May 25, 2016

India: Saffron swing in Kerala (Ajith Pillai)

The Tribune, May 24, 2016

Saffron swing & the Kerala Hindu matrix
Ajith Pillai

It would not be incorrect to conclude that the BJP's grand objective of uniting Hindus in Kerala did not yield the returns that its think tanks were confident it would. If it had, then the results would have thrown up a few surprises. In politics ground reality goes beyond vote percentages and symbolism.

[photo]S. Sreesanth, former cricketer and the BJP candidate for the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala Assembly polls poses for a selfie. Sreesanth lost the election. PTI

Was the BJP effort at Hindu consolidation during the recent Assembly elections in Kerala a “remarkable” success? Many BJP leaders and pundits would like us to believe that. And they will reel out statistics to prove the point — the BJP, after all, has significantly improved its overall vote share from 6.03 per cent in 2011 to 10.5 per cent (14 per cent if you count one of its allies). Not just that, the party has for the first time managed to win an assembly seat in Kerala. Surely, they fervently tell you, the lotus has symbolically bloomed in God's own Country.

It no doubt has. But in politics ground reality goes beyond vote percentages and symbolism. What the BJP has gained has to be seen in the context of what it actually hoped to immediately achieve. Once that is kept in perspective it will not be incorrect to conclude that the BJP’s grand objective of uniting Hindus did not yield the returns that its think tanks were confident it would. If it had, then the results would have thrown up a few surprises.

So what was the BJP's strategy for Kerala? The Amit Shah-backed template was this: Corner as much of the estimated 54 per cent Hindu votes in the state. On paper it all added up. A substantial chunk of the majority community's vote came from two segments — the Ezhavas (23 per cent) and the Nairs (14 per cent). Get them on the bandwagon and the result would be a substantial saffron swing.

The BJP and the RSS had been working on the Brahmins and the Nairs (higher in the caste hierarchy than the OBC Ezhavas) for close to two decades now. But the Ezhavas had never been tapped since they were traditionally closely linked to the Left. The reform movement in the 1920s, led by the Ezhava spiritual leader Sri Narayana Guru which rejected casteism and embraced new values of spiritual freedom and social equality shared similar values espoused by the Communists in Kerala. Several Ezhava leaders fighting subjugation and caste discrimination at the hands of Brahmins and Nairs either joined hands with the Left or the Socialist-inclined leaned towards the Congress.

The Sri Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) trust was formed in 1952 to propagate the teachings of Sri Narayana Guru and work towards uplift of society through education. Its present general secretary, Vellappally Natesan, was the first to show his saffron inclinations last year when he said a Hindu front must be formed which represents not only the Ezhavas but all Hindus. His burden: the Christians with a vote share of 18.33 per cent and Muslims (26.56 per cent) were already political forces to reckon with, then why should Hindus not come together.

With his son Tushar, he floated the Bharat Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS) last December and opened up channels with the BJP. By March, the newly formed party announced its decision to join the NDA alliance. Though the BDJS pitched itself as a rainbow Hindu party it was widely perceived as a party representing Ezhava interests. Many even saw the new alliance as an attempt by Natesan to cock a snook at the Nair Service Society (NSS), which unofficially takes political decisions on behalf of the Nair community and had often pronounced that it would remain equidistant from both the Left and the Right.

That the Nair community had misgivings was evident. Despite Ezhavas coming up in society and carving a name for themselves in varied fields, they are looked down upon by caste Hindus in Kerala. This often manifests itself even in day-to-day social contact. For example, Ezhava-Nair marriages rarely find approval. Contempt and suspicion run deep.

The Ezhavas forming a political front with the BJP was in the realm of the unthinkable for many Nairs. Before the BDJS-BJP tie-up was announced, one received calls from district-level functionaries of the NSS who bemoaned their fate. “The RSS wants us to shake hands with those Ezhavas. What has the world come to,” one of them complained bitterly.

Given this backdrop of distrust, the great Hindu front was cemented only on paper. If the Ezhavas had indeed deserted the Left en masse and voted the NDA, then the CPM-backed Front would have lost the elections. The Congress-led UDF may even have scraped home. Ironic as it sounds, a Hindu consolidation under the NDA banner was what some Congressmen were hoping for to return to power!

That did not happen. News reports after the results have quoted local BJP leaders as saying that the BDJS had not performed as well as they expected. The saffron surge had not happened along expected lines. Instead, the Ezhavas reposed faith in the Left as they traditionally have. The Muslims felt they must support the winning formation (this time all indications, due to incumbency, pointed Left) to keep the BJP out and voted for the communists. Ditto the Christian community.

And a section of free floating voters who may have toyed with the idea of giving the NDA a chance possibly changed their minds after Narendra Modi's infamous jibe about the infant mortality rate among Kerala's tribal community “being worse than that of Somalia.” That deeply hurt Malayalee pride as was evident from angry Twitter trolling.

Finally, it was the committed Hindu voter who backed the NDA. That their numbers have grown cannot be ignored or wished away by political parties. The matrix of Kerala politics has altered that wee bit. But it has not dramatically changed to saffron.

The writer, a journalist, is the author of ‘Off The Record: Untold Stories from A Reporter's Diary’.