The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s strategy of roping in locally prominent caste organisations in Kerala to gain a foothold for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the state seems to have run into rough weather. Its most promising catch – Sree Narayan Dharma Paripalana Yogam, the organisation representing the numerically strong Ezhava caste – has shown uncharacteristic political ambition ahead of campaigning for the upcoming state assembly elections.

After SNDP general secretary Vellapally Natesan last week floated a party called the Bharat Dharma Janasena, the BJP’s Kerala unit president Kummanam Rajashekharan was quick to deny any differences.

But insiders in both camps confirmed strains in the relationship. Natesan wants to field candidates from his party in most seats currently considered safe by the BJP. Most of these constituencies, which have a sizeable Ezhava population, are part of Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod districts.

“There are no differences with the Bharat Dharma Janasena,” Rajashekharan told over the phone. “We will amicably resolve all the issues of seat-sharing in due course of time.”

Speaking specifically about differences on seat allocation in Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod districts, Kummanam had merely this to offer: “No decision has been taken yet.”

Forming an alliance

The sudden emergence of the SNDP-BJP political combine has made waves over the past year in a state well-known for its bipolar polity – the Left Democratic Front led by Communist Party of India-Marxist and the United Democratic Front led by the Congress. The traditional rivals have been rather unnerved over the concept of a Hindu vote bank, which seems to have emerged in the wake of the SNDP’s proximity to the BJP.

The backward Ezhava caste accounts for more than 25% of Kerala’s population. As the main beneficiaries of land reforms, the community have been traditional supporters of the LDF. The CPM's main leaders in Kerala – VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan – belong to this community.

Talk of the Left’s core voter base being threatened began as soon as Natesan, heavily influenced by the Hindu Aikya Vedi – the hyperactive arm of the RSS in Kerala – began shifting towards the BJP.

“For the last several years, the Hindu Aikya Vedi had been trying to rope in the SNDP,” said M Radhakrishnan, the RSS’ general secretary for Kerala. “Once it materialised, the organisation, which was formed by the Sangh to bring various Hindu caste groups on one platform, arranged a meeting of Velapally Natesan with [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] leaders, [late] Ashok Singhal and Pravin Togadia.”

Radhakrishnan said that Natesan had met BJP president Amit Shah in July and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October.

Cracks appear

Once the two sides agreed on joining hands for the assembly elections, Natesan embarked on a Samathva Munnetta Yathra, which began in Kasaragod on November 23 and ended at Thiruvananthapuram on December 5. In a massive rally on the final day, the SNDP leader announced the formation of a new party.

The BJP, too, quickly restructured its leadership in the state so as to take maximum advantage of the new found alliance with the leader of the SNDP Yogam. Kummanam Rajashekharan, who was until then the face of Hindu Aikya Vedi and a senior RSS member, was made the party’s state unit president.

“Everything appeared smooth till recently,” said a senior BJP leader. “But now both parties consider the same seats as safe in Kerala, and since such seats are not too many, neither of them is ready to budge from its position.”

From the BJP’s point of view, handing over its safe seats in Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod districts to Natesan’s party would mean giving away the golden opportunity to register its presence in the Kerala assembly with the backing of Ezhavas. For the Bharat Dharma Janasena, failure to win a seat would mean weakening of Natesan’s position within the SNDP, a section of which is already against the whole idea of the caste organisation’s overt involvement in politics.