pursuing its Hindu and Christian votes, in a few years INC in Kerala will be battling for its existence.
Apart from big states like West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, Kerala is probably the only state where there is political fight between three national parties CPI-M, INC and the BJP. Though they are large names and hog most of the media space, there are many smaller parties who basically decide the winner as it’s always an alliance (LDF or UDF) which wins. Smaller parties like Kerala Congress Mani, CPI are decisive in one to two Lok Sabha seats. (For eg of CPI and CPI-M go their own ways, it’s advantage BJP for constituencies like Trivandrum, Trichur etc as a more powerful CPI-M will fight with INC/CPI)
CPI-M in Kerala is in many ways like post-September 2013 BJP. They are ruthless, politically very savvy, has multiple leaders at different levels, controls narrative with the help of media and are absolute masters of social media.
Can BJP find a young, articulate and well spoken and, preferably, a woman to be the face of the party? Can BJP try setting a narrative instead of being defensive? It's a tough task considering there is absolutely no one visible who fits the bill currently and doesn't look like they are attracting any good lateral talent. The limited talents they have attracted are well ensconced in the Rajya Sabha and ministry roles and have made zero contribution politically. Hence a pan Kerala leader and a sweep look like distant dream. May be they can lead a good fight in 25-30 constituencies and wait for the impending unravelling of INC and gradual implosion of CPI-M.