It is one, just one seat, but for the BJP, it marks a portentous shift in perceptions in the tiny coastal state of Kerala. The BJP here is the long-distance runner. It has not been able to ever breast the tape in the sprint, so it trots along at a steady clip hoping that one fine day it will pick up speed as the finishing line approaches and take home the trophy of India’s second most literate, truly socially advanced and startlingly beautiful state.
For a long time, the saffron forces have been firmly kept out by the duopoly of the UDF and LDF, playing almost to script to oust each other come the assembly elections. The aggressive BJP electoral machine, powered by Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah, is today not going to wait for the fruit to fall, it intends to clamber right up and take what it feels rightfully belongs to it in a state where, despite long years of Marxism, people wear religion on their sleeves.
To be sure, despite the seeming social harmony, communal tensions are not far from the surface in Kerala. If the BJP or anyone else wants to tap into a vein of Hindu discontent, they need look no further than Kerala. The fountainhead of this disaffection stems from the Nair community, once warriors to the kings. The community, which held sway over the land, today finds itself besieged by the economically powerful and industrious Christian community and the lower castes among the Hindus who have taken over what were traditional Nair dominions.
The Ezhavas, who were once a disadvantaged caste, are now powerful enough for BJP president Amit Shah to woo its leader, some say self-proclaimed, Vellapally Natesan. The BJP sees this community, pervasive and economically powerful as a gateway to the greater Hindu community in Kerala. The silver-tongued Natesan, often dismissed as a bit of an opportunistic player in Kerala politics, seems to have helped the BJP push up its voteshare in successive elections in recent times. While the temple in Ayodhya may not find much resonance in Kerala, religion is overt and a bewildering number of festivals and religious occasions are observed, many on the state’s narrow winding roads.
Most big temples have their own festivals, many of which are accompanied by fireworks, kathakali shows, elephants and, in a recent one I witnessed fire-eaters. Not to be outdone, the Christians, too, have public processions displaying their faith as do the very many evangelical sects who outdo each other in their claims to performing miracles.
It is in fact something of a miracle that given all this religiosity and adherence to rituals and rites, the BJP had not made greater inroads in the state before. The RSS network is very strong and active. It is deeply involved in social work, not to mention promoting obscurantist notions of caste and religion. Underlying all this is a subtle push to the state’s Hindus that in their disunity, splitting their votes between the UDF and LDF, both of which parties have not catered to their interest, they have lost their cache as a viable votebank. So, the challenge of appealing to a Hindu identity is one the BJP has taken up with fervour and this is quite clearly finding many takers in the state.
The Muslim in Kerala is quite different from his counterpart in the north. The community is well educated, economically empowered and progressive. Or at least this would have been true till about a decade ago. Thanks to the enormous lack of employment filled by jobs from the Gulf, an inordinate amount of money from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar has come back into the state. Those returning from those countries, with the aid of opportunistic local politicians, have introduced a warped version of Islam, not quite Wahabbi but almost there, into the Malabar region, famed for its cuisine and sublime landscape. This has led to madrassas springing up with great frequency, women giving up the lovely traditional Kerala sari for black hijabs and a sense of grievance of being marginalised and disempowered. As wily politicians from the Indian Union Muslim League and fringe Muslim parties tap into this, the BJP finds in this an opportunity to frame a nasty narrative about the other.
The secular Congress in the state today is so splintered into factions that poor Oommen Chandy really didn’t have the chance to beat the anti-incumbency factor that so many thought he did. A dispirited and wane Congress leadership hardly put up a fight for the emerald state, despite a strong presence from Kerala in the central leadership. Given the churning social landscape with religion playing more of a polarising factor than before, the BJP can afford to shake the proverbial electoral coconut tree a little harder.
The Left in Kerala is a far cry from the popular perception of the Left elsewhere. The Communist Party functions as a near shark-like corporate with its fingers in entertainment, hospitals, schools, colleges and theme parks. In other words, it works very much like the other parties it pillories. And people have come to accept that the Left is six of one and the Congress is half a dozen of the other. Into this routine changing of guard has come the BJP with its promise of a different kind of spectacle, bigger, better and more traditional. For the Keralite long used to the unvarying diet of the UDF and LDF, this may well hold more than a bit of appeal.
The BJP is turning cartwheels of joy over its victory in Assam. It has put its footprints in the verdant valleys of the eastern state. But of equal importance are the footprints in the sands of the fabulous beaches of God’s Own Country. This will, it hopes, eventually establish its citadel on the shores of the Arabian Sea.