Last Tuesday, the government of India seemed to temporarily shift its base to the BJP headquarters at Delhi’s Ashoka Road. A string of high profile Union ministers queued up for television interviews to protest Left violence against RSS cadres in Kerala. Forget economic slowdown, jobs, GST, Rohingyas or Kashmir: for a few hours at least, the BJP’s high-decibel Jan Raksha Yatra across Kerala took precedence, as the lines between party and government were blurred.
The Kerala-centric blitzkrieg reveals the BJP’s appetite for political expansion. This is a state where the BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat and where it won an assembly seat for the first time in 2016. Its vote share though has steadily increased from 6% in 2011 to almost 15% in 2016. And yet, the tepid response on the ground to the Amit Shah-led yatra suggests that Kerala’s backwaters aren’t ready for the lotus to bloom just yet. That the BJP president chose to hastily return from Kerala to the national capital suggests that the party leadership realised this was one gambit not working out to the script.
Why has the BJP failed to crack the Kerala conundrum? This is, after all, a state with a sizeable minority population – between them, Muslims and Christians constitute 45% of the state – so there is every possibility of cementing a majority Hindu vote bank. The RSS has established a strong presence in the state over decades. The Left-Congress binary politics have led to a measure of fatigue among the voters, especially the youth. While Left and RSS cadres have targeted each other for years in a bloody conflict, there is evidence to suggest that the violence has become more one-sided with the left now in power. Moreover, Narendra Modi’s nationwide appeal of Hindutva plus good governance should ideally resonate powerfully in God’s Own Country where temples and trade unions nestle in close proximity, where religion and class identities co-exist.
If Kerala then is still resisting the BJP juggernaut, it reveals the limitations of the politics of polarisation. The Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan ideological appeal of the BJP was originally designed for the caste and community cauldron of the Gangetic heartland. The Ram Mandir movement that first propelled the BJP to become a serious national player in the 1990s was driven by an agenda aimed at consciously stirring a Hindu-Muslim conflict. A militant Hindu political identity was consolidated by harking back to the need to ‘avenge’ historical grievances dating to the Mughal era, leading eventually to the act of demolishing the Babri Masjid.
By contrast, the Hindu political traditions of Kerala are rooted in the social reformist movements of the early 20th century that aimed to transform Hindu society from within. The historic temple entry movement broke the supremacy of Brahminical rituals and traditions, busted caste barriers and created the basis for a more egalitarian society where the freedom to worship was a fundamental right for all and where cow worship wasn’t central to Hindu religious beliefs. This wasn’t the discordant politics of saffron-robed Swamis and Mahants seeking to target minorities but the reformist zeal of iconic figures like a Narayana Guru who challenged religious orthodoxies and pushed for spiritual freedom and social equality.
Contrast the secular, inclusive spirit of a Narayana Guru with the anti-minority rhetoric of a Yogi Adityanath, the newest posterboy of Hindutva politics. By making the controversial Yogi one of the prime faces of its Kerala campaign, the BJP made the mistake of raising the communal pitch: the ‘love jihad’ rhetoric may be alluring in the backward regions of Uttar Pradesh, but in a state which celebrates its universal literacy programme, the divisive propaganda against ‘forced’ inter-religious marriages will invite a backlash from those who see it as a deliberate attempt to divide society. Moreover, can a Yogi credibly challenge Kerala’s social development record after having endured the embarrassment of spiraling infant deaths in Gorakhpur’s main hospital?
This does not mean the BJP cannot grow in Kerala: if political Islam continues to radicalise Muslim youth, if the Pinarayi Vijayan government fails to check political violence, if the Congress remains a party lacking energy and cohesion, then the BJP does have a future in the state. But to march ahead, the BJP must shed its core Hindutva prejudices : Kerala can be conquered by spreading harmony, not fomenting hatred.
Post-script: On the very day that the BJP’s Kerala campaign was the top headline across ‘national’ news channels, the local media was obsessing with top Malayalam film star Dileep who was released on bail after spending months in jail on serious abduction and molestation charges. Like many of us in the media, Delhi-based politicians too need to come to terms with the ‘tyranny of distance’: Thiruvananthapuram Dur Ast!