Three weeks ago, while covering the election campaign in Thiruvananthapuram, I asked a vendor at East Fort, opposite the famous Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, what her thoughts on BJP candidate S Sreesanth were. She was all praise for “Rajettan” (as O Rajagopal is called), but said, “What does that boy (Sreesanth) know about our problems? He’s an outsider.” That statement should be one of the many lessons the BJP takes away from Kerala elections 2016.
To be fair the BJP was never in the reckoning to win the polls, and until Thursday it never sent a legislator to the assembly. That changed on Thursday: Contesting from Nemom, in Thiruvananthapuram, 86-year-old O Rajagopal became the first BJP candidate to win an assembly election in Kerala.
But why is the party making a big deal out of it? That the BJP has “opened its account in Kerala” makes for a good headline — nothing more. Rajagopal’s victory is just symbolic and the BJP is fooling itself by breaking open the bubbly.
In fact, if the party is serious about expanding its base in Kerala, this election should be a lesson on how not to run a campaign.
Claims that the BJP cornered 10.5% of the votes and has become a “third alternative” in Kerala are misleading. Though it was the prima donna in the NDA alliance, it was Vellapally Natesan’s BDJS that made the NDA in Kerala a potent political force.
The BJP’s bench strength in the state was evident when it fielded candidates like Sreesanth and film star Raghu. The party, when it decides to seriously focus on Kerala’s political arena, will also regret its decision to prop up actor-turned Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi. Politics is more than onscreen stunts and punchy dialogues.
If there is one thing the BJP should learn from the Congress in Kerala, it is the need to develop local leaders. The Congress leaders in Kerala are not satellites that revolve around the Delhi leadership, but are seasoned politicians who cannot be overlooked or sidelined. Similarly, BJP leaders like Kummanam Rajashekaran should be given more room to develop the party — in other words, Delhi should not remote-control Kerala.
The RSS has a long-established presence in the state and has many pockets of influence. However, the RSS and BJP, and the state unit of the party and the Delhi leadership, appear to not be in sync. This was reflected in the selection of candidates as well. For example, Aranmula, in central Kerala, is a Hindu-majority constituency with a strong RSS presence, and yet the BJP candidate finished third. Many BJP/RSS workers in Aranmula felt the candidate was a misfit, and in some places workers refused to campaign for the candidate.
Another major reason for the BJP’s poor showing was the damage done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Somalia” comment. Its negative impact is evident when one sees that the BJP came second in six constituencies and in another two the BDJS lost what were “sure seats” for the party.
The BJP should move away from its over-reliance on Brand Modi. The 2014 general elections and this assembly polls showed that it does not have an impact in Kerala as it has in other states. The next major election in Kerala will be the 2019 general polls and it defies logic to expect Brand Modi to make an impact then.
One of the positives is the party’s campaign strategy in Thiruvananthapuram. Rather than contesting from different parts of the state, the BJP fielded its most prominent faces from adjoining constituencies in the state capital. This “carpet bombing campaign” strategy worked in Rajagopal’s favour. This is a model worth pursuing, perhaps in the next local body polls.
The LDF’s victory means that the BJP will have to work harder to expand its base in Kerala. The Congress-led UDF, surprising as it may sound, would have been more accommodating of the BJP-RSS than the Left.
As for the Congress, the party leadership in Delhi must resist the temptation to overhaul the state structure — after all it’s one of the few remaining states where the national party is a force to reckon with.
Views expressed by the author are personal.