New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have failed to win even one Lok Sabha seat in Tripura and Kerala, but it continues to make efforts to challenge the incumbent opposition, the Congress in Tripura and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, in Kerala, as part of its plan to become a true national party.

In the past two years, the BJP has won the Lok Sabha polls and also assembly elections in key states, replacing the Congress as the principal pole of Indian politics. If it succeeds in gaining a political toehold either in Kerala or Tripura, it would have taken a significant step in expanding its national footprint and providing an alternative political choice in what is otherwise a two-party contests, say analysts.

In Kerala, the BJP is looking to play the caste card to carve its own electoral niche. For the moment, it is focusing on the other backward class (OBC), particularly the Ezhava community.

“Kerala has a strong presence of Christians and Muslims, and the first choice of these two communities is not the BJP. We are trying to play the OBC card because Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also from an OBC and he is popular in the state. Modi has already visited the state thrice. BJP is trying to find leaders in the state from OBC communities," a senior BJP leader from Kerala said on condition of anonymity.

BJP leaders from Kerala and other southern states met party president Amit Shah in Bengaluru recently to discuss ways to expand the party’s presence south of the Vindhyas.

In the results of assembly by-polls declared on 30 June, the BJP made inroads in Tripura by securing the second position in two seats—ahead of the Congress. In Kerala, while the BJP remained third in the re-election for one assembly seat, it saw an increase in its vote share.

The electoral plans of the BJP in Tripura and Kerala are a cause for concern to the Congress, especially as it seeks to regroup and rebuild after the humiliating defeat in the last general election.

Tripura has a significant tribal population and BJP leaders are tapping the network created by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Party leaders along with members of the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, another affiliate of the RSS, are working to increase the voter base.

Sunil Deodhar, a full-time worker of the RSS, has been hand-picked by Modi and Shah to manage the affairs of the party in Tripura. Deodhar worked closely with Modi in Varanasi during the Lok Sabha elections.

Tripura is one of the last remaining strongholds of the CPM; the party, under the leadership of chief minister Manik Sarkar, has been in power in the state since 1998. In Kerala, the opposition is led by the Left Democratic Front, of which the CPM is the largest constituent.

Apart from these two states, the communists are also facing a challenge from the BJP in West Bengal. Although the party has not been able to make significant in-roads even after winning two Lok Sabha seats for the first time in May 2014, it has created an on-ground network.

“The situations in West Bengal and Kerala are very similar. The BJP is growing and it is taking away the voter base of Left parties. Congress is insignificant in West Bengal, so the space of opposition is vacant. In Kerala also, BJP is taking away the votes of Left parties. Our main aim is to win those votes back," a senior leader of Communist Party of India (CPI) said on condition of anonymity.

The founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh, the progenitor of the BJP, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, won a Lok Sabha election from West Bengal, but the party has always remained an insignificant force in the state. It won a Lok Sabha seat for the first time last year, when two of its representatives notched up victories.

“The strategy of BJP is very simple. We have to try and replace Trinamool Congress in future. The Congress party has little presence in state politics, and people continue to be annoyed with the Left parties, so the space of opposition parties is vacant. We want to capture the space of opposition party by being more vocal and visible than any other party in West Bengal," said Sidharth Nath Singh, BJP’s West Bengal in-charge.

It won’t be easy, not in West Bengal, nor in Kerala and Tripura, said an analyst. “The politics in Kerala is largely divided into caste and religion. BJP does not have sufficient support there," said Amiya K. Chaudhuri, a West Bengal-based political analyst.

He added that in Tripura and West Bengal, the respective CPM and Trinamool Congress governments enjoy the support of the people, making it difficult for the BJP to gain any significant presence.

The CPM, which is in power only in the north-eastern state of Tripura, has seen a sharp fall in its representation in Parliament, with its total seats in the Lok Sabha dipping from 24 in 2009 elections to 11 last year. The CPM is also struggling to keep its voter base intact in its erstwhile bastions of West Bengal and Kerala, both of which go to polls next year.

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