The BJP which has been casting its net in the political backwaters of Kerala seems to have made a significant catch.
Kerala Congress (Joseph) deputy chairman Johnny Nellore quit the party on Wednesday, 19 April, to float a new political formation with “national relevance”. He also resigned as the UDF secretary.
The new outfit, the National Progressive Party (NPP), will be formally launched at a mega convention in Kochi on 22 April, two days ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kerala.
The NPP would have the backing of the BJP’s national leadership as well as senior bishops in the state. The party would act predominantly as a platform for Sangh Parivar-leaning Christian leaders.
The BJP has been going all out to woo the minority communities to gain a foothold in Kerala ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Key demands of NPP
According to reliable sources in the Church, two powerful bishops from central Kerala took the initiative in coordinating the formation of the new political outfit.
Their move was reportedly based on the BJP national leadership’s instructions.
The NPP’s key demands include a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of ₹300 per kilogram of natural rubber, exempting Kerala from the buffer zone mapping (around reserve forests, sanctuaries, and national parks), and providing proper compensation for victims of wildlife attacks.
Incidentally, the ₹300 MSP for rubber was the precondition Tellicherry (Thalassery) Archbishop Mar Joseph Pamplany placed before the BJP last month to back the saffron party in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls.
Thamarassery bishop Remigius Maria Paul Inchananiyil has also been championing the other two demands for several months.
By highlighting them, the NPP hopes to bridge the gap between the BJP and Kerala’s Christian community.
MSP for rubber likely soon
The BJP’s state leaders did not rule out the possibility of Modi announcing support for the ailing rubber farming sector, including an MSP, during his visit to Kerala next week.
If the prime minister openly credits the NPP for raising the rubber farmers’ concerns, it would create the ground for the prelates to come out in support of the BJP.
The BJP and Catholic leaders believe that a political party with a “national vision” could replace the traditional Christian political outfits, the Kerala Congress (Mani) and Kerala Congress (Joseph).
While the Kerala Congress (Mani) is an LDF constituent, the PJ Joseph-led Kerala Congress is with the UDF.
During its talks with the bishops, sources told South First, the BJP preferred floating a new political outfit to bringing the Kerala Congress factions into its fold.
The new outfit will have representatives from the Christian Association and Alliance For Social Change (CASA), which have identical views as of the Sangh Parivar on contentious issues such as the so-called love jihad and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
According to the BJP’s plan, the new organisation would accommodate leaders and influencers from the Catholic community and other Christian denominations.
Why National Progressive Party?
Johnny Nellore, the man behind the latest political move, told South First that he was compelled to float the new party as both the LDF and UDF had failed to protect the farmers’ interests.
“The farmers in Kerala need a political party with a national vision, which should not conflict with that of the ruling dispensation at the Centre,” the former MLA said.
“I don’t consider the BJP to be inimical to farmers. It has many leaders who are sensitive to our grievances. How can we protect the farmers’ interests by antagonising the Union government,” he asked.
Besides Nellore, disgruntled former MLAs, Mathew Stephen, George J Mathew, and Victor T Thomas, would be part of the NPP leadership.
Joy Abraham, a leader of the Christian Association and Alliance for Social Change (CASA), too, would reportedly be part of the top leadership of the new party. CASA, which has members from most Christian denominations in Kerala, is an organisation that is aligned with the Sangh Parivar on issues such as “love jihad”.
The outfit also expects Baby George, former president of the Pathanamthitta District Congress Committee, to join the NPP.
In all issues other than those directly affecting Catholic farmers in the state, the new party will subscribe to the views of the BJP-RSS combine. It will also take a firm position against Islamic “militancy”.
Nellore said the party would initially comprise Christians of various denominations but it would later allow Hindus and Muslims. He also said the party would welcome the “fed-up” cadres of the CPI(M) and Congress.
“Only the Union government can save the rubber farmers. The rubber-growing families in Kerala are now getting only ₹120 per kilogram,” he said
“The production cost is estimated to be ₹220. If the Centre ensures ₹300 per kilogram of rubber, the farmers would be grateful to the government,” he told South First.
Nellore hinted that the new outfit would soon be a constituent of the BJP-led NDA. He said he had never considered the BJP as an untouchable political entity.
The BJP is, unsurprisingly, happy with Nellore’s resignation from the UDF and his decision to form a new party.
BJP state president K Surendran told reporters that there would be a steady flow of minority community members to his party in the coming days.
He also said there would be a massive campaign in the coming days to attract religious minorities to the party’s fold.
Surendran claimed that 80 prominent Christian families in the Kottayam district joined the party over the past two days.
He said the BJP would cooperate with minority outfits with a broader vision and clarity on issues of national interest. Meanwhile, Surendran also indicated that the rubber rates would soon undergo some changes.
BJP banking on Christian votes
The BJP is yet to open an account in the Lok Sabha from Kerala.
However, in 2004, the NDA alliance partner and former Union Minister, PC Thomas, staged an upset victory in the Muvattupuzha constituency by winning the seat as an Indian Federal Democratic Party (IFDP) candidate.
His win was the result of the BJP and RSS’s social engineering by inducting Thomas into the Atal Behari Vajpayee government.
For the BJP, its survival and growth in Kerala depend largely on wooing a sizeable share of the Christian vote bank, especially Catholics, in Central Kerala.
Going by the 2011 Census, Christians account for 18.38 percent of the state’s population, while Muslims constitute 26.56 percent, and Hindus comprise 54.73 percent.
Among the Christians, the Catholics form the single-largest entity.
A sizeable section of the clergy considers radical Islam a common enemy of Hindus and Christians. The Church leadership, in general, feels inching closer to BJP and the Union government would help it benefit more from minority welfare programmes.
The Church has a long tradition of supporting the Congress in the state, but a section of its leaders now feel that the party is a spent force and the chances of its return to power are remote.
UDF unperturbed: Nellore a nonentity
VD Satheesan, leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, told South First that Nellore lacked any support within the UDF or Kerala Congress (J). His leaving the front would not affect the political equations in the state.
“He was inactive for a long and lacked any mass support. No known leaders are with him to float the new party. The BJP failed miserably to win over a Christian leader with a mass base,” he said.
Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) state secretary Shibu Baby John, too, termed Nellore a leader without mass support.
He opined that the new outfit would not get any public support.
“The farmers in Kerala know how the wrong Exim policies of the Union government put the rubber and coconut farmers in jeopardy. Nobody can fool them,” John told South First.