Despite its growth in other parts of India, the BJP has failed to get a strong foothold in any southern State barring Karnataka. Luck has been particularly elusive for the BJP in Kerala. For nearly two decades, the national party leadership has been struggling, without success, to elbow its way through the multi-layered bipolar polity led by two main parties in Kerala — the Congress and the CPI(M). With less than two years left for the next general election, the BJP’s central leadership has evolved various strategies to win Parliament seats from the southern-most State.
Earlier this month, to fine-tune its organisational apparatus, the BJP shuffled 15 leaders in charge of the party in various States. C.P. Radhakrishnan, a former Lok Sabha MP, who was in charge of Kerala, was replaced by former Union Minister Prakash Javadekar. In its national executive meeting in Hyderabad, the party spoke of going beyond its Hindu support base. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also spoke of wooing Muslims and Christians, which were perceived as plans for the south. Union Ministers have been given charge of six constituencies in Kerala to evaluate the party’s prospects and challenges.
In July, the party nominated celebrated athlete P.T. Usha from Kerala to the Rajya Sabha. Six years ago, the party had nominated actor Suresh Gopi to the Upper House, hoping to piggyback on his popularity. Though he could only finish third in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and 2021 Assembly polls in Thrissur, Mr. Gopi found favour with the voters, securing 30% of the votes.
Likewise, the party experimented with technocrat E. Sreedharan and retired IPS officer Jacob Thomas in the 2021 Assembly polls in a bid to increase its tally from the one seat, Nemom, that O. Rajagopal had won in the 2016 elections. But its poll ride came to a halt as former Mizoram Governor, Kummanam Rajasekharan, entrusted with retaining Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram, failed. The reckless attempt by party State president K. Surendran to contest from two segments fell flat.
Kerala is perceived as some as a fertile ground for the party, but the BJP leadership has been unsuccessful in working out a game plan that resonates with the State. The faction-riven party is impuissant to even build a leadership in Kerala like other political parties. In the past, the BJP had seasoned mentors and tacticians such as K.G. Marar and P.P. Mukundan who could be relied on to gain political ground. The party paid a heavy price by replacing them with short-sighted leaders who failed to understand the pulse of the electorate and the shifting political realities.
The BJP’s central and State leadership have been blamed for their shallow understanding of the socio-economic and political shifts in Kerala. The State unit’s power play has been confined to a blitzkrieg campaign, fuelled by funds from the Central unit, during the time of elections, ever since Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister.
The party had spearheaded protests against the Supreme Court’s verdict to allow women of all ages to visit the Ayyappa temple in Sabarimala and the agitation against the construction of a private airport at the heritage town in Aranmula. But these protests failed to convert to votes.
The party has also been ineffectual in wooing Christians, especially Catholics, who support the BJP in Goa. For some time now, BJP leaders, including national president J.P. Nadda, have been meeting Catholic archbishops in Kerala. Under the initiative of Goa Governor P.S. Sreedharan Pillai, three cardinals of the Catholic Church also met Mr. Modi in Delhi to request him to invite the Pope to India. Incidentally, Mr. Modi met the Pontiff at the Vatican when he attended the G20 summit last year.
Today, with the Centre proscribing the Islamist outfit, the Popular Front of India, many BJP leaders believe that the initiative shown by the government in dealing with radical outfits will reap some political rewards. However, this will not be enough as barely any Muslim organisation supports the BJP at present.
If the BJP is to compete with the Congress-led UDF and the CPI(M)-led LDF in Kerala, a top-down approach may not work. The party will have to rectify the flaws in its organisational set-up. Political observers feel that it is high time the leadership addresses the bitter factionalism plaguing the State unit. Leaders of the BJP will have to strike a grassroots connection with workers and identify local issues for election campaigns.