In Kerala, Congress launches campaign amid BJP’s yatra to show the saffron party it’s still relevant

Unlike in other states, the Grand Old Party has a strong organisation in Kerala and still holds sway along with the Left Democratic Front.

Even as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s much-publicised Janaraksha Yatra is underway in Kerala to help the saffron party make inroads in the southern state, the Congress has launched a series of agitations to attack the central and state governments for their purported “anti-people policies”.

The Congress campaign began with day-night protests in front of the state secretariat and 12 district collectorates across Kerala on October 5 to protest against the BJP-led Centre for high fuel prices and the Left Democratic Front government in the state for its new liquor policy which eases the sale of alcohol in the state.

The party has next planned a state-wide hartal on October 16 against the hasty rollout of the Goods and Services Tax and other policy measures by the state and Centre that have hurt the people.

Then, on November 1, Ramesh Chennithala, leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, will set out on a month-long march from Kasargod district in the north to the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram in the south. Titled Padayorukkam (getting ready for the battle), the march is considered a build-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The campaigns are being organised by the United Democratic Front, the Congress-led seven-party coalition in the state.

The agitations are primarily aimed at the BJP, which is trying to make inroads into Karnataka, but the Congress also hopes to score political points over the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is currently in power in the state.

However, senior Congress leader and former state unit chief VM Sudheeran denied speculation that the campaign was launched as a last-minute counter to BJP’s Janaraksha Yatra, its two-week “march to protect people” that began on October 3 to protest the alleged rise in the number of murders of Sangh Parivar members in the state. The saffron party blames the CPI(M) for the violence.

“Our protests are for people. It is not to counter BJP’s yatra,” Sudheeran said. “ “GST and fuel price hike have made people’s lives miserable.”

He added: “The Amit Shah-conceived Janaraksha Yatra...did not touch a chord with the people. The BJP cannot make an electoral impact in Kerala, despite their efforts to communally polarise the society.”

Dominant force

Even though it was trounced in the 2016 Assembly elections, the Congress remains a significant political party in Kerala, which has largely chosen between the United Democratic Front and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front governments in recent years.

Also, though the United Democratic Front won just 47 seats last year, with the Congress contributing just 22 seats, its vote share, at 23.7% vote share was just 2.8% less than that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which had won the elections with 58 seats. The BJP, winning its first seat in the state, had a vote share of 10.5%.

The Congress main support base are Kerala’s Muslim and Christian communities, which together constitute 45% of the state’s population. It also enjoys support of sections of the Hindu population.

Among the Hindus of the state, the dominant Other Backward Classes community of Ezhavas traditionally support the CPI(M), while the upper-caste Nairs have been largely Congress supporters.

It is the votes of these two communities that the BJP was eyeing in the 2016 polls. While it could not garner many Ezhava votes, it won a fair share of Nair votes, denting the Congress’ chances and opened its account in the state.

Political observer and former Congress leader Cherian Philip, believes that BJP’s strategy will not reap further dividends in Kerala. “The CPI(M) had foiled its [the BJP’s] attempt to win the Ezhava votes,” he said. “The Congress had suffered erosion of votes from the Nair community. Nair community is known for tactical voting and they will help Congress if it has a chance to reclaim power. The BJP will not get more Nair votes than what it got in 2016.”

Unlike in other states, the Congress also has a strong organisational presence in Kerala. The party has thousands of active booth-level committees, and it has greater grass-roots presence than the BJP.

“Congress-led United Democratic Front is functioning as a constructive Opposition in Kerala,” said Sudheeran. “All our leaders and elected representatives enjoy excellent connect with the people.”

Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president MM Hassan said Congress would remain the strongest political party in Kerala. “Those who are dreaming about end of Congress in Kerala are living in a fool’s paradise,” he said. “The divisive politics of the BJP will not work here. The secular society of Kerala will always stand with us.”

Minority votes

By highlighting the political murders in Kerala and raising alarm over “Red-Jihadi terror” in the state, the BJP hopes to consolidate the Hindu vote. The Kannur district has been the hotbed of political violence in the state. While the BJP has claimed that its members have primarily been the target of this violence, according to police data, there have been 69 political murders in the district between 2000 and 2016, with 31 victims from the Sangh and 30 from CPI(M).

Philip said the BJP’s aggressive Hindutva campaign was unlikely to work and could in fact hamper its growth in the state. “It will result in the consolidation of minority votes,” claimed the leader, who has been a CPI(M) supporter since his exit from the Congress. “That is why I said CPI(M) and Congress will never lose significance in Kerala,” he said. “The BJP can always dream of a distant third place.”

The BJP too is worried about the consolidation of minority votes and has been trying to woo the the Christian community in the state since Party President Amit Shah’s visit to Kerala in June, when he held talks with Church leaders. Later, during the reshuffle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet in September, Kerala BJP leader Alphons Kannanthanam was made minister of state, a surprise induction said to be aimed at drawing Christian votes.

Philip said Kannanthanam’s induction into the cabinet would not help the BJP woo the community. “Around 75% of Christian votes go to the Congress and various factions of Kerala Congress, while the remaining votes go to the Left Democratic Front,” he said. “The BJP cannot dream of consolidating Christian votes just by making Alphons a union minister.”

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