O Rajagopal: BJP’s first Kerala MLA looks to change old notions about the party4 min read . Updated: 20 May 2016, 08:59 PM IST
BJP's first-time victory in the Kerala assembly elections is mostly attributed to the popularity of O. Rajagopal
Bengaluru: It has been over half a century since former Union minister O. Rajagopal entered politics—he started off as a national executive council member in the Jana Sangh way back in 1964. The last 52 years haven’t been easy ones—he has sought the public mandate in almost 13 small and big elections for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was referred to as the BJP’s permanent candidate in Kerala, with no success.
But like a veritable phoenix, he has risen from the ashes over and over again. And it has finally paid off.
The 87-year-old veteran, who contested from the Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram, beat the sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly, CPM leader V. Sivankutty, by 8,671 votes and will now become the first representative of the BJP in Kerala’s 140-member assembly.
Born in Palakkad, Kerala, in 1929 to O. Konhikkavu Amma and Madhavan Nair, an active worker of the pre-Independence Congress party, his early life was spent in this border district. Rajettan, as he is popularly known as, then went on to take a degree in law from Chennai and began his career as an advocate in the Palakkad district court in 1956. He joined the Jana Sangh, an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), going on to hold the post of state general secretary and later, the state party president, according to his autobiography Jeevithamritham. Later, he named his son, an acclaimed film maker now, after Shyamaprasad Mukherjee, the founder of the Jana Sangh.
The Indira Gandhi-induced Emergency, however, changed everything. Rajagopal, who was among the disillusioned young people who rebelled against the authoritarianism it instigated, soon found himself sharing a cell in Thrissur’s central jail, Viyoor, with political stalwarts such as V. Velankutty Master and E.M.S. Namboodiripad.
When the split between the BJP and the Janata Party happened, he went on to become the BJP’s first Kerala unit president in 1980, holding the post till 1985.
Rajagopal was elected twice—in 1992 and 1998—as Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh and was appointed as a Union minister of state during the Vajypayee government that assumed office in 1999. He held minister of state portfolios including defence, parliamentary affairs and railways at the Centre.
The second time around, the seat was supposed to be given to P. Parameshwaran, the founder and head of a Kerala-based RSS think tank called Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram. But Parameshwaran says he declined and suggested it be given to Rajagopal instead.
The saffron party’s first-time victory in the state assembly elections, which has disrupted the existing bipolar contest between the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front, is mostly attributed to the popularity of the man himself.
“He is like a Karanavar (the eldest in a family). A saint without the robes. He never agrees to any kind of violence or wrongdoing, which we do a lot. The grievance within the party is that he is too honest for politics," said an official associated with RSS, requesting not to be named.
Though his RSS ideology is integral to his personality, in a recent interview with the Indian Express he claimed that the face of the BJP in Kerala was a very different one—cow slaughter and Bharat Mata Ki Jai do not form part of it and party workers have been asked to abstain from raising these issues.
“He won’t strike you as a BJP guy when you meet him on the street," says K. Krishnachand, a Kerala-based journalist, “He just comes across as a politician who has been here for a long time."
And he isn’t just respected by the people who share his ideology. Take Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who beat him by a margin of 15,700 votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. “He has a reputation for being a kindly, friendly and honourable gentleman, which may have helped him electorally too, since many who are not of a BJP disposition felt he deserved the seat in his farewell race after 50 years of unsuccessful efforts. He is also remarkably sprightly for his 86 years, as I can testify having seen him prostrate himself before Mata Amrithanandamayi (spiritual leader) with an athleticism and flexibility that would be the envy of someone half his age," said Tharoor.
An RSS worker remembers watching from a station platform an encounter between K. Suresh Kurup, a four-time CPM MLA from Kottayam, and Rajagopal: “He was struggling with his luggage when Kurup, noticing this, came rushing to help him. He is seen as a big brother to most people, irrespective of their political leanings."
According to Krishnachand, “We expected him to give fiery speeches on Day 1 of his campaigning. Instead, he walked into the house of V.S. Shivankutty, who had met with an accident and was bound to a wheelchair, and asked him about his health." He said Rajagopal commanded great respect in Thiruvananthapuram, and added, “I think the public really felt sympathy for this man who has been contesting right from 1999."