Kunnukuzhy is a rather strange name for a place. It combines extremes, in this case, mount and pit. It is close to this thickly populated area of Thiruvananthapuram city that the BJP has set up its engine room that powers its election campaign in a state where it has found success hard to come by. It is here, in a three-storey house, that the party plans, deliberates, networks and executes its strategies to get into the Kerala assembly.
The previous occupant of the house went by the name P.C. George, the former chief whip of the United Democratic Front government, whose middle name was controversy. Back then it was called Poonjar House, named after George’s constituency in Kottayam district, where he is seeking re-election as an independent. Once George moved out to his constituency to fight his battle for survival, the BJP checked in.
Since early April this place has been home to a hundred volunteers manning 19 departments, from media to new media, air and land travels, scheduling and even security detailing. “It is the first time we have had such a war room,” said P. Santhosh Kumar, leading lawyer and state committee member of the BJP’s lawyers’ association. “It has been a new lesson for us. Previously also we had clear plans and strategy, but was never this organised and elaborate. In that we can say we are better prepared than the other parties.”
Santhosh handles the tours of national leaders. And he has been quite busy. Apart from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many as 14 Union ministers including Rajnath Singh, Venkaiah Naidu, Nitin Gadkari, Smriti Irani, Sadananda Gowda and Ananth Kumar have already toured the state. Party president Amit Shah has made two visits and is likely to make two more. Ministers J.P. Nadda, in charge of the election in the state, and Rajiv Pratap Rudy have made Kerala their temporary home and are likely to leave only after the campaigning is over. “The two helicopters that have been pressed into action have already made more than 40 trips,” said K.K. Kiran, in charge of chopper services. “As the campaigning ends, the number will touch 70.” Apart from national leaders, BJP’s star campaigner Suresh Gopi, MP, and ally Vellappally Natesan of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam are the frequent fliers.
Mody addressed five election rallies where the BJP and its ally, the Bharatiya Dharma Jana Sena, have mounted a serious challenge—Palakkad, Kasaragod, Kuttanad, Thiruvananthapuram and Tripunithura. Traditionally, the BJP has done well in Palakkad, Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram districts, but the coming together of the BJP and BDJS has opened up more battlefronts for the National Democratic Alliance. “The difference between previous elections and this one is that earlier it was the BJP alone which battled the UDF and the LDF,” said BJP veteran and former Union minister O. Rajagopal, who is the party candidate from Nemom, in Thiruvananthapuram. “This time we have good allies who have mass base. It is not a notional NDA. It is led by the ruling party at the Centre, which is in a very strong position. We have with us a party that represents 27 per cent of Kerala’s population, the Ezhavas. Major caste groups, which have not yet been electorally tested, have come together.” The BJP is targeting the tribal votes through adivasi leader C.K. Janu, Ezhava votes through the BDJS and scheduled caste votes through a faction of the Kerala Pulaya Maha Sabha.
The BJP’s steady growth in the state over the years has sounded a warning bell to the two major fronts. “The BJP is the only party that has been gaining of late,” said Rajagopal, whose valiant campaigns in successive polls and bypolls have been at the heart of its success story. “Our vote share was only about 6 per cent till a few years ago. Now it has gone up to 15 per cent. We have been performing exceptionally well in some areas like Thiruvananthapuram. We have 35 councillors in Thiruvananthapuram corporation now, up from six in the previous term.”
As many as 11 of the 35 BJP councillors come from Nemom, where Rajagopal, 86, is pitted against V. Sivankutty of the CPI(M) and Surendran Pillai of the Janata Dal (United). In 2011, Sivankutty defeated Rajagopal by less than 5,000 votes. Three years later, Rajagopal had a majority of over 18,000 votes in the Nemom segment of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency, which Shashi Tharoor of the Congress won. The Nemom assembly constituency comprises 21 corporation wards, and in the 2015 local body polls, apart from the 11 seats held by the party, the BJP came second in five, losing one of them by just a single vote.
Going by the BJP’s recent track record and high-voltage campaign, Rajagopal should have it easy, but the sizeable minority votes could consolidate if possibility of a BJP victory becomes all too evident. Rajagopal’s clean record and pleasing personality could be of help, because these traits have helped him in the past to garner non-BJP votes. “My life is an open book,” he told THE WEEK at his modest apartment in Thiruvananthapuram. “I have been a Union minister, but I don’t have a vehicle of my own. I don’t even own a house. When I was looking for a rented place in the city, my son [renowned Malayalam filmmaker Shyamaprasad] suggested that I live here, close to where he lives.”
Many of the BJP’s prestige seats are in and around Thiruvananthapuram. In fact, as one approaches Thiruva-nanthapuram by road from Kollam, the signs of the party’s final push are highly visible. There is no shortage of resources, and no effort is spared. Just outside the capital city, Kazhakkoottam, the state’s IT hub, is witnessing a three-way fight between former BJP state president V. Muralidharan, Congress MLA M.A. Vahid and former MLA Kadakampally Surendran of the CPI(M). “The situation here is that no candidate can afford to come third,” said Muralidharan, hinting at the intensity of the contest. “For the last one year I have been concentrating on the constituency.” So much so that, Muralidharan recalled, some of his friends jokingly asked him whether he was the party’s state president or mandalam (constituency) president. “We have good support among women and the youth,” he said. The party’s popularity among the techies might also count in the end.
Another seat where the BJP has high hopes is Vattiyoorkavu, in the heart of the city, where its state president Kummanam Rajasekharan is contesting against MLA K. Muraleedharan of the Congress and former Rajya Sabha member T.N. Seema of the CPI(M). The BJP is also putting up spirited fights in Chengannur (Pathanamthitta district), Palakkad and Kasaragod.
Muralidharan admitted that in the past the fight was always between the CPI(M) and the Congress. “That has changed now,” he said. “The Congress has openly admitted that their fight is with the BJP. Though the CPI(M) has not said it in so many words, in spirit it is the BJP on the one side and the Congress and the Left on the other. The confidence level of party workers is high.”
It was evident on May 8 evening, as Modi took stage at a packed Central Stadium in the capital. The crowd was ecstatic and cheered his frontal assault on the Congress and the Left. After taking a swipe at the Congress, saying its leaders might be relieved that he did not mention ‘helicopter’ earlier in the day in Kasaragod, he said neither he nor the BJP had taken Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s name in the chopper scam. It was an Italian court which mentioned it, he explained. Then came a Q&A session. “Tell me, do you have any relatives in Italy?” he thundered. “No,” the crowd roared back, not waiting for the translator to intervene. “Have you ever been to Italy?” A resounding “No” was the answer. “So we all know who has relatives in Italy.” Below the belt, it might seem, but it had the desired effect on the crowd.
At the war room, frenetic efforts are on to translate the momentum into votes. Volunteers report for duty between 8 and 9 in the morning and often work late into the night. An attendance book is kept in the spartan lobby, and a time table is stuck on the notice board on the second floor where people go about their jobs like a house on fire. The warning on the board, “Do not loiter around”, has that effect on people. They mean business, and whether that will yield dividends, only May 19 can tell.