Bengaluru: A year after Sabarimala judgement, which came out on 28 September last year and opened a months-long attack on Kerala’s ruling Left by the right-wing, its principal architect Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be nowhere close to benefit out of it at the ballot box.
Despite breathing fire into the Sabarimala agitation, the BJP vote share in Kerala during the Lok Sabha polls in May rose only by a mere 4.78%. The party drew a blank and its most promising candidate, Kummanam Rajasekharan, lose by close to one lakh votes. This month, the BJP is bracing up for five crucial bypolls in Kerala where analysts say it has squandered a decent prospect of winning with internal bickering.
The bypolls are seen as a curtain-raiser for the battle for Kerala in 2021 assembly polls, where the BJP expects to widen its assembly numbers. The BJP currently has only one seat in Kerala, and has never won a parliamentary seat— a sad state of affairs changing which, its leader Amit Shah said after the parliamentary polls, will begin the “golden era" for the party.
One of the bypoll seats, Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram district, is a case in point for the party’s internal bickering in Kerala. Over the years, the BJP has become a primary challenger in Vattiyoorkavu for the two dominant fronts of Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front led by Communist Party of India (Marxist), CPM, and the main opposition United Democratic Front led by Congress.
However, the candidate announcement to the seat on Sunday came after several flip-flops, threatening to scuttle its prospects. The district committee in Thiruvananthapuram had openly stated its preference to field a strong face like Rajasekharan, the former Governor of Mizoram who took on Congress’ Shashi Tharoor in the district during Lok Sabha polls. Rajashekaran, a popular face of the party cutting across factions, lost the seat for a mere 7000 votes to Congress senior leader K Muraleedharan in 2016. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, he reduced his losing margin in Vattiyoorkavu to just 2836 votes.
On Sunday morning, Rajasekharan was even announced as the party candidate by senior leader and Kerala’s lone BJP MLA, O. Rajagopal. However, later in the day, the official announcement named the district secretary S Suresh as the candidate. The move was a result of intense lobbying for the seat between the two rival factions, an open secret within the party— one led by PK Krishnadas and another by V Muraleedharan, said a state leader of the BJP, requesting not to be named.
“Rajasekharan initially did not want to contest, but his name was floated around to scuttle the chances of VV Rajesh (a leader who is allied to Muraleedharan faction) entering the fray. Suresh (who belong to the Krishnadas faction) was finally chosen a compromise candidate. But Rajasekharan’s name created such a buzz that even Suresh wanted him to contest by the end. Now, announcing Suresh after all these flip-flops could backfire at us," said the person.
Similarly, another BJP leader K Surendran, who lost Manjeshwaram seat by just 89 votes in 2016, curiously announced that he did not want to contest again in the bypolls to the same seat in October. He was, however, finally announced as a candidate for Konni seat in Pathanamthitta district, a hub of Sabarimala protests, on Sunday.
While all BJP candidates gave nominations to the bypolls on Monday, the last day of filing the nominations, the ruling CPM candidates have almost finished their first round of campaigning. To their blessing, the Congress camp was equally undivided on the candidates with internal differences, and was only finalised on Sunday. In the most-watched out for contest in Vattiyoorkavu, the CPM has fielded probably its strongest face, VK Prasanth, the district Mayor who harnessed some goodwill for his work during this year’s monsoon floods. The Congress has fielded K Mohankumar, opposed by the local Congress leaders who wanted another leader Peethambara Kurup, a name backed by Muraleedharan, to contest.
Talking to reporters, Rajasekharan on Monday rejected the alleged skirmishes within the party. “I don’t want to be the king, I’ll be the kingmaker," he said. BJP Kerala president Sreedharan Pillai also denied the charge that the party is not able to play its best hands despite having a chance to win the bypolls. “We only have the power to recommend candidates from here (state committee). It is finally decided by (center-run) parliamentary board. This is our system. Whatever, in majority of the bypolls seats, BJP has a winning chance. The CPM is in third place in most places, we lost by 2000, 3000 votes in some of the seats. So it’s a contest between us and whoever is coming second," he said.
“BJP is clearly on the backfoot in Kerala. Except for some upper-caste Hindus, I don’t see wide support for them even after Sabarimala. They also receive no goodwill in Kerala over central government’s actions like revoking Article 370 in Kashmir," said analyst Sandeep Shastri.