With barely a month to go before the Assembly elections in Kerala, one of the state’s newest political parties, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena, is struggling to get its act together. The party was launched in December 2015 by the leaders of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam – a powerful organisation that represents the backward Ezhava community, the largest Hindu group in the state.

The BDJS has joined the National Democratic Alliance and will contest 37 of the state’s 140 Assembly seats. At the time of its launch, Vellappally Natesan, the general secretary of the SNDP promised to “bring other backward communities and caste Hindus under one platform and fight for their rights”. But so far, neither has the BDJS got any significant Hindu organisations on board, nor does it have a poll symbol yet after the Election Commission rejected the party’s request to use a folded palm as its symbol. “It is tough for our candidates to seek votes without a symbol,” said Natesan.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the state leadership of the BJP grudgingly agreed to the alliance with the BDJS. The two parties butted heads during seat-sharing talks when the BJP refused to part with a few constituencies in Alappuzha and Kottayam districts, but the senior alliance partner had to abandon its demands following hard bargaining by the BDJS.

Notwithstanding these hiccups, political observers agree that the entry of the BDJS will have an impact on Kerala’s major fronts because of a possible split in the Ezhava vote.

Hindu platform

The BDJS was launched to address what it believes to be the neglect of Hindu interests by successive governments headed by the Left-led Left Democratic Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front. The party believes that over the years, minority communities have enjoyed the patronage of both the LDF and UDF, and it was time that a party looked at Hindu interests too.

While launching the BDJS, Vellappally planned to form a grand Hindu alliance by bringing on board members of various community outfits (in Kerala, almost all communities have their own parties or socio-cultural organisations). But though the BDJS succeeded in winning over relatively smaller factions, Vellappally’s vision was dealt a big blow when the influential Nair Service Society – an umbrella organisation of the second-largest Hindu community in the state – stayed out of his reach.

It’s no wonder then that even die-hard Natesan loyalists respond cautiously if you ask them about the BDJS chances this election. “I am not worried,” said Krishnan, a daily wage labourer in Kasargod, the northernmost district that borders Karnataka. “This election gives our Ezhava community an opportunity to establish its political presence.”

Down south, BDJS cadres are a bit more excited. “We may win or lose, but the fight for the rights of Hindus will continue under the able leadership of Vellappally,” said Muralidharan, beaming. He is a government employee from Alappuzha, which is considered to be a BDJS stronghold.

Thushar Vellappally, Natesan’s son and president of the BDJS, said he hoped that the election would see the BDJS emerge as a strong political force. “CPI(M) and LDF stand to lose a major share of Ezhava votes, so do the Congress and UDF,” said Vellappally. “Our candidates will collect more than 20,000 votes in each constituency. Apart from Ezhava voters, we expect support from other castes too.”

BDJS president Thushar Vellappally addresses a rally in Kerala.
BDJS president Thushar Vellappally addresses a rally in Kerala.

Impact on major fronts

While admitting that the BDJS may find it difficult to win seats this time, political observers agree that its entry into the poll fray will split votes, affecting both the LDF and UDF. ““A majority of the Ezhava community members, who had previously backed UDF and LDF, would vote for BDJS candidates this time,” said NM Pearson, a writer and political observer. “The vote split will affect the chances of both the fronts. Even a minor swing can make a huge difference in each constituency.”

The fact that the Ezhava community – which comprises 20% of the state’s Hindu population – has formed the backbone of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for decades could mean that the Marxists may take the brunt of any impact the entry of the BDJS into the poll fray will have. For instance, Krishnan and Muralidharan voted for CPI(M) candidates till the recent local body poll, but now they intend to vote for the NDA.

Political analyst Jayashankar said that it was too early to predict how the BDJS will fare but he agreed that the party’s presence had resulted in a polarisation of sorts. “BDJS is a party without an able leadership,” said Jayashankar. “It doesn’t have a proper organisational apparatus to contest in an Assembly election.”

Pearson said that allegations of financial irregularities against Vellappally in an SNDP-run micro credit scheme could mar the fledgling party’s chances. “Many SNDP members decided to keep away from BDJS following the allegations,” he said.

South Kerala fight

Of the 37 seats it is contesting, the BDJS is expected to put up strong fight in South Kerala where the SNDP Yogam is a force to reckon with. Political observers expect an intense three-way battle in as many as five constituencies – Aroor, Cherthala, Kayamkulam, Kuttanad (all Alappuzha), and Ettumanoor (Kottayam). LDF had swept all the five seats in the last Assembly election in 2011, with the CPI(M) taking three and CPI and NCP claiming one each.

Meanwhile, former SNDP Yogam president, CK Vidyasagar, has accused Natesan of trading votes with the UDF. “For him, business and family interests come first,” said Vidyasagar. “He will be in trouble if the LDF wrests power, as it will investigate allegations of financial irregularities against him. So he wants to see the LDF defeated at any cost. He has already made secret pact with the UDF to transfer Ezhava votes. That is why he termed Oommen Chandy as the best chief minister of Kerala recently.”

But Thushar Vellappally scoffed at the allegation. He said BDJS was here to fight. “If we want to sell votes, we won’t field our own candidates,” he said. “The CPI(M) too has raised the same allegations against us. It indicates that our presence worries them the most.”

In one of its symbol-less campaign materials, BDJS proclaims: “We will not move to the Left nor to the Right. We will move ahead.” How much distance the party will cover will only be known when the results are out on May 19.