Prime Minister Narendra Modi commenced his party’s electoral campaign for a third consecutive national mandate from Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, on 3 January.
The event began with a roadshow through the town, past long lines of ecstatic supporters. It was followed by a large rally organised by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) women’s wing, the Mahila Morcha, at the famous Thekkinkadu Maidan beside the Vadakkumnathan Shiva temple.
The rally’s theme was ‘Stree Shakti’, or woman power, the crowd was bigger than usual, and the dais was graced by two legends of Kerala — Olympic athlete P T Usha, and award-winning actress Shobana.
The event was rich in symbolism, and sought to set the tone for a gruelling campaign which will wend its way across the subcontinent, and end only in the midst of a blazing summer in May.
But why did the BJP decide to hold its first campaign rally in Kerala — a state where it has consistently fared extremely poorly in elections for the longest time?
One reason is that Kerala remains the nation’s most resolute redoubt of 'secularism', vote banking, and rank minority appeasement. Both Congress and Marxist politicians have demonstrated for many decades now, that electoral victories can be successfully fashioned by openly pandering to those very divides which hurt societies the most, without a care for the consequences, our civilisational ethos, or Hindu sentiments.
They have managed to do this largely because of favourable demographics, and the regrettable connivance of an intellectual class which has evolved through assiduous political patronage, and which thrives today courtesy the economics of 'secularism'.
It matters not a fig to either the Congress or the Marxists if the state’s finances have been comprehensively wrecked in the process (Kerala is bankrupt), since the average resident Malayalee is insulated from such bad economics on account of the state being a classic remittance economy.
Two, as a result, it is in Kerala that the national 'secular' narrative is set. That may seem difficult to believe for readers from the rest of the subcontinent, but it is the truth. Take the past year for example:
Long before 'secular' commentators tried to milk the ethnic riots in Manipur and put an evil Hindutva-vadi anti-Christian spin to it nationally, or internationally, two Congress MPs had already toured the state prior to Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Manipur in June 2023, disguised as teachers and reported matters to the church.
This is what Ernakulam MP Hibi Eden of the Congress said at the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council centre in Kochi: “The Manipur violence… is part of the RSS’ fundamental agenda to wipe out Christian communities from the regions where they are strong”.
Similarly, long before Communist leader Sitaram Yechury made his open pitch for the Muslim vote on 28 December, by demanding “an immediate end to the ongoing genocide & ethnic cleansing of Palestinians by Israel” (with nil reference to the Hamas barbarism of 7 October which sparked the current conflict, of course), colourful posters had already sprung up across colleges in Kerala, expressing solidarity with Palestine and denouncing Zionists. (See here for a sample).
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan actually took this point one step further, as only his sort can, to state that it wasn’t just Muslims who were victims of Israeli violence in Gaza, but Christians too.
Further, three of the most politically active Muslim outfits in India are centred in Kerala: the Indian Union Muslim League (the IUML, currently allied with the Congress), the Popular Front of India (the PFI, a rogue Islamist outfit now banned), and the Jamaat. Asaduddin Owaisi doesn’t count because his true reach is actually quite limited.
And, lest we forget, Kerala is the epicentre of the beef bravado used by social media warriors to paint the BJP as intolerant. Readers will surely remember a revolting video from some years ago, in which a Congress party member slaughtered a calf on a street in Kerala, and cooked beef curry in full public view.
They do this because they can get away with it in Kerala, and that licence is then used by others elsewhere to popularise their 'secular' narratives with a wider audience. In a sense, the 'secularists' of Kerala provide them with both material for use, and an outlet for their intense frustrations at having been rendered electorally impotent; plus, their heady adulation of such acts completes a perfect feedback loop.
Three, however, the BJP rightly senses that there is trouble in 'secular' ranks. This has national implications in an election year. The Congress party’s dotted coalition was a non-starter in Kerala since both they and the Communists are essentially vying for the same vote base.
The Communists have used this contradiction to consolidate their position in Kerala, along with a majority of the Christian vote, and set their sights on the identity vote in pockets in other parts of the country. With a little luck, and some nifty negotiations with regional parties, the Communists could stage a minor comeback of sorts in 2024 (albeit not to the levels of 2004, a banner year when the Left won around 60 seats).
The Congress is hamstrung by its dependence on the Hindu vote in states like Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Telangana and Karnataka, the lack of enough Christian votes, and the very real fear that the Muslim vote too may desert them in parts.
This has been ‘exacerbated’ by the BJP’s intense, relentless outreach to the Christian community (part of which is meant to shore up their position in the North East, and partly to negate the secularists’ alarmist narrative on Manipur). Note how athlete Anju Bobby George rocked the crowd during Modi’s Christmas meet in Delhi last month? And note how the fabricated narratives using Manipur have largely run out of steam?
Consequently, a Modi rally in Thrissur is a smart move, because it will force political parties to choose a stance. The Communists are ready. They have no qualms about projecting themselves as the protectors of ‘victimised’ minorities, and will gladly ‘smash Brahminical patriarchy’ to this end. This will resonate well in the rest of the country, and aid the Communists in negotiating a few extra seats from non-Congress regional parties (except, perhaps, in West Bengal).
But the Congress is in a bind. The more they bend over backwards to recover their position in the south, the more they will get hurt in the north. Even in Karnataka, they will be hard-pressed to retain their bastion of Bangalore Rural, now that the Janata Dal (Secular) has accepted the loss of its Muslim vote to the Congress, and tied up with the BJP.
To top it all, woe betide if a portion of the Muslim vote in Kerala goes against the IUML diktat and shifts to the Communists. Rahul Gandhi would find his four-lakh-vote victory margin of 2019 in Wayanad shredded to a whisker in 2024 (the first warning signs became evident in the 2021 Kerala assembly elections). His party would find it difficult to win 40 seats nationally.
And even if the BJP doesn’t fare too well in Kerala, ironically, the most biased of commentators would still be forced to say on counting day, in May, that it all began with a Modi rally in Thrissur.
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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