Last Sunday, during a political stopover in Kerala, Amit Shah conceded the “untouchable” status of his Bharatiya Janata Party in the southern state. “We have not won seats in Kerala,” the party president remarked, “but I am sure this time, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there will be a change.” By the next state assembly election, scheduled in 2016, Shah announced, the BJP will free Kerala of both the Congress and Communists.

The obvious rhetoric in the statements apart, there’s no doubt that the party is making serious attempts to make inroads into a state that has so far been out of bounds for it.

While in Kerala over the weekend, the BJP president worked to firm up a political alliance with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a social organisation that has come to represent the Ezhava caste, the largest Hindu segment in the Kerala. In Kollam, Shah met the organisation’s general secretary Vellappally Natesan to build on the groundwork laid during a meeting between him and Natesan and his son Thushar Vellapally in Delhi in July.

The alliance has the support of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – VHP president Ashok Singhal was present when Natesan met the BJP president in New Delhi.

At first, the partnership will be tested in the local body elections next month, with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, or SNDP, fielding independents with the BJP’s support.

If this works, the SNDP will float a political party for a full-fledged alliance with the BJP before the assembly elections. To drum up support for its mission, the outfit has decided to organise a “Samrakshana Yatra” from the state’s northern district of Kasargod to the southern district of Thiruvananthapuram from November 15 to November 30.

Seizing the opportunity

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam was founded in 1903 at the request of Sree Narayana Guru, a social reformer who rejected casteism and promoted social equality. Over the past century, while working for the “spiritual and educational uplift of the Ezhava community”, the organisation has gained a significant voice in politics as well.

In Kerala, Hindus constitute around 54% of the 3.3 crore population, and the Ezhavas, a “backward” community that gets reservations, makes up about 60% of the Hindus. Thus far, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) has enjoyed the backing of the Ezhavas as well as the upper caste Nair community. But this support is steadily fraying.

The BJP now wants to make use of this opportunity – as well as the struggle for political patronage between the Ezhavas and the Nairs – to make electoral forays into Kerala.

Rebuffed by all

Though Natesan wants to bring all Hindus, from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to the Brahmins, under the banner of his proposed party, his calls have been rebuffed. The Nair Service Society, representing the Nair community, has rejected his call, saying it’s not ready to be part of any political party based on caste and religion or the idea of a broad Hindu alliance.

Natesan’s move has also met with resistance from a section of the SNDP and other organisations following the ideology of Sree Narayana Guru. The Guru Dharma Prachara Sabha, which was established to propagate the teachings of the social reformer, has openly spurned Natesan and warned him against using its name for political gains.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the opposition Left Democratic Front in the state, too has decried SNDP’s proposed tie-up with BJP as antithetical to Narayana Guru’s teachings. Its state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan went so far as to say that the Sangh Parivar will swallow the secular Sree Narayana movement. Balakrishnan hopes that the members of the Ezhava community would realise the danger of the alliance and prevent the SNDP leadership from using their Guru for political returns.

Increase in vote share

Nevertheless, Natesan and his supporters are undeterred. S Suvarna Kumar, a close lieutenant of Natesan, says the CPI(M) is opposing the alliance with the BJP because it fears that it will sound its “death knell in the state”. Ezhavas, who rallied behind the communists in the wake of the mass struggles they launched against the iniquitous practices relating to temple entry, have been the backbone of the CPI(M).

Suvarna Kumar says the Ezhavas are turning to the BJP after realising that they could not get any benefits from the communists in spite of their unflinching support. “Several governments headed by the CPI(M) have come and gone,” he claimed, “but the condition of the Ezhavas remained the same.”

BJP leaders say the Ezhavas are ready to support the BJP irrespective of a formal alliance with the SNDP. State general secretary K Surendran says the party’s stunning performance in the Aruvikkara by-election in June this year was an indication of the Ezhavas’ shift towards the BJP.

“The party could register a five-fold increase in its vote share at Aruvikkara without any tie-up with anybody,” he said. “The SNDP and the NSS then had continued their policy of equidistance. This is a clear indication that the untouchability of the party in Kerala had come to an end.”

Prime Minister Modi gave his approval for the move when Shah presented Natesan and his son before him in New Delhi on Thursday. Natesan said Modi had dispelled the apprehensions in the minds of members of his own community as well his critics that he will impose the Sangh Parivar agenda on reservations. He said Modi and Shah had promised him that there will not be any change in the reservation system.