Fruits of Sabarimala: BJP’s game plan in Kerala, Tamil Nadu
Can disruptions like Sabarimala help the BJP establish new space in the closed party systems in two key southern states?
After the just-concluded legislative assembly elections, there is now some agreement that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) peaked in the last general election, and an encore is unlikely in 2019. The party is aware that it will take a haircut in its traditional strongholds and is attempting to make good the losses by investing greater effort in other territories. The question is whether a party’s efforts and capacity alone are sufficient to break new ground. Here, I focus on the BJP’s chances in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, two states, where it has found it difficult to make a breakthrough.
The BJP has made concerted efforts over the last four years to convert random events in both states to its advantage. The ongoing conflict surrounding the Sabarimala temple entry issue and the incidents of violence and destruction of property in Kerala is one instance of the party trying to fish in troubled waters.
The Sabarimala temple entry issue has given the BJP a theme which fits snugly in its domain and also gets Hindu upper caste approval. The Congress has hitherto been the primary beneficiary of the upper caste support. When the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages could worship at the temple, the BJP sought to cash in arguing that order did not respect tradition, custom and sentiments. With the Communist Party of India [Marxist] (CPM)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) in power, it also makes sense to play the ace that Hindus are in danger.
The key question is: will this strategy enable the BJP to breach a “closed” party system?
The closed party system
The widespread assumption is that variations in electoral support induce modifications in the party system. However, this assumption is problematic for two reasons. First, it views political parties in isolation and ignores that parties are nested in party systems. While party systems are defined by the pattern of interactions, including competition and/or cooperation between parties, we cannot ignore the fact that the system also constrains what parties can and cannot do. Changes in the party system are therefore not merely about what one party does or what another does not do, but also about what the system permits.
Second, it misses the point that party systems are enduring and are unlikely to change quickly because of the success and failure of parties. Parties who have invested in a system have a vested interest in maintaining status-quo; they may be competing with each other but would want that competition to be framed around issues that suit them. To illustrate this point, take the case of telecom providers who are in competition but often act in concert to ensure standardisation takes place at a pace of their choosing.
In Tamil Nadu, the contours of conflict are defined by the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), just as the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPM-led LDF do the same in neighbouring Kerala.
For instance, in Tamil Nadu, politics essentially revolves around the idea of “Dravidianism”. There are three core elements which define this idea—non-Brahminism; that Tamil people are united by certain culture and identity revolving around language; and that Tamils have been given a raw deal by the north. The big two sit on different ends of the Dravidianism spectrum, with the DMK holding a more militant perspective on the core ideas compared to the AIADMK.
It is this structure of competition that characterises the party system, and as an influential scholar in the field of comparative political parties and party systems, the late Peter Mair once said, freezes “a specific language of politics”. Parties work within this model by fitting themselves on the spectrum even if they have other concerns.
One needs to rewind to the 2014 campaign for the 16th Lok Sabha in Tamil Nadu to understand how this works. The principal campaigner for the BJP and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi in his rallies deftly muted the fact that his party is a reluctant federalist and framed issues in a manner that would find resonance in the state. He made the correct noises on centre-state relations including upholding the federal spirit, critiquing the misuse of the office of governor and central machinery like the income tax department and so on. Furthermore, he also attempted to strike a sympathetic chord by referring to the problems of Tamil fishermen and Sri Lanka. There was no reference to the muscular nationalist position or the party’s preference for the strong-centre model of federalism.
The DMK, AIADMK, CPM, and the Congress unit in Kerala are probably among the more organized, rooted and robust among all party units in the country. In their respective states, they are the dominant players, and they have worked to maintain what can be called closed party systems. Closed party systems have strongly established competition patterns, leaving little space for new party success and fresh coalitions to emerge. For instance, on an average, since 1960, the Congress and the CPM in Kerala have won more than 52% of the seats in the Assembly. Likewise in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK and the DMK won more than 71% of the seats since 1967.
In closed party systems, winning is the privilege of the select, and it is possible only when the dominant parties ‘agree’. This is evident when we look at the party landscape in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though both states have numerous active small parties, these parties have neither expanded their size nor extended their reach. The strategies of dominant parties largely determine their influence as well as electoral and legislative presence.
In Tamil Nadu, for instance, even the Congress and the BJP have succeeded only when the big two have given them space. In 2014, the small parties in Tamil Nadu attempted to break this pattern and joined a BJP-led alliance. However, the poor show forced them back to the dominant parties in the 2016 assembly elections. There is therefore virtually no life without the dominant.
So in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu, for the last four decades, we have the same set of parties competing with almost the same degree of success election after election. Consequently, there is little less scope for changes in the party composition of government and access of new parties to the government. For voters too electoral choices are constrained—you either vote for the government or the opposition. In contrast to this, in ‘open’ party systems, not only is the entry of newer parties easier, but there is also a greater movement of voters between parties.
Research studies also tell us that the so-called lower caste assertion and mobilisation in some northern states since the 1990s occurred in the southern states, especially in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the 1950s. Consequently, the electorate is fully mobilised and is actually ‘frozen’ in the two states. Political parties accordingly have obviously linked stable social groupings.
The freezing of the electorate, therefore, leaves little scope for new parties to emerge. A change, of course, could occur if there is a significant electoral realignment or dealignment of social groups. However, a change of this magnitude requires a major socio-economic upheaval to break established party linkages with social groups. Both closed party systems and fully mobilised electorates in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, therefore, leave the BJP with little space to manoeuvre.
BJP’s disruption in Tamil Nadu
It is therefore not surprising that the BJP have not found takers in the two states. In Tamil Nadu, the party, like the other small parties, has succeeded only when it is in alliance with either of the big two. In Kerala, the party has not won a single seat to the Lok Sabha, and it is only in 2016 that it made it to the Assembly. Notwithstanding, therefore what appears to be an insurmountable hurdle, the BJP has made concerted efforts since 2014 to woo voters in the two states.
Both Tamil Nadu and Kerala have seen repeated visits by the Prime Minister, Union ministers, the party president and various central party functionaries over the last four years. The party has also made it a point to be in the news by issuing statements regularly on various events and issues concerned with the two states. Furthermore, speeches by office bearers and resolutions of the BJP at different points of time underscore a dogged determination to take the party to new territories.
In Tamil Nadu, the BJP has also attempted a shortcut, by trying to ride on the popularity of established entities and recognised faces. First, it targeted the besieged AIADMK, which lost its long-standing leader J Jayalalithaa in December 2016. The lack of internal democracy and succession rules upped the infighting within and pushed the AIADMK to a three-way split. The media reported that the BJP’s central leadership was an invisible player in the factional game and was instrumental in bringing two groups together. The BJP hopes that a weak AIADMK that is dependent on it will help it enter Tamil Nadu.
Simultaneously, the BJP has courted actor Rajinikanth once he announced that he was entering the political arena. The absence of any overt Dravidian rhetoric and his claim of purging corruption and providing spiritual governance must have been music to the BJP’s ears. Consequently, the BJP leadership has cosseted him, anticipating the use the superstar’s influence to break the monopoly of the big two. Notwithstanding these efforts, the BJP is on weak ground in the Dravidian territory. The party’s agenda is entirely out of sync with the dominant ethos, and it can easily be marked as an interloper.
The Sabarimala factor
In Kerala, the party has looked at two communities, the Ezhavas and the so-called upper castes. Like never before, over the last four years, the BJP has wooed the Ezhava community, the bedrock of the CPM support base. They constitute a large section of the Hindus and can swing votes in certain constituencies in some of the southern districts of the state. Consequently, Varkala, where the Sivagiri Mutt, established by social reformer Sree Narayana Guru is located has become a, must visit place for the central BJP leaders.
In tune with this line, the party first indulged Vellapally Natesan, the general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) and then subsequently aligned with the Bharath Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS) formed by him. Though there have been ups and downs in the relationship between the two parties, the BDJS continues to be in the NDA camp.
The BJP probably hopes that Sabarimala may be the big magnitude issue which may consolidate the Hindus and help delink social groups from their traditional anchors in Kerala. However, the Congress unit’s position on the temple entry is similar to that of the BJP, and moreover, it has taken a more consistent stand than the BJP. This has in many ways considerably reduced the leverage of the BJP. The Congress traditionalist position makes sense when we look closely at the party system. In Kerala, the Congress has time and again acted as the conservative force, while the CPM has been on the other side of the political spectrum. This spread has helped both parties to control the political rhetoric in the state. This may explain why the BJP does not find much purchase in a state which has the maximum number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakas in the country. However, with a weakened Congress across the country and out of power at the centre, the Kerala unit may be on shaky ground. The party’s conservative support base can shift to the BJP if the latter retains its hegemonic status.
While there will be some fatigue with the big four in the two states, their party is probably not yet over. Party systems are resilient because parties adapt and the dominant act as gatekeepers to prevent both new elements and rhetoric. It is the nature of the party system which allows for the dominance of the AIADMK and DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Congress and the CPM in Kerala and also makes it difficult for the BJP.
K K Kailash is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.
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