Kerala BJP president K Surendran speaks to The Indian Express about the party’s prospects in Kerala, its strategy for the next elections, the “serious” attempts to reach out to the Christian community, and the issues in the partnership with the Bharat Jana Dharma Sena (BJDS). Excerpts:
What are the party’s prospects in Kerala, with the Lok Sabha elections 18 months away?
The evolving political situation has opened up a favourable situation for the BJP in Kerala. The Modi factor will work in the state as people have realised that Narendra Modi will remain in office for years to come. From infrastructure development to welfare schemes, Kerala has also benefited immensely under the present Union government.
Our entire focus of the last Lok Sabha election (2019) campaign was the Sabarimala issue. People were then adamant to vote against (Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan). But the benefit went to the Congress. Muslim and Christian communities stood with them because they believed that Rahul Gandhi would become the Prime Minister and the state would get a PM as he contested from Wayanad in Kerala. Hence, the Congress bagged 19 out of 20 seats. That situation has changed now, with the Congress falling apart everywhere. People are fed up with the second Pinarayi Vijayan regime. The BJP has good prospects here next time.
Does the BJP have the required vote share to win in Kerala?
If people feel that the BJP will win in the Lok Sabha elections, they will vote for us. In the last elections, the party improved its performance in many constituencies, which indicates that it can win. We have already started to expand our base and attract more people to the BJP.
Who is your main opponent in Kerala? The Congress or the CPI(M)?
Our fight is against the CPI(M) and the extremist Muslim outfits standing with it. People are not happy with the Left government. The Congress is growing irrelevant and getting weak day after day. Even Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra is not against the BJP, it is against the G-23 leaders (within the Congress) and a bid to divert attention from intra-party issues.
What are the plans to expand the BJP’s base in Kerala?
The state has several communities that can be decisive to elections. We are constantly in touch with such communities and are addressing their demands through the Union government. Also, there is a serious attempt to reach out to the Christian community. It is not just about senior leaders meeting Bishops. These are peripheral initiatives, but we are trying to have a rapport with the community at the grassroots level.
Can the BJP get closer to Christians on the plank of love jihad alone?
The threat the Christian community is facing is not just religious or ideological. Muslim organisations such as the PFI (People’s Front of India) are targeting Christians on education, land, among other similar issues. Muslim extremists are now targeting Christians, not Hindus. The Christian community has realised this and our policy is to stand with communities that face any threat. Whatever be the arguments, love jihad is a reality. A natural alignment between Hindus and Christians would happen in Kerala, when the BJP emerges stronger. They would repose faith in the party. We are gradually increasing our base in Christian areas.
The anti-incumbency factor did not help the BJP in the Kerala elections. Why do you think so?
That is a predicament being faced by every third alternative. In Kerala’s triangular politics, we are aware of that situation. We can overcome that only by making the election a direct fight with the BJP and our target for the next polls is just that. We have constituencies where we get 2.5 to 3 lakh votes and we will work hard to raise our vote share further there.
Do you have a strategy tailored for Kerala?
There are a lot of non-religious issues also where we can intervene. We will soon start a campaign called ‘reclaim Kerala’. In the wake of the Sabarimala issue, the CPI(M) had launched a renaissance protection committee (to counter protests from the Opposition at the time). We will find a space to counter the Left campaign and its narrative of social reformation. In Malappuram, for example, Muslim extremists are not allowing the government to erect a statue of Thunchathuthu Ezhuthachan, who is considered the father of Malayalam. Only the BJP can take a stand on the issue.
In the past, people used to ask what would happen if the BJP came to power. We now have developmental activities by the Union government to show them.
Is the NDA system functioning in Kerala? Your ally Bharat Dharma Jana Sena’s (BDJS) head Vellapally Natesan is still supporting the LDF…
In Kerala, the NDA system is in a fledgling stage. The BDJS is a new party. In 2016, Natesan strived to unite all Hindu outfits under a single umbrella. It lost its tempo later but the slogans of social justice are still relevant. We can regain people’s confidence only by ensuring a grassroots level unity up to the booth level.
On the ground, the BDJS only has the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (an outfit of the backward Ezhava community) to depend upon, and a community outfit has limitations for political work. That situation is very complex. We are trying to work out a united system.
To what extent can the RSS and the BJP compromise with churches, given their claims of religious conversion?
We are looking at common issues to rally together on. Religious conversion is still an issue, but the emergence of all mainstream churches has gone down despite the efforts towards evangelisation and conversion. What is important for the community is to address the threat from extremist Muslim elements.
Both the CPI(M) and Congress are vying to fight the BJP…
That is because Muslim organisations have the strength to influence the poll outcome in many places. Many right-wing outfits are not in the election, but they have the numerical strength to tilt the result. Hence, both the Congress and CPI(M) want to create a sense of uncertainty in the minds of Muslims by pointing at the BJP. They are competing with each other to do so.
You have brought in several prominent persons to the party. Does it have any benefit?
We cannot expect a leader to bring a chunk of followers along with him in Kerala. But a prominent figure from civil society joining the party can help change the mindset of people. E Sreedharan’s contributions to the party are visible. We are now getting inputs from him to create a vision document for the next elections.
There seem to be differences of opinion within the state unit.
Campaigns about the central leadership being unhappy about the state leadership have always been there and it is only because we could not deliver results. The party central leadership has clearly evaluated the situation in Kerala and we are implementing their directions.