Bharatiya Janata Party leaders in Kerala are struggling to explain their failure to win a single Lok Sabha seat from the coastal state even as Narendra Modi returned to power at the Centre with a thumping majority, making inroads for the first time in states such as West Bengal and Odisha.

The saffron party was expected to win at least three seats from Kerala, riding on the back of a high-pitched agitation led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh against a Supreme Court order, which overturned the Sabarimala temple’s ban on women of menstruating age from entering the hill shrine.

The agitation, which started shortly after the order was passed on September 28, turned violent on many occasions. Sangh workers attacked women who came to pray at the temple, clashed with police, organised hartals and roadblocks alleging police excesses, and kept the issue in the spotlight until the Lok Sabha elections were held in April and May.

Enthused by the huge turnout of party workers at these protests, the BJP’s Kerala president PS Sreedharan Pillai said that “Sabarimala was a golden opportunity for the BJP.”

Now, attempting to explain its failure in a state the BJP has been attempting to make inroads in over the years, party leaders reason that the Sabarimala issue did galvanise voters, but the votes accrued to the Congress, not the saffron party.

Kerala bucks national trend

On May 23, counting day, the Congress bagged 15 of the state’s 20 Lok Sabha seats. Its United Democratic Front allies won another four seats: the Indian Union Muslim League with two and the Kerala Congress (Mani group) and Revolutionary Socialist Party with one seat each.

The ruling Left Democratic Front won one seat, with Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader AM Arif taking Alappuzha.

As many as nine candidates from the Congress-led Front won by margins of over one lakh votes.

The United Democratic Front polled 47.2% of the total vote, while the Left Democratic Front got 35.1%.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance’s vote share was 15.5%. This is a marginal increase from the 14.9% it polled in the 2016 Assembly elections. Its vote share in the 2014 Lok Sabha election was 10.8%.

Except for Kummanam Rajasekharan – the BJP’s brightest hope in Kerala – all saffron party candidates finished third. Rajasekharan finished second to Shashi Tharoor of the Congress in Thiruvananthapuram.

Tharoor won by a margin of 99,989 votes.

Rajasekharan got 31.3% of the vote, one percentage point lower than the vote share bagged by the party’s Thiruvananthapuram candidate O Rajagopal in the 2014 general elections. Rajagopal is now the BJP’s only representative in the Kerala legislative Assembly.

Two other prominent BJP candidates, who were tipped to win, came third: K Surendran lost in Pathanamthitta with a 29% vote share, and Suresh Gopi in Thrissur (29%). Both these seats were won by the Congress.

Sabarimala is located in Pathanamthitta constituency.

The other two constituencies where BJP polled more than 20% of the vote are Attingal (24.7%) and Palakkad (21.3%).

Police detain a protestor during a demonstration in Kochi against the entry of two women into the Sabarimala temple. (Photo credit: Sivaram V/Reuters).

‘Congress got the benefits’

Despite his defeat, Rajasekharan said the outcome vindicated the BJP’s stand on Sabarimala.

After the Sabarimala verdict, the Left-led state government had promised to implement it, but the Congress and BJP demanded that the traditions at the hill shrine should be preserved.

“We lost because the United Democratic Front too captured votes on the Sabarimala issue,” said Rajashekharan. He said the elections had not damaged the party’s base in the state. “The party has a bright future in Kerala.”

Senior BJP leader O Rajagopal agreed. He said the temple controversy did not help the BJP as the “Congress got the benefits of BJP’s protests”.

What the communists say

Kerala’s ruling party conceded that Sabarimala had indeed influenced the election outcome, but that the Congress was the biggest beneficiary, not the BJP.

“The issue caused erosion of considerable number votes from Left sympathisers to Congress,” Finance Minister Thomas Isaac he wrote on Facebook on Sunday.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that right-wing forces have succeeded in alienating a section of Hindu devotees from the party. “The party will look into the reasons for this poll debacle,” it said in a statement.

Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, the Leader of Opposition in the Assembly, agreed that the United Democratic Front had gained from the Sabarimala issue. “BJP tried to fan the communal flames in Kerala using the Sabarimala verdict,” he said. “But secular electorate in the state rejected them.”

Chennithala added that devotees supported the Congress coalition because “it took the right and consistent stand on the issue of women’s entry at Sabarimala. The state government’s hurry to implement the court decision too pained devotees.”