Why winning a seat in Kerala could remain a dream for BJP

Yet to win a Lok Sabha seat in Kerala, BJP is pinning its hopes on two constituencies

PTI04_12_2024_000286A Rooting for victory: Union Minister and BJP candidate Rajeev Chandrasekhar campaigning at Pulluvila in Thiruvananthapuram on April 12 | PTI

Coastal erosion has left Pozhiyoor, a village in Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram district, battered. The relentless assault of the sea over the years has ruined houses and neighbourhoods. Rosamma, 65, fears that the waves will devour her home in the next round of devastation. Once there was a kilometre of sandy beach between her home and the sea; now only 20 metres remain. The waves give her sleepless nights.

Politicians, she says, have long abandoned promises to build a groyne that could curb erosion. “Why should we vote in this election? When will we have a normal life?” she asks.

Disillusionment envelopes the neighbourhood as well. “We will boycott polls until a groyne is built on an emergency basis to protect the coast,” says a billboard erected by the civil society group Pozhiyoor Janakeeya Samithi.

The Catholic Church, which has considerable clout in the coastal belt, says it is not part of the boycott campaign. Vicar General Eugine H. Pereira, however, hinted that there has been a change in the church’s outlook on the Lok Sabha polls. “The church adopted an issue-based, value-based equidistant stance in 2004,” he told THE WEEK. “We now embrace a ‘right-distance’ stance, favouring candidates who understand and address the community’s concerns.”

Any change in the voting pattern in the coastal belt would be bad news for Shashi Tharoor, who has thrice represented the constituency and is now looking for a fourth term. He is locked in a three-way fight among BJP leader and Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar, and CPI veteran Pannian Raveendran. The Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency is predominantly urban. A former diplomat, Tharoor is known as vishwapauran (global citizen) among urban middle-class voters. He also has significant support among the dominant Nair and Nadar communities in the constituency. But a decisive factor that helped him win the previous polls was votes from coastal areas, especially from Christians.

Sensing an opportunity, one of the first things that Chandrasekhar did when he began his campaign was to visit coastal areas and promise a permanent solution for erosion in villages such as Pozhiyoor. He has also overseen a slew of defections from the Congress to the BJP, including in the coastal belt. Notably, when Chandrasekhar submitted his nomination, two fishermen from Pozhiyoor were among those who donated the deposit money. He also demonstrated his election slogan ‘Ini Karyam Nadakkum’ (Now things will get done)―a jab at Tharoor’s alleged “non-performance”―by facilitating the visit of two scientists from the Union fisheries ministry to Pozhiyoor.

Chandrasekhar’s well-funded campaign has been able to create an impression that the contest is primarily between him and Tharoor. Citing Pannian’s campaign as “not very impactful”, Tharoor himself has asserted that the battle in Thiruvananthapuram is directly between the Congress and the BJP.

But, interestingly, Chandrasekhar himself insists that the fight is triangular. After submitting his nomination on April 5, he said, “This constituency is witnessing a triangular fight; it remains to be seen who the principal opponent is.” Chandrasekhar, it seems, recognises that the notion of a head-to-head contest between him and Tharoor could consolidate minority votes in Tharoor’s favour.

The BJP is yet to win a Lok Sabha seat in Kerala, but it had come second in Thiruvananthapuram in 2014 and 2019. This time, the party is also pinning its hopes on Thrissur, where actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi’s eleventh-hour effort in 2019 had led to a significant surge in the BJP’s vote share.

The BJP has promised that if its candidate in Thiruvananthapuram or Thrissur wins, he would be made Union minister. “In Thrissur,” said political observer and academic Mohan Varghese, “the BJP must secure a considerable portion of Christian votes from the Congress to succeed, whereas in Thiruvananthapuram, even if it doesn’t secure Christian votes outright, it still requires diverting them from the Congress to the CPI to emerge victorious.”

Thrissur, too, is witnessing a tight triangular contest. The Congress has fielded K. Muraleedharan, senior leader and son of former chief minister K. Karunakaran, and the CPI has fielded former agriculture minister V.S. Sunil Kumar.

In 2019, the female turnout in Thrissur (79.55 per cent) had exceeded the male turnout (75.92 per cent)―a reason why Gopi and the BJP have been focusing on women voters, a section of whom are critical of the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front government. One of them is Vijayamma, a 76-year-old fortune teller at Swaraj Round in Thrissur who was hesitant about predicting the poll outcome. Vijayamma hails from a Communist family and has been a widow for 38 years. She said she was inclined to support Gopi this time because of the several “wrong-doings” of the LDF government, especially its failure to pay welfare pensions on time and the alleged irregularities and financial mismanagement in cooperative banks run by the party.

Gopi told THE WEEK that he had plans to establish a “Sakthan brand” to deliver goods from the renowned Sakthan Market in Thrissur to all seven assembly segments in the constituency―a move that is likely to resonate with women voters. With Thrissur having 1.46 lakh new voters this time, the largest for any constituency in Kerala, he plans to set up a “Wisdom City” in Thrissur for the youth.

Gopi has tried to appeal to both Christian as well as Muslim voters. In January, he offered a golden crown to the statue of St Mary at the Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral in Thrissur. Recently, he also participated in a Ramadan fast-breaking ceremony―a move that was derided by detractors as “insincere”. With the Citizenship (Amendment) Act emerging as a key election issue, the BJP does not expect significant support from the Muslim community in any constituency. In fact, the LDF and the Congress-led United Democratic Front are fiercely competing to win these votes, which had consolidated in favour of the UDF in 2019.

The BJP, meanwhile, appears to be capitalising on the widening rift between Christians and Muslims in the state. Several factors have contributed to this rift in recent times―concerns about the declining Christian population, economic competition between the two communities, and allegations of “love jihad” and other perceived transgressions against Christians. In recent times, Christian bishops have made several controversial remarks that were seen as favouring the BJP. A Christian “devotional” channel headquartered in Thrissur, which gained significant viewership during the pandemic, is perceived to be supporting the BJP and spreading anti-Muslim propaganda.

Amid this proxy battle, the BJP’s first significant hindutva push of the campaign season came from state party president K. Surendran, who is contesting against Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad. Surendran declared that his primary objective, if elected, would be to rename Sultan Bathery (a taluk headquarters in the constituency) as Ganapati Vattam (after the temple that was partly destroyed by Tipu Sultan and used as an armoury). Surendran’s move is intended to portray the former ruler of Mysore as a religious bigot who harmed Hindus as well as Christians―a move that experts say will have implications for Rahul and the Congress beyond Kerala.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally spearheaded the BJP’s efforts to reach out to the Christian community in Kerala. Modi met bishops from eight Christian denominations in April 2023, but the process of wooing the community has been hindered by the Manipur riots. The BJP has been trying to reassure church leaders in Kerala, but it remains to be seen whether the efforts would yield votes.

In February, Modi asserted that the number of seats that the BJP would win in Kerala would be in the double digits. But pollsters remain sceptical about the party’s odds of winning even a single seat.

“The BJP has definitely made major efforts to create issues among Christian and Muslim communities,” said former minister and state Congress president Ramesh Chennithala. “But when issues like Manipur came up, they saw the BJP’s true face. The secular people of Kerala will not fall into the BJP’s trap. The Congress will stop the BJP, and Kerala’s secular population will once again embrace the UDF.”