The byelection results have taught the BJP's Kerala unit a lesson: the 'Amit Shah-style' brash militant Hindu brand of politics will not take it anywhere in Kerala.
There is growing awareness within that if the party wants to achieve a political breakthrough in Kerala it should be infinitely more inclusive than the mere tokenism of picking a Muslim as its vice president. Recently, the party-appointed A P Abdullakutty, a former CPM parliamentarian and Congress MLA, as its vice-president. If even this broadening is seen as falling short, there is also the thinking that the party should not think twice about choosing a candidate from among the minorities as the state president.
True, this realisation is not reflected in the candidate list for the new state president. Topping the list are K Surendran, the most aggressive anti-woman crusader in Sabarimala, and M T Ramesh, the man who antagonised the entire state by frequently calling for hartals during the Sabarimala agitation, once even when a man who had nothing to do with the agitation had committed suicide by setting himself on fire.
Either of them is most likely to replace P S Sreedharan Pillai. This is mainly because, at the moment, there is no BJP leader in Kerala who can be called inclusive.
Trouble with Kummanam and Sobha
Sreedharan Pillai, who has been quite painlessly evicted from the president's post, was perhaps the only such leader. He had close links to the Panakkad family – whose head is the chief patron of the Indian Union Muslim League - and the spiritual leaders of many Chrisitan congregations. But in the heat of the Sabarimala agitation, Pillai had found it convenient to dump his liberal world-view and play the Hindu card to the hilt.
None of the claimants to the top post now are likely to make the minorities comfortable the way Pillai could. But a top BJP source said, given the absence of a non-polarising face in the BJP right now, the only option left is to pick the candidate more open to the idea of striking electoral deals with the minorities.
The names of Kummanam Rajasekharan and Sobha Surendran, considered highly divisive figures, have thus been crossed out from the list of contenders. Though soft-spoken and mild-mannered, Kummanam had vehemently objected to even a preliminary discussion with the Indian Union Muslim League during his three-year stint as BJP state president. As for Sobha Surendran, the BJP's assessment is that the minorities consider her too spiteful.
It's advantage Surendran
The only option left is to transform the new BJP State President into an inclusive leader. The party feels it would be easier with Surendran.
“If Surendran had not lost as badly as S Suresh in Vattiyoorkavu, it was only because he had the backing of the Orthodox community in Konni. The loss in Nair and Ezhava was made up to an extent by Christian votes. Therefore Surendran, unlike most others in our party, can be easily persuaded to reach out to the minorities,” the top BJP source said.
(Surendran had pocketed nearly 40,000 votes in Konni, and his biggest gains were from Christian dominated areas like Mylapra, Konni town and Kaipattoor.)
Later, if Surendran is found not doing enough, film star and Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi would be considered. “He is less experienced and his appointment could cause misgivings in party workers but still no other leader in our party has a greater connect with the masses than Suresh Gopi,” the BJP source said.
Scattered loyalty of Hindus
Yet another top BJP leader, too, said that the party could progress in Kerala only if it had some sort of an electoral arrangement with both the Muslim League and any of the leading Kerala Congress parties.
Together, minorities constitute 45 per cent of the Kerala population. And the BJP clearly knows that it can lay claim to only a fraction of the 55 per cent Hindu votes. While a chunk of the Ezhava and lower caste votes will go to the LDF, more than half the Nair votes are normally Congress bound.
“Sabarimala was our Ayodhya moment and though there was a massive surge in votes during the Lok Sabha polls it was good enough to take us only to the third position. Nothing really changed even if we gave the two fronts a big scare. Now that Sabarimala has lost its emotional appeal, it is back to square one for the BJP in Kerala. So it is high time we thought out of the box,” the leader said.
Kashmir experiment in Kerala
There was a bold and radical proposal to have a tie-up with the Muslim League when Kummanam Rajasekharan was the state president. The Central leadership wanted the state unit to strike a deal with the League. It looked like an offer the League could never have refused. The League was to be promised the post of the Chief Minister. It was reasoned that the League could never aspire to the highest post if they continue in the UDF.
This was a time when the BJP had took the lead in making the unthinkable happen in Jammu and Kashmir. After the December 2014 elections threw up a hung verdict, the BJP had formed an alliance with the People's Democratic Party, which had strong pro-terrorist and pro-Pakistan sympathies, and anointed its leader Mufti Muhammed Sayeed as Chief Minister. The PDP agreed to keep quiet about Kashmir's independence but in return, the BJP had to silence its rhetoric on Article 370.
No such difficult compromises were needed with the League but still, Kummanam shot down the Kashmir-style proposal, and he was fully backed by the RSS. His successor Sreedharan Pillai was open to the idea but before he could make any meaningful moves, the Supreme Court pronounced its verdict on the entry of women into Sabarimala. Pillai then realised that whipping up Hindu sentiments in the name of Sabarimala was a better bet to erect the BJP flag in Kerala.
Threat of radicalisation
Top BJP sources told Onmanorama that one of the first tasks of the new president would be to chart a road map for an alliance with minority groups. “It would be easy with Christian groups as many denominations had found us acceptable even before Narendra Modi came to power,” a leader said.
“But we should not lose time to stitch up an alliance with the Muslim League. Radical elements like the SDPI (Social Democratic Party of India) and the PFI (Popular Front of India) are asserting themselves in a big way and the League, for the sake of survival, will be forced to abandon its moderate ways. We need to bring them into our fold before this happens,” he added.
There is a thinking in the party that it is even alright to rope in a minority leader as the BJP president to ease the path to an understanding with minorities, especially Muslims. Such a strategy but will most likely be rejected outright.
“If this happens, it would be disastrous,” a leader of the BJP's ideological cell said. “The BJP constituency is hardcore RSS. It is not that they are against minorities but their basic grievance has always been that injustice is being done to the majority Hindu community. It will be self-defeating then to have a minority candidate as our president,” the leader said.
Appointing serial defector A P Abdullakutty as the vice president is, therefore, the most the party can do without hurting its core constituency.