Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was in Kerala for three days from June 2 to assess the state unit’s preparedness for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and the Assembly elections in 2021.

Shah has been devising strategies to capture Kerala ever since he assumed office in 2014. It is the only state in the country where the BJP has been unable to make significant electoral gains. The BJP did not win a single seat here during the 2014 general election. Last year, during the Assembly elections, the party won just one seat despite a high-pitched campaign led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But Shah is eager to change this. He has said that the golden period of the BJP would begin only when it formed the government in Kerala, West Bengal and Odisha.

Mission Kerala

Shah began the state unit revamp in 2015 with the appointment of committed Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh pracharak Kummanam Rajashekharan to head the state unit.

Ahead of the Kerala Assembly elections, Shah directly negotiated with popular Ezhava leader Vellappally Natesan and convinced him to form a new party. Later, the party, Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, was inducted into the National Democratic Alliance. Natesan is the general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful organisation that represents the Ezhava community, who constitute 23% of Kerala’s population. Shah hoped the party would bring the BJP the support of Ezhavas, who have traditionally backed the state’s communist parties.

Later, Shah brought in experienced Adivasi leader CK Janu into the National Democratic Alliance too. He also chose Kerala as the venue for the party’s National Council Meeting in 2016 to showcase its strength.

Shah may be the best political tactician in India for now, but even his strategies over the past three years could not revive the BJP in Kerala.

The drubbing the BJP got in the Malappuram bye-election in April was the latest in a series of electoral debacles it has seen. The saffron party had projected itself as a serious contender in this Muslim-dominated constituency. Its strategy was to consolidate Hindu votes and collect more than one lakh votes. But the plan came a cropper and the BJP finished a poor third with just 65,675 votes.

Different strategy

Shah unveiled his new social engineering strategy last week when he met top Christian religious leaders – two Cardinals and four Bishops – in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.

Shah seeks to win the confidence of the Church, and eventually bring veteran Kerala Congress leader, KM Mani, who had left the Congress-led United Democratic Front in 2016, to the National Democratic Alliance fold. Mani wields considerable clout in the Church.

Shah’s move to approach Christian leaders might have come from the realisation that BJP cannot reap electoral dividends only by consolidating Hindu votes. The state is home to 54.7% Hindus, 26.6% Muslims and 18.4% Christians.

Shah did not meet any Muslim leaders during his visit.

Another of Shah’s strategies is to continuously target the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for the murders of BJP workers in Kannur. The reasoning behind this seems to be that it would lead to the perception that the BJP, and not the Congress, is the main political rival for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front coalition ruling the state.

Christians and the Sangh Parivar

However, Shah’s attempt to reach out to Christians is unlikely to yield any tangible results. The community has always looked at the Sangh Parivar with suspicion, especially after alleged attacks on churches and missionary workers – many of whom hail from Kerala – in different parts of India over the years.

The Union government’s recent order in which it effectively banned the sale of cattle for slaughter has heightened the suspicion. The majority of Christians in Kerala eat beef.

Traditionally, Christians in Kerala have supported the Congress and various factions of the Kerala Congress in the elections. This is unlikely to change soon.

Similarly, the plan to put all the blame for the political violence in Kerala on the Communist Party of India (Marxist) is unlikely to gain much currency as evidence has shown that workers from both parties have been involved in incidents of violence. Besides, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan took several steps to bring an end to the violence, which even won him the appreciation of Sangh Parivar leaders.

The lack of leaders with mass appeal is a major handicap for Shah in Kerala. Though the party has many senior leaders, none of them enjoy the reputation of being mass leaders.

The vitriolic speeches by Hindu Aikya Vedi president, Sashikala, have further alienated minorities and liberals from the BJP. The Hindu Aikya Vedi is a constituent of the Sangh Parivar. Kummanam Rajashekharan headed the outfit before his elevation as BJP state president.

The odds are stacked heavily against the BJP, but its leaders are optimistic that the National Democratic Alliance, which won 15% of the vote in the Assembly elections, stand a chance to win at least 10 of the state’s 20 parliamentary seats in the 2019 general elections, and a simple majority in the Assembly election thereafter. “We have plenty of time to prepare for the elections, and I am sure Shah’s strategy will win us dividends,” said PK Krishna Das, former state president.