Old foes in familiar fight as BJP eyes political space

There were two significant developments during the latter half of 2015 which, at least potentially, define the BJP’s road ahead in Kerala – from an also-ran, a wobbly non-starter to a brash, aggressive challenger eyeing inroads into the state’s famously bipolar political spaces.

In December, Kummanam Rajasekharan, a RSS nominee widely seen as a hardliner, was appointed state president of the party. The analyst’s take is that an “outsider” – Rajasekharan, not quite a poster-boy presence in the state, is still considered a surprise pick – could douse out brimming factionalism in the party’s ranks. His rise to the top job, however, also points to the kind of politics BJP is likely to play in its run-up to this year’s Assembly election.

The new president claims that it’s no longer about winning the party’s first Assembly seat in the state, it’s about making a claim to power. There is conventional wisdom in viewing this poll machination as fatuous optimism. The BJP may still have to add substantial weight to its campaign before it makes a start as an alternative to the two major political fronts but it’s becoming increasingly clear that as Kerala approaches the polls, the third corner is set to get distinctly noisier.

A couple of months before Rajasekharan took over as party president, the BJP had commenced unofficial talks on a tie-up with leadership of Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, an organisation which represents the Ezhava community. Vellappally Natesan, SNDP general secretary, has since announced a political party – Bharat Dharma Jana Sena – which is moving closer to an alliance with the BJP for the 2016 election.

Even before the announcement, Natesan courted controversy by taking on the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government over its politics of supposed minority appeasement. He was also a key player in the row over Chief Minister Oommen Chandy’s exclusion from a function organised to unveil a statue of former chief minister and Congress stalwart R Sankar.

It’s hard to miss the Natesan-BJP combine’s efforts to appropriate the legacy of Sankar who was also a former SNDP president. Equally discernible is the all-out condemnation Natesan faced from across political lines over the snub to Chandy. Leaders of the ruling coalition and the CPI(M)-led opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) have made it clear that with Natesan’s political ambitions out in the open, he will no longer be extended “courtesies” which he enjoyed as the leader of a community organisation.

This hint of shift in the state’s political equations, a soft-consolidation of polarised ideologies against a new, wild-card adversary will be an engaging plot point as Kerala goes to poll in April or May.

The BJP and its ambitious plans could be a gripping distraction but there’s no denying that the big face-off, as is norm, will be between the familiar foes – the ruling and opposition coalitions. The UDF under Chandy has, quite remarkably, continued to hold on in a long season of shame. The trouble, however, is that the season is showing no sign of retreat. The bar bribery scandal and unfavourable observations made by the High Court on the scam, finally saw K M Mani step down as finance minister.

Scam-hit politicos
But the veteran Kerala Congress (M) leader has gone out leaving just enough for the UDF to worry on his plans in the wake of what his partymen call an unfair ouster. Mani’s supporters don’t mince words when they point out that scam-hit Excise Minister K Babu, a Congress leader associated with the Chandy camp, is still in office.

Two years after the solar scam broke out, its aftershocks continue to rattle Chandy and the Congress. The UDF had repeatedly recalled impressive electoral successes – in the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the Aruvikkara by-election earlier this year – as validation of people’s faith in the coalition.

But with the LDF scripting a thumping return to form in November’s local body election and the BJP too making significant gains, the UDF is on the back foot. For the Congress, it hasn’t been smooth sailing with some of its allies including the RSP. Factional interests have also left the party’s central leadership repeatedly on fire-fighting mode.

For the CPI(M), prospects of any election also bring with them talk on the role of its tallest leader, V S Achuthanandan. Party general secretary Sitaram Yechury’s open endorsement of the 92-year-old Achutha-nandan’s spirited presence has opened up possibilities of another election with the veteran leading the opposition front.

The state leadership has responded with familiar, detached pragmatism – “the party will decide”. While CP(I)M politburo member Pinarayi Vijayan gets ready for a state-wide political yatra, possibly signalling the role he would play in the election, the CPI has already whipped up interest by openly backing Achuthanandan as leader of the LDF campaign.

In the big scheme of things, however, these could be mere margin notes for an opposition front buoyed by its recent electoral performance and pitted against a coalition which is stuck on damage control. The year saw the Left regroup in protests against corruption in the government; more critically, it did not let the campaigns fizzle out after spirited starts.

The Left parties have also been the most vocal critics of Natesan’s attempts to hook up with Hindutva forces in the state. It’s tempting to look at this sort of dissent as poll-season posturing but it’s also evident that there’s new verve in the opposition ranks after the local body polls.

As curtains drew on 2015, the potential genesis of a political alternative could still be Kerala’s big debating point. The possibility of this alternative gathering steam, however, also depend heavily on how the Left chooses to build its resistance.

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