It was a time when only those in the habit of reading through an entire newspaper had some idea who Atal Bihari Vajpayee or L K Advani were. Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister and V P Singh was the man people talked about the most.
So when the state leadership of the BJP decided to field a popular chemistry teacher P Asok Kumar as its Lok Sabha candidate from Thiruvananthapuram in 1989, he was not too keen. “I told my leaders that I was more comfortable doing party work. I was already a councillor, and did not want a bigger responsibility,” Asok said.
It was also a time when a BJP worker in the state cared two hoots for Lok Sabha polls. The party had been in existence for not even a decade, and was considered irrelevant in the southern parts of the country. The Jan Sangh members came out of the Janata Party and had formed the BJP in 1980. Vajpayee and L K Advani were the only two MPs BJP had. To compete was a waste of time.
Capital's first lotus holder
Nonetheless, K G Marar, the then BJP state president, insisted that Asok contest. P Asok Kumar, therefore, became the first candidate in the history of Thiruvananthapuram to contest under the 'lotus' symbol. He was a popular teacher and had won big as a councillor in the 1988 local body polls. Asok was also the district president of the party.
But there was something more compelling. “Asok had contested in three Assembly elections earlier and not once forfeited his deposit. Then, it was seen as a near miracle,” Purushothaman, a former RSS pracharak said.
In Kerala, not only was the BJP not taken seriously but was also scoffed at. “The BJP was viewed with great derision. During those days, Hindus in Kerala found it shameful to openly declare themselves as a Hindu,” Asok said. L K Advani had still not begun his Rath Yatra that would radically alter the political landscape of the country.
In 1989, Asok was up against two mighty opponents. A Charles, the incumbent MP with huge influence over the predominant Nadar votes in the constituency, was the Congress candidate. On the Left was the CPM independent O N V Kurup, the legendary poet and lyricist.
Mango pickle campaign
“My party just asked me to make our presence felt,” Asok said. For this, Asok was given a princely sum of Rs 10,000. “Mararji told me not to ask for a penny more,” Asok said. He himself is amused at how spartan his party once was. “Nowadays ours is a party that sets apart Rs 3 lakh for a candidate's helicopter rides alone,” he said.
Since street-side election meetings were too costly, house-to-house campaign was Asok's preferred voter outreach strategy. “We used to get so tired walking that we used to ask for some water at certain homes. There were many instances when we were also given mangoes soaked in brine. In short, plain water and salted mango sustained us during the campaign,” Asok said.
Swami who sold lies
Even if Asok were to organise street-side meetings, he knew he would not attract a crowd. He also had to drive home hard Hindutva messages, something Kerala was still not open to.
Asok found a way out. His entry to a spot will be preceded by the arrival of the Swami Satyananda Saraswathi, a fiery right-wing seer popularly known as Chenkottukonam Swami. He will deliver speeches laced with anti-Muslim rhetoric. He even used to tell his audience that the root wilt disease so common among coconut trees then was a conspiracy hatched by America.
“You feel a bit embarrassed and sad but then you realise that he is doing all this for us, to get us a crowd,” Asok said. “The moment he leaves the scene, and before the crowd could disperse, I will enter the spot. It will look as if I have no connection with the swami. I will deliver a speech, but careful not to utter anything offensive,” he added.
But the biggest crowd pullers he employed were none other than Vapayee and Advani. “Both of them came to Thiruvananthapuram. Atalji spoke from a stage erected right in front of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Advani took part in two election meetings in the constituency, one in the heart of the city and the other at Neyyatinkara,” Asok said.
There was a reason why the BJP's tallest leaders visited Thiruvananthauram in 1989. “We had won six wards in the local body elections held in 1988. It was the first time the BJP had won in panchayat elections in the state,” Asok said. The six wards were Palkulangara, Sreekanteswaram, Fort Puthentheruvu, Chenthitta and Poojappura. Except for Poojappura, all the other wards were on the west of the constituency, a predominantly Tamil Brahmin area. The hardline Hindu Munnani, which had its roots in Tamil Nadu, had strong influence in these areas. These areas continue to be BJP strongholds.
The way L K Advani wanted the meeting organised in East Fort, the busiest pocket in the capital, gave a hint of the political daredevilry the man was capable of. The one-kilometre stretch from Overbridge to East Fort was taken over by the party workers. Traffic was summarily shut out, and Advani addressed workers from a raised platform erected right in the middle of the busy road in front of the Pazhavangady temple. A case was slapped on Advani, but the man who would soon embark on a historical rath yatra couldn't care less.
Vajapyee's behaviour was equally stunning, but in a Gandhian sense. “It was I who picked Atalji from the airport. As we were travelling to the city, he said he wanted to drink a cup of tea. He being such a reputed national leader I thought I had to take him to a costly place. But I had just Rs 100 in my pocket. While I was desperately searching for options, Atalji asked the driver to stop in front of a bunk shop selling tea near Vallakkadavu. He got out of the car and asked for tea. He stood before the bunk shop and sipped tea just like anyone else. He paid for the tea, mine and the driver's too,” Asok said.
At the hotel, Asok was in for yet another surprise. “When he saw the cosy mattress, he looked uneasy. I am not used to sleeping in such soft beds,” he said. Later in the night when Asok met Vajpayee to speak about the next day's programme, he saw a plain sheet laid on the floor with one of its tips folded up to function as a pillow. Atalji also had a piece of advice for him. “There should be no personal attacks on your opponents. It is even okay if you say a couple of nice things about them. One of them I know is a great poet. Give him respect,” he told Asok.
Victory and martyrdom
He adhered to Vajpayee's advice but lost badly. A Charles won big with a margin of over 50,000 votes. He came a distant third behind the poet, securing just 7.5 per cent of the votes. Nationally, the BJP pulled off a miracle. From just two seats, its tally shot up to 86.
Asok found himself a martyr. Five panchayat elections, three assembly elections and a Lok Sabha poll had saddled him with crushing debts. He sold his property and when even that was not enough, went to the Gulf as teacher.
Nine years later, Asok returned. By then the Modi wave had struck and the BJP has ceased to be a party that had leaders who slept on the floor. He is still a state committee member, but is more focused on teaching chemistry to medical and engineering aspirants.