Why Padmaja Venugopal joining BJP has left CPI(M)-led ruling LDF in Kerala ecstatic

The LDF is banking on the “Padmaja effect" to sharpen its Lok Sabha campaign against its primary rival, the Congress in Kerala.

ByK A Shaji

Published Mar 07, 2024 | 9:29 PM Updated Mar 07, 2024 | 9:29 PM

The speculation gained traction on Wednesday after Padmaja deleted a Facebook post dismissing reports suggesting her switching sides. (Facebook)

The decision of Padmaja Venugopal — the daughter of Congress politician and former chief minister K Karunakaran — to join the BJP is a blessing in disguise for Kerala’s ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) alliance.

Speculations had been rife for some time that she would join the saffron outfit, and only gained momentum when she removed her posts from social media that contained news articles dismissing the move.

On Thursday, Padmaja Venugopal joined the BJP.

Padmaja joining the BJP should buoy the ruling coalition in Kerala, which is now in the vortex of an extreme political crisis that could adversely affect its prospects in the Lok Sabha elections.

Also Read: PC George joins BJP, merges Kerala Janapaksham (Secular) with saffron party

The LDF’s quagmire

Padmaja switching loyalties is a severe setback to Kerala’s Congress unit in the run-up to the election.

It is, in fact, against the run of the narrative for the Congress, which has the LDF on the mat for multiple issues plaguing the state.

These include the controversy surrounding the death of a veterinary university student that was allegedly the outcome of a criminal conspiracy involving leaders of the CPI(M)’s student wing, the SFI.

The worsening human-animal conflicts, which have claimed nine lives this year alone, and the unprecedented financial crisis that continues to delay the salary disbursal of government employees — for the first time since the formation of the state — have made the LDF and its government already defensive.

The SFI’s alleged role in the student’s death has turned into a major headache for the LDF, with the Congress-led Opposition using it as a stick to beat Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. The CM continues to defend the student organisation despite its numerous alleged arbitrations and undemocratic interferences into the personal lives of students who refuse to follow its dictates.

In the case of human-wildlife conflicts, the Congress has already taken political advantage by organising mammoth protests displaying the dead bodies of those who have been killed in wild animal attacks.

The Christian bishops who took part in the farmers’ protests against animal attacks have turned against Vijayan and his government, saying they had done nothing to minimise the impact of the worsening crisis.

Thamarassery Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil even demanded Vijayan’s resignation for his ineffective handling of the crisis.

Meanwhile, several Muslim-community leaders in Kerala, including Husain Madavoor, have expressed displeasure over the functioning of the police department under the chief minister, which is allegedly “anti-Muslim”.

Also Read: AK Antony ‘hurt’ as son Anil joins the BJP

The LDF’s angle

In this context, the LDF in general and the CPI(M) in particular enthusiastically received Padmaja’s decision to join the BJP.

Political observers say the upbeat mood prevailing in the CPI(M) camp outpaces the enthusiasm now witnessed in the Kerala BJP.

As soon as Padmaja made her decision public, the CPI(M)’s cyber propagandists regained their lost strength by telling minority community members in the state that only the Left leaders in Kerala had the willpower not to be carried away by the BJP’s promises of plum posts.

Social media platforms were replete with posts that said the Congress lacked any ideological clarity to fight the Hindutva agenda of the BJP, and more Congress leaders would follow Padmaja and Anil Antony, son of senior Congress leader AK Antony, to join the saffron party.

Some even targeted Padmaja’s brother K Muraleedharan, a senior Congress leader who is trying his electoral luck from the Vatakara Lok Sabha constituency. According to them, Muraleedharan would join the BJP sooner or later.

By noon, CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan had informed reporters that Padmaja and other leaders were joining the BJP because of the Congress’ “soft Hindutva policies”.

A jubilant Govindan gave clear hints that the continuing flow of Congress leaders into the BJP would be the key campaign issue of the LDF in the election, and he said it would help the front move closer to the minorities.

According to Govindan, the LDF would campaign that there would be no guarantee that those elected on a Congress ticket from Kerala this time would join the BJP after the election if the BJP won a majority.

He has also claimed that no CPI(M) or Left-wing leader in Kerala had ever joined the BJP.

LDF leaders, including AK Balan and EP Jayarajan, have also clarified that the front would use the pro-BJP tilt of Congress leaders, which would be the biggest campaign issue in Kerala.

Top LDF leaders contacted by South First said the “Padmaja effect” would cause political polarisation — at least in the Chalakudy, Thrissur, and Vatakara Lok Sabha constituencies, ultimately benefiting LDF candidates.

The LDF hopes it can reap clear electoral dividends in Vatakara, where Muraleedharan is contesting, by raising the issue of Padmaja — who was until recently a general secretary of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee — joining the BJP.

Vatakara has a high Muslim consolidation favouring Muraeedharan, and the LDF hopes the new development will make the minorities there think twice.

In Chalakudy and Thrissur, several traditional Congress supporters would follow Padmaja to join the BJP, which would benefit the LDF in a three-cornered fight, according to the LDF leaders.

Also Read: BJP begins Kerala poll campaign with Rajeev Chandrasekhar’s roadshow

Congress attacks Padmaja

In the meantime, Kerala’s Congress unit has started a scathing attack on Padmaja’s credibility and her claim that she had thus far been sidelined in the party.

Muraleedharan is in the front row of leaders attacking her, and has said the party has given its maximum to someone who “worked from home”.

Youth Congress state president Rahul Mankoottathil believes that Padmaja has no direct links with ordinary party workers, and she was almost a “migratory bird” in the case of political activity, becoming functional only during elections.

Rahul recalled that Padmaja had not won even a single election despite being fielded in the erstwhile Mukundapuram Lok Sabha constituency and Thrissur Assembly seat, which were traditional citadels of the party.

He also said the Congress in Kerala had survived many challenges, and this was just a person with no mass following.

Also Read: PM Modi’s intensified Kerala visits spark political fervour ahead of LS Polls

The BJP reaction

Padmaja joining the BJP has not evoked much enthusiasm in the saffron party’s Kerala unit. Only firebrand leader Sobha Surendran has come out so far to defend Padmaja.

According to sources, Padmaja approached the BJP national leadership directly, and her induction into the party involved the blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A high-ranking source in the BJP’s state unit said accommodating Padmaja in the party was purely a central leadership decision, and only Kerala BJP president K Surendran — among the state unit members — was aware of it until she made it public.

There are chances of the BJP fielding her either in Chalakudy, which evolved out of old Mukundapuram, or in Ernakulam, a traditional Congress bastion.

However, independent political observers believe that Padmaja would not attract any traditional Congress vote, and the BJP was only using her name for the election to corner the Congress.

The choice of Anil Antony for the Pathanamthitta constituency has already evoked resistance from the BJP district unit, and one office-bearer who expressed displeasure publicly — through Facebook — has already been expelled.

AP Abdullakutty, a two-time CPIM) Lok Sabha member and two-time Congress legislator from Kerala, is now the BJP’s all-India vice-president, but the party has not given him a seat despite he being its Muslim face this time.

Civil service officer and former LDF MLA Alphonse Kanannthanam was made a minister in the first Narendra Modi government at the Centre. Still, the party chose to ignore him as well as he fetched no Christian votes as expected.

Also Read: ‘Zero and zero’, says Tharoor of BJP dream to win double-digit seats in Kerala

Padmaja’s perspective

Padmaja told reporters in Delhi that she was joining the BJP without any expectation or condition.

“They haven’t asked me to contest the elections. I haven’t demanded a Rajya Sabha seat,” she said, adding that her complaints to Congress leaders went unheard. “Many leaders did not pick up my calls,” she claimed.

“The voters of Vadakara know me very well. They know that I am fighting steadfastly against the BJP and its communalism. Padmaja joining the BJP will not affect the elections in Vadakara. The soul of my father will not condone her. She is my sister, but there is no compromise. I am snapping all ties with her,” said Muraleedharan.

“It will not affect the prospects of the Congress in Kerala. The people of Kerala will not accept it. The Congress gave her due consideration and opportunities. Her father always fought against communal forces,” said senior leader Ramesh Chennithala.

Padmaja joined politics when her father and brother were at the forefront of the state Congress’ politics. Her brother Muraleedharan had opposed her entry into politics.

Karunakaran and Muraleedharan left the Congress in 2004 and formed the Democratic Indira Congress (Karunakaran).

Their political outfit failed to make any impact, and they returned to Congress in 2007, with Padmaja playing a crucial role in bringing them back to the party fold.

However, Padmaja continued to face setbacks in her political career even as her brother stayed afloat in state politics.

She contested the Assembly elections of 2016 and 2021 but lost both times. She has served as Congress vice-president and was recently appointed general secretary.