At a time when right-wing Hindu political leaders in Kerala and even the RSS had no idea how to do it, a charismatic Swami with a henchman's physique and a demagogue's flair had made it cool for Hindu voters in Nemom to hate Muslims and Christians.
In the eighties and early nineties, when the BJP was not a force to reckon with in the country, Rama Dasa Mission's Swami Sathyananda Saraswati, popularly known as Chenkottukonam Swami, had gone around areas that now constitute the Nemom constituency delivering hate speeches. Nairs, mostly descendants of feudal families, were the dominant group in these areas.
“It was so exhilarating to listen to him that you never missed his speech though we knew he was poison,” said Purushothaman, a CPM worker who was once an area committee member. BJP's senior corporation councillor P Asok Kumar, who once was the BJP candidate in Nemom assembly seat, told Onmanorama that even Marxists used to come to hear the Swami speak.
Seer's crowd trick
It could have been instinct but for reasons known only to him, the Swami had limited his public appearances within Nemom. Even before the BJP was born, Chenkottukonam Swami had used his drawing power in Nemom to collect crowds for right-wing Hindu candidates during Assembly polls.
Asok Kumar describes how the Swami helped him during 1982, when he was Hindu Munnani candidate in Nemom, and later in 1987 when he was Nemom's BJP candidate.
“His Rama Dasa Mission would first announce a public meeting in certain areas. Huge crowds will gather in the area. The Swami will appear first and speak of a Muslim and Christian conspiracy to destroy Hinduism and Hindu leaders. The moment he leaves I will enter and deliver my election speech to the crowd that he had pulled in, always careful not to be offensive,” Asok said.
This was Chenkottukonam Swami's own idea and the RSS or the BJP never had to prod him.
Root wilt and American conspiracy
The Swami was so unapologetic about his minority hatred that his utterances could disturb even the BJP candidate. “Sometimes when he describes Christians and Muslims as germs in the body of the Hindu nation, you tend to squirm. Once he was even heard saying that the root wilt disease that was then so common in coconut trees was an American conspiracy. But those were times when the BJP was looked upon with derision in Kerala and the Swami, even if he went over the top, was bringing us crowds,” Asok said.
Asok Kumar's unprecedented feat
Asok came third in Nemom, both in 1982 and 1987, but here is the important thing. He emerged as the first right-wing Hindu candidate in Kerala who had not forfeited his deposit. The RSS and the BJP suddenly woke up to the potential of Nemom.
These performances, aided no doubt by Chenkottukonam Swami's sly scheme, even prompted the BJP to make Asok Kumar its Thiruvananthapuram candidate during the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. Both A B Vajpayee and L K Advani, then the only two BJP MPs, flew down to Thiruvananthapuram to campaign for Asok.
Congress deserts Nemom
Even then, Nemom continued to alternate between the LDF and the UDF until 2011 when the Congress made what is now described as a “suicidal decision” to abandon the constituency, which was once represented by the mighty K Karunakaran, and hand it over to a minor UDF ally, Social Janata (Democratic) Party. “This allowed traditional Congress voters who were open to the Hindutva agenda to happily, unapologetically vote for the BJP,” said Vellar Gopakumar, a local historian.
In 2011, CPM's V Sivankutty won but BJP's O Rajagopal came second. He cornered 37.49 per cent of the votes polled. To know how dramatic this was, here is what the BJP candidate Malayankeezh Radhakrishnan secured in the 2006 elections: 5.58 per cent.
All of a sudden, the UDF ceased to be a force. Its candidate, SJ(D)'s Charupara Ravi fetched just 17.3 per cent. In 2006, Congress's N Sakthan had taken more than 50 per cent of the votes.
“This was then seen as cross voting by Congress cadres unable to accommodate a non-Congress UDF candidate. But cadres alone cannot cause such a massive swing in favour of the BJP. Traditional Congress voters found themselves faced with a new choice, CPM or BJP, and they overwhelmingly went for the BJP,” Gopakumar said.
Arrival of Modi
However, the pro-Hindu potential that Chenkottukonam Swami saw for Nemom in the eighties was fully realised only after Narendra Modi came to power in 2014. It was as if Nemom was waiting for the right moment to shift loyalties. Modi's national acceptance was a perfect, even noble, excuse for shy 'behind the curtain' Hindutva admirers to openly shift their loyalties to the BJP.
This was seen in the local body polls held in 2015. The BJP won 10 of the 22 wards within the Nemom constituency. In 2010, the party had just one councillor from the area; M R Gopan from Ponnumangalam. The very next year Rajagopal trounced Sivankutty by 8671 votes, becoming the first BJP MLA in Kerala. The UDF, even though it was represented by V Surendran Pillai of Janata Dal (United), a popular minister in the Oommen Chandy cabinet, slipped further; its vote share fell to below 10 per cent.
Thereafter, the BJP grew in strength in Nemom. In 2019, when Congress's Shashi Tharoor defeated BJP's Kummanam Rajasekharan by nearly one lakh votes, Nemom was the only area within the Thiruvananthapuram constituency where Tharoor could not defeat Kummanam. In Nemom, Kummanam had a lead of over 12,000, a far bigger lead than what Rajagopal had over Sivankutty in 2016.
Then came the 2020 local body polls. Though the BJP could not perform as expected in other areas of the Thiruvananthapuram Corporation, it improved its standing within the Nemom constituency areas. It won 14 of the 22 wards within the Nemom constituency; in 2015, it had won 10.
BJP in pole position
Evidently, it is advantage BJP in Nemom as it gears up for the 2021 Assembly polls. It is near certain that Kummanam Rajasekharan, the most loved face in Kerala BJP, will be the BJP candidate from Nemom. He, like O Rajagopal, has the sympathy factor, too, to back him. Like the present MLA, Kummanam too had fought several electoral battles and had close tragic losses. Neutral voters might want him to win.
Another near certainty is that the Congress, like in the last two elections, would leave the constituency to a minor ally. If they are politically literate, the Congress party should be able to decipher the writing on the wall: it came a distant third in most of the wards within the Nemom constituency during the 2020 local body polls. Even if it puts up a strong Congress candidate in Nemom, party insiders know it would only split votes in favour of the CPM, a possibility the Congress wants to shut out.
In Nemom, therefore, it is most likely to be a CPM-BJP contest. If the BJP wins a second time, a seer who once blamed America for the root wilt disease in coconut trees in Kerala will have the last laugh.