Southern Lights | BJP woos actors in its battle for relevance in Kerala | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Southern Lights | BJP woos actors in its battle for relevance in Kerala

Feb 27, 2024 10:21 PM IST

The party is running campaigns in the state like “Nanni Modi” to showcase its many successes. Kerala is a long-term investment, its state leaders say

As the Bharatiya Janata Party sets its sights on a 50% vote share as well as a higher seat tally in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the one state where the party has had no luck is Kerala. In the 2019 parliament elections, the party drew a blank. Its tally in the assembly elections has been just as discouraging, with only one politician — O Rajagopal — winning an assembly seat in 2016. This, is despite the popularity of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the party’s ideological fount, in the southern part of the state.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi blesses the newly-wedded daughter and son-in-law of actor-politician Suresh Gopi while visiting Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur district on Wednesday (ANI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi blesses the newly-wedded daughter and son-in-law of actor-politician Suresh Gopi while visiting Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur district on Wednesday (ANI)(HT_PRINT)

In a bid to appeal to voters, the saffron party is turning to leading actors in the Malayalam film industry. Danseuse Shobana shared the stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visits to Trivandrum and Cochin on January 4 and 16. In the third week of January, when a prominent Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi, married off his daughter, the event drew attention not only for its opulence and the star-studded guest list but also for the presence of the prime minister. Enroute his visit to the Thripprayar Rama temple before the Ayodhya temple inauguration, Modi visited Suresh Gopi’s event and even distributed akshata (sacred rice) from Ayodhya to the Malayalam film fraternity present at the wedding. From interacting with legendary actors Mohanlal and Mammootty to exchanging pleasantries with the likes of KS Chitra, the popular singer, the PM’s overtures were clearly meant to win over the “influencers''. Gopi may be the BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate from Thrissur, one of the two seats that the BJP has set its eyes on. The other is Thiruvananthapuram where the party is yet to find an equal to match the intellectual prowess and the charisma of the Congress’ Shashi Tharoor.

“Suresh Gopi is popular not only as an actor cutting across religious lines but also for his philanthropy,” said CG Rajagopal one of BJP’s senior leaders in Cochin, also the Central Zone Secretary of the party. Rajagopal, also known as Muthu, said the party’s efforts to reach out to society through the medium of art and culture were to create an impact on society and erase the stigma associated with the BJP. Owing to the dominance of the Communist parties and the Congress, the BJP understands it would be an uphill task to cultivate some fondness; it is on track though to making inroads into the Leftist strongholds, analysts say.

The party is also running campaigns in the state. ‘Nanni Modi’ (Thank You, Modi), showcases the development projects in the state and country through door-to-door campaigns, special screenings at RSS shakhas of projects undertaken across the state; the Sneha Yatra is an outreach to the Christian community that is upset over the attack on the community members in Manipur as well as the largely anti-minority politics of Hindutva ideology, which the BJP espouses.

Also read: The role of the Church in Kerala’s politics

The state has the highest number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shakhas and volunteers, second only to Uttar Pradesh in the country. The organisation has been active in the state since 1940 with MS Golwalkar, the RSS’ second Sarsanghchalak who visited the state many times until his passing in 1973. At the time of India’s independence in 1947, Kerala had about 95 shakhas or branches and 1,200 members. Now, more than 75 years later, it has more than 5,000 shakhas and 175,000 members. Even Gujarat, PM Modi and his commander and Home Minister Amit Shah’s home state is known to have only 1,000 shakhas, according to RSS leaders in Kerala.

Gopakumar said that the BJP’s efforts to appeal to a cross-section of Malayalis have been consistent through the Bharatiya Vichar Kendra and the Prajna Pravah — platforms that engage with deeper aspects of Indian culture, art, literature, and social sciences. These efforts of the BJP are meant to create the perception of a unifying, common ground, the party leaders said. Metro man E Sreedharan and other IPS officers joining the BJP also tilted the perception in their favour, Gopakumar said.

“There are different levels of rejection of the BJP. The feudal and caste hierarchy that the people of Kerala associate with the BJP is also quite strong. So, despite the economic growth, the BJP lacks critical mass support to win seats,” he said.

To fix this math problem, the saffron party has begun reaching out to the communities through cultural fests and competitions such as the iconic boat rides on the backwaters. The Eezhavas (an OBC community) are traditionally toddy tappers, palmyra climbers, and coir workers, and constitute 26% of Kerala’s population. The BJP is making attempts to reach out to this community by visiting their homes and by roping in leaders from the Sree Narayana Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP, the socio-political organisation representing all OBCs in the state.

But what makes this task difficult for the BJP is the acute political sensitivity of its electorate in Kerala. In a state that is not just nearly 100% literate but also politically wise. Last month, when Congress-led United Development Front (UDF) MP NK Premachandran was part of the prime minister's lunch party at the Parliament canteen, the Left parties raked up a row over the MP breaking bread with the BJP. NK Premachandran’s Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) is part of the UDF and VD Satheesan, the Congress Leader of Opposition had to defend the MP stating that there was no “new-found” closeness with the BJP.

The celebrities who endorsed Modi and urged people to light a lamp marking the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya too drew severe flak; many took down their posts on social media. Mohanlal has never openly advocated his support for the BJP fearing backlash from the Muslim and Christian cine-goers in Central and Northern Kerala.

KA Shaji, a senior journalist said, “BJP is interested in the demography of each of these actors — OBCs, Dalits, Christians, and Muslims. But no actor would ever come out in the open and pledge his or her support for the party because it would mean the end of their career.”

‘We are here for good. Kerala is a long-term investment for the party. The socio-cultural route is one of the areas we are exploring. If it clicks, it is beneficial, otherwise, we will go back to the drawing board again. If not a seat, at least our vote share would have increased,” CG Rajagopal, said.

Deepika Amirapu is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad. Each week, Southern Lights examines the big story from one of the five states of South India.

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