The Raj Bhawan walls of Christian majority state Mizoram, thousands of miles away from the politically charged Chengannur assembly constituency in the southern tip of India, must be reverberating with a sexagenarian Sangh loyalist's sigh of relief now.
Had he been still in Kerala managing the BJP's state unit, Kummanam Rajasekharan would have had to face a lot of uneasy questions about his party's performance in the Chengannur assembly bypoll, which was won by Kerala's ruling LDF with a thumping majority.
Kummanam was sent to Mizoram as governor in an unexpected move that came at the peak of the high-pitched campaign in Chengannur. On Thursday, his party came third in the bypoll behind the CPM and the Congress, with a dip of nearly 9,000 in its vote share compared to the 2016 assembly polls.
The saffron party could only poll 33,705 this time as against the 42,685 it got in 2016. The loss in the vote share is obviously a setback for the saffron dreams of Kerala as the BJP kept putting up a brave face throughout the two-month campaigning. The party was pinning its hopes on a possible swing of minority votes in its favour. However, not only did it happen, but there was a possible consolidation of minority votes in favour of the CPM-led LDF which emerged winner by a historic margin of over 20,000 votes. The BJP must have hoped to come at least at the second spot pushing the Congress a step down the ladder as it was only some 2000 votes behind the grand old party in the assembly segment in 2016. However, this time the difference between the two parties has widened to over 12,000 votes. One reason for it could be that a section of the Hindu votes that went to the BJP's kitty last time might have gone back to the Congress camp, thanks to its candidate D Vijayakumar, a known face in the constituency.
Strained ties with BDJS
The most important reason for the fall in BJP's vote share could be its strained relationship with the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political party supported by the OBC Ezhava community's SNDP Yogam. The BDJS, which toiled hard with the BJP in 2016, was almost absent in the campaign in protest against the ill-treatment meted out to it by the BJP. The party apparently wanted to teach the saffron boss a lesson and show that the latter would not be able to win a seat on its own, provided the political circumstances in the state. “The BJP's ploy to go alone and corner glory has failed,” was the reaction of the SNDP Yogam chief Vellappally Natesan after the results were out.
The BJP state leadership was also quick to admit that the abstention of the BDJS from campaigning did affect the BJP's performance. The BJP's failure to keep the alliance intact during a crucial bypoll, which came as a blessing as it happened in a constituency where its prospects were big compared to many other segments, must be viewed as a big mistake. Having the political resources to keep the allies in a comfort zone, the BJP should have tried to placate the BDJS to keep its 2016 vote bank intact. Or did the BJP want to happen it this way so that it could realistically check its base in Chengannur? Only the party top brass can answer. Even if the answer is yes, it was a political mistake as the bypoll has led to an expose of the party's soft underbelly ahead of the Lok Sabha polls due next year.
The party national leadership's decision to shift the state unit chief at a crucial stage also seems to have backfired as the rival fronts could project it as a sign of the Hindutva party's imminent failure in the bypoll. The party's campaign was on par with that of the rival fronts and there was no dearth of man and money power for it to put up a fight. Still, the result shows that the party failed miserably to project it as an alternative to the CPM-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF who have been alternately ruling the state for decades. Instead of picking up specific issues that mattered to the voters, the party came up with the promise of a separate district for the people of Chengannur, which sounded absurd and impractical.
BJP also has reasons to cheer
However, despite the defeat, the BJP also has reasons to cheer. Throughout the electioneering, the CPM and the Congress had been claiming that the BJP's vote share would come down by half and there could be a fall of at least 20,000 votes. But not only did it happen, but the party was able to poll over 35,000 votes almost on its own. Compared to the 6,000 votes the BJP polled in Chengannur in 2006 assembly polls, the figure is huge and a testimony to the party's growing influence in the region. The image of Sreedharan Pillai, that wields influence beyond political boundaries, could also be a reason for the surge, as some sources in the party admit.
Even then, the result sends out a message for all the major parties that the BJP has emerged as a force to reckon with. For the BJP, a better management of its allies, existing and potential, should be the way forward. However, it needs some drastic changes in its strategies if it is really serious about making huge inroads into the LDF-UDF vote bases in Kerala. That seems to take time at the moment when the party top brass' headache is to find a head for the state unit after Kummanam's exit.