The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is like the Indian cricket team: It is led by an able leadership, has some good match-winners in the middle order and is hard to beat on its home turf. If provided with “home conditions” when playing abroad, its winning chances improve. And, its weaknesses are exposed when playing down south, on a bouncy pitch.
For the BJP, the home turf is the northern states, the Hindi heartland, where it is a force to reckon with. “Home conditions” in states like Jammu & Kashmir and Assam have seen it even form governments. But the party’s weaknesses have been repeatedly exposed when in the south.
The latest example of this is BJP chief Amit Shah’s “Vamana Jayanti” greeting a day before Thiruvonam, the main day of the Onam festival. While traditionally Onam has been celebrated for the return of the Asura king Mahabali (a just and beloved ruler), Shah (after the RSS) has chosen to focus on Vamana, an avatar of Vishnu, who sent Mahabali to the underworld. Talk about getting caught playing a wide ball!
On the face of it celebrating Vamana should not be a problem — but Shah’s greeting is seen as effort to communalise an otherwise secular and cultural festival.
The displeasure towards Shah’s greeting was evident with the social media hashtag “PoMoneShahji” trending on Twitter on Tuesday. “Po Mone” in Malayalam, loosely translated, means “you go” or, is a rude way of asking someone to leave. This has been adapted from a dialogue in a Mohanlal-starrer Malayalam movie in which the protagonist dismisses the threats by his villains saying “Po Mone Dinesha”. Given this, “Po Mone [Amit] Shah-ji” is reflective of the bitterness with which the BJP chief’s greeting has been received.
In May, in the heat and dust of assembly elections in Kerala, a similar hashtag trended — “PoMoneModi”. It was a reaction to Prime Minister Narendra Modi comparing the child death ratio among Schedule Tribes in Kerala to that in Somalia. The damage that statement did to the fortunes of the party was evident when it lost many “sure seats” in the state polls. That was a run out on a no ball!
Hashtags like #PoMoneModi and #PoMoneShahji show that lofty oratory and polarisation have, at least for the while, not worked in Kerala.
Shah’s “Vamana Jayanti” greeting also runs counter to Modi’s Onam greetings in the past. In a video greeting in 2013, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, Modi stressed that Onam was the remembrance of a golden era under Mahabali. He also said that Onam was a celebration for everyone. “Vamana Jayanti” restricts it to Hindus — from being an all-inclusive state festival it is confined to a Hindu festival.
This morning the BJP chief has posted Onam greetings, but it now appears more like an afterthought, as a corrective measure after the damage has been done.
If the Right-wing party is trying to expand its political base in the southern state, it should not be done by contesting popular traditions and festivals. You don’t make friends by antagonising them. Sledging can be counterproductive — ask Andrew Flintoff.
Shah was probably misled about the BJP’s chances in Kerala. He seems to be getting the wrong advice now as well. The party should abandon a one-size-fits-all approach. The squads for a T20 and Test are seldom the same.
One of the lessons the BJP can learn from the Congress is to give its regional leaders relative freedom. This would mean that the party would have to adapt its stand according to regional sensitivities and become flexible according to conditions. It should also shun efforts to homogenise regional festivals — the BJP will be doing great disservice to the people of Kerala and to India’s rich and myriad traditions if it tries to convert Onam into Vamana Jayanti.
At a time when the BJP is still seen as a “Hindi” party in Kerala, efforts to demoralise or question the state’s culture and traditions will backfire. Even the best cricket team benefits from support from the home crowd.
If the BJP is serious about Kerala, and wants to even have a fighting chance in 2021, episodes like “Vamana Jayanti” or even questioning and dictating eating habits of the people are not the ways to go about it. That the state leadership was not in sync with 11 Ashoka Road was evident in its tepid enthusiasm to both these controversies.
Reacting to Shah’s greeting, Kummanam Rajasekharan, the Kerala BJP chief, said that he on his part had wished everyone a “Happy Onam”. He tried to justify Shah’s greeting by saying that the BJP president has initiated a debate, not a controversy. His poor defence betrayed his helplessness.
A good way for the BJP to make inroads into Kerala, and work to become the “third alternative” in the state by 2021, is to focus on development — the mantra on which Modi came to power in 2014. For all the positive social indices it shows, Kerala has an equal (or more) number of pressing issues that neither the Congress-led UDF nor the CPI(M)-led LDF addresses, like public health, waste management, water conservation, law and order, especially women’s safety.
The BJP is misreading the wicket in Kerala, or it is simply too confident. Either way, it’s embarrassing itself.