BJP’s yearning in Kerala: A bit of saffron in a mound of red

There is a Hindu majority in Kerala. If the BJP got all its votes, it could win easily. That is where the mistake lies.

ByK M Chandrasekhar

Published Apr 24, 2024 | 12:00 PMUpdatedApr 24, 2024 | 12:16 PM

Narendra Modi at a rally in Attingal, Kerala. (X/BJP4India)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been very active in Kerala this time. Having established overlordship of the North and the West and a significant presence in the East, he needs to win the South to claim parity with his bete noire, Jawahar Lal Nehru, who, he feels, is the one standing in the way of Modi’s recognition as the greatest ever leader the country has seen.

Kerala, in particular, is of prime importance. Throughout its history as a state, the BJP has produced only one legislator, an MLA, who won from the Nemom constituency in a by-election a few years ago. The credit for this win should go to the man who won, O Rajagopal, a saintly, kind person whose goodness was transparent rather than to the party itself.

Modi has visited several places in Kerala recently. He attended the wedding of the daughter of film star Suresh Gopi, who is contesting the election from Thrissur. Gopi came second in the 2019 election and has entered the fray with no holds barred this time. Modi has fielded a minister, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, in Thiruvananthapuram.

Rajeev is known to his constituency and Kerala as the son-in-law of the gutsy entrepreneur of yore, TPG Nambiar of BPL fame, who, unfortunately, has receded into the shadows of the industrial history of Kerala and Karnataka.

In Pathanamthitta, Anil Antony, another offspring separated from an illustrious Congress father, AK Antony, looks like he is fighting a losing battle against his two formidable rivals, Thomas Issac of the CPM, former Finance Minister of Kerala, and Anto Antony, sitting MP from the Congress.

In Wayanad, a deeply committed BJP leader and a powerful speaker, K. Surendran, has been fielded to take on Rahul Gandhi.

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BJP’s shortsighted Hindutva strategy

Will Modi’s ambitions and herculean efforts bear fruit this time? The answer lies in the composition of Kerala’s population.

Modi and many of his ilk do not see India as a country of diversity but of uncompromising Hindutva. This does not reflect the BJP’s intransigence. His great predecessor, Vajpayee, who famously once said, “The Sangh is my soul”, had the following advice to give Modi after the holocaust of 2002 in Gujarat: “For the chief minister, I have only one message, that he should follow raj dharma. Rajdharma, the word is quite meaningful (Sarthak). That is what I am following, trying to follow. For a ruler, there can be no differentiation among the subjects. Not based on birth, not caste, not religion.”

Nor is this reflective of rigid RSS orthodoxy. Speaking to the Sharda University in November 2023, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said: “We introduced secularism in our Constitution itself after we got independence in 1947. We always worshipped unity in diversity, and Bharat always prayed for the well-being of all. We welcomed Huna, Kushan and Islam, among others, with open arms. ”

In Kerala, the people have learned to live with differences in religion and culture for a long time. According to the 2011 census, Kerala’s population comprised 57 percent Hindus, 26 percent Muslims and 18 percent Christians. As the growth rate of the Muslim population is higher, their percentage share in the population would have gone up relative to the other two by now.

Related: Differing notions of caste and priesthood

Hindu gripe over caste, not religion

On the face of it, there is a Hindu majority. If all of them voted in the BJP way, they could win easily. That is where the mistake lies.

Right from the late eighteenth century, the fight among the Hindus was not against other religions but against their own higher castes, who established an oppressive regime against the lower castes, reinforced by an upper caste-dominated land ownership system.

Noticing the extent of caste discrimination in Kerala, Swami Vivekananda, who visited the state a century and a quarter ago, called it a “lunatic asylum”.

During his visit, Vivekananda met the great social reformer, Sri Narayana Guru, who created the institutions that cast aside discrimination. “Devoid of dividing walls of caste or race or hatred of rival faith, we all live here in brotherhood”, Narayana Guru said as he preached his doctrine of non-discrimination, equality and the unity of Godhead. He gave spiritual initiation to people of all sects and creeds, including Nairs from orthodox households and Muslims. When he found a Muslim initiate who had changed attire, he told him it was unnecessary.

When an upper-caste person stopped Narayana Guru from passing through some roads in front of the Vaikam temple, there was an uproar in Kerala, known popularly as the Vaikom Satyagraha, which ultimately led to the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936.

Narayana Guru was more than a social reformer; he was a great spiritual luminary. After visiting the Guru in 1922, Rabindranath Tagore said, “I have been touring different parts of the world. But I have never come across one who is spiritually greater than Shree Narayana Guru”.

Around the same time, perhaps a little earlier, Kerala had another spiritual leader who believed in the Vedantic concept of just one Absolute that encompassed everything.

Also read: Church screens Manipur documentary

BJP in Kerala faces syncretic wall

Chattampi Swamikal studied not only under a Hindu Siddha, Subba Jatapadikal, but also under a Christian priest and an old Muslim who taught him the Quran and Sufi practices. He also wrote two books on Christianity in Malayalam, Christumatha Saram and Christhumatha Nirupanam.

While Muslims are anyway not in the game plan of the BJP, they made a serious attempt to win over the Christians. This did make some headway initially, but the horrors faced by the Kukis in Manipur and the reported large-scale damage to churches and other Christian institutions have made them turn away from BJP blandishments.

The Christians, like Hindus, are deeply divided, and conflicts among them are not uncommon. The Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Community has clearly stated that wrong rumours are being spread about support by the Church to BJP. They have asked voters to support candidates and parties that stand for liberty, equality and fraternity, talked of attacks on minorities in the north, squeezing of funds available for welfare work by the central government and the emergence of crony capitalism.

Overall, Kerala’s culture is distinct and separate, a far cry from the majoritarianism based on which votes can be garnered in the Indo-Gangetic plain. The 2024 election is built up not as a battle between two political formations but between PM Modi and multiple political formations, a David and Goliath battle. In this case, it is unclear who David and Goliath are.

With his immense resources and readiness to use regulatory and investigative agencies with alacrity against political adversaries, Modi looks like the Goliath in this fight. However, Kerala, with its tradition of brotherhood and mutual cohesion between different communities, may again prove a bridge too far for him.

(KM Chandrasekhar is a former Union Cabinet Secretary. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)