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The changing socio-political situation in Kerala seems to be tilting the scales in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state.
Although the party is yet to open its poll account in Kerala - the Communists and the Congress hold sway here - a steady increase in the BJP's vote share over the years has made political pundits take note of the party's growth in the state. This was evident when the results of the Aruvikkara Assembly bypoll were declared recently: the BJP's vote share had swelled from six per cent to 24 per cent. Besides, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has a strong and disciplined cadre in the state.
According to the 2011 Census, Hindus constitute 54.7 per cent of the state's population, followed by Muslims with 24.6 per cent and Christians 18.4 per cent. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] or the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) garners a majority of the Hindu votes while consolidated minority groups mostly support the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), which is in power in the state at present. This leaves little space for the BJP.
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This apart, earlier efforts by the Sangh Parivar to forge a unified Hindu vote bank in the state did not succeed, as the Ezhava (Thiya in north Kerala) community, which makes up 24 per cent of the state's population, steadfastly backed the Communist parties. But with the emergence of Narendra Modi - who belongs to an Other Backward Classes community - on the national scene and the decline of Left parties at the national level, the tide appears to be turning in favour of the BJP.
In the run-up to the general elections last year, Vellappalli Natesan, the powerful and outspoken Ezhava leader and chief of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), was seen sharing the dais with Modi, then the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. This caused heartburn among the CPI(M) leadership and it launched a scathing attack on Natesan. In the Aruvikkara byelections, the BJP bagged a significant number of anti-incumbency votes, upsetting the CPI(M)'s calculations. Besides, the BJP ate into the CPI(M)'s vote bank more than the Congress.
Natesan has become the darling of Hindutva forces after his call for Hindu unity and unambiguous support for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's Ghar Wapsi campaign last year aimed at converting non-Hindus to Hinduism.
According to political analyst Jayashankar, the emerging SNDP- BJP tie-up could trigger a "Hindutva storm" in the state. "Natesan's relations with the BJP have complicated the already complex nature of Kerala politics," he said. "He is not the Pope of the Ezhavas and members of the community won't vote en bloc according to his direction," Jayashankar said. "Yet his stance is politically significant."
There is a growing perception that the Oommen Chandy-led government in the state supported by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Church-supported Kerala Congress has been pursuing a policy inclined towards the minorities.
Usually, the LDF is the beneficiary of the Hindu resentment against the UDF. "Certain communal initiatives taken by the IUML and the Kerala Congress gave the impression that the government was working only for the minorities," said a UDF leader, who did not want to be named. "There is a feeling within the Congress that it is being arm-twisted by the IUML. Even top positions in the party are held by leaders from minority communities. Yet, the UDF can sit pretty for now as Hindu consolidation would trigger reverse consolidation of minorities. But in the long run, it might affect the Congress too."
Congress leaders such as Rajmohan Unnithan gave voice to these fears. "We are not very happy about the decline of the CPI(M). The BJP's growth is a cause of concern," he said.
After the Aruvikkara bypoll, CPI state chief Kanam Rajendran raised concern over "minority appeasement". But steps taken by the CPI(M) to emphasise its secular credentials not only alienated the Ezhavas, but also caused doubts and confusion among even hard-core Communists.
The CPI(M)'s conduct of the Shri Krishna Jayanti on Janmasthami is a case in point. Responding to criticism that the party was pursuing a 'soft Hindutva line', it said that it was only extending Onam festivities "to counter the communal Shri Krishna Jayanti celebrations of the RSS's Balagokulam".
The CPI(M)'s Shri Krishna Jayanti procession, which had a tableau of social reformer Sree Narayana Guru on a cross, enraged the Ezhava community. The party was forced to apologise for using the tableu following public outrage. But by then the damage had been done.
Similarly, the CPI(M)-affiliated organisation, DYFI, had organised beef festivals across the state in response to a ban on sale of beef in Maharashtra, but it distanced itself when party workers protested against IUML minister Abdul Rabb by lighting a traditional lamp. Rabb had refused to light the traditional lamp, saying it was "anti-Islamic".
"There has been an effort by the Sangh Parivar to appropriate Sree Narayana Guru," CPI(M) Lok Sabha member M B Rajesh said. "Natesan is trying to take the SNDP to the Sangh Parivar camp. If that happens there would be a revolt within the organisation, as RSS's ideals are in conflict with that of the Guru's."
"The CPI(M) has always denigrated Sree Narayana Guru," counters T G Mohan Das, a Sangh Parivar leader. "Its new-found love for the guru is because the Ezhava community is moving away from the party."
The parting shot comes from Natesan himself. "The BJP will definitely open its account in the coming Assembly elections," he told a Malayalam TV channel.