BJP’s account in Kerala is closed for now, but social fault lines will keep it alive in the state

BJP’s account in Kerala is closed for now, but social fault lines will keep it alive in the state

The dust has settled, and the Bharatiya Janata Party has bitten the dust in Kerala yet again. While the party got no seats in the state’s Assembly elections, the Left Democratic Front secured a historic second term.

The state elections killed two cliches with one stone – the first was the notion that Amit Shah and Narendra Modi were master strategists and the second was that Kerala had settled into a comfortable alternation of Congress and Communist Party of India (Marxist) governments.

It was clear that the BJP had little to offer to the state except for its usual divisive politics. As for development, the other BJP platform apart from religious hatred, Kerala has been doing rather well for itself for about a generation now.

The exemplary and the democratic way that the LDF government handled the floods, the Nipah virus and then Covid-19 was what the electorate applauded. Hindu male chauvinists and women under the banner “Ready To Wait” argued against the entry of women into Sabarimala. This agitated some, but not as an electoral issue.

A meme of former BJP Member of Parliament O Rajagopal ruefully acknowledging that the people in Kerala were too educated to vote for his party went viral on social media. Where keeping people in ignorance is bliss, it was folly to make them wise seemed to be his plaint.

Another distinctive feature of these elections that went unnoticed was that stalwarts like TM Thomas Isaac (the state’s finance minister) did not stand for re-election. Nor did 33 sitting MLAs. This was because of the CPI(M)’s two-term rule that has been brought in to prevent the growth of entrenched interests as much as to bring in new blood in the party. There are many reasons to celebrate, alongside the drubbing given to the BJP in Tamil Nadu and its containment in Bengal. However, some features of Kerala’s politics need to be talked about.

Influence of RSS

The state has the largest number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh units in the country, more than in Gujarat. The number is estimated at between 4,500-5,300 and they have been active in localities, working with housewives, mediating in rituals of marriage and death and presenting themselves as doing social service.

The RSS units are concentrated in northern Kerala where its cadre has been in constant clashes with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s for the last 60 years. This has resulted in the loss of more than 300 lives since 1969. Pinarayi Vijayan’s politics was tempered with these killings and the violence continues unabated.

Many believe that a large number of RSS units may have been contained due to the constant clashes. The RSS and the CPI(M) have made heavy weather of the deaths of their cadres and raised them to the status of raktasakshikal (martyrs).

Kerala’s campuses are also the sites of the politics of controlled violence and student leaders have to go through a baptism of fire by indulging in street agitations and internecine violence in colleges and universities. While this is acknowledged locally, the undergirding violence of the CPI(M) towards dissidents and its opponents is something that is yet to enter academic discourse or journalistic wisdom.

In this election, KK Rema of the Revolutionary Marxist Party of India won from Vadakara by over 7,000 votes. She is the widow of TP Chandrasekharan who was killed in 2012 for his continued opposition to the CPI(M). The long-term consequences of this continuing violence remain to be seen.

Bharatiya Janata Party supporters protest over two women entering the Sabarimala Temple, in Kerala, in 2019. Photo credit: AFP

Upper caste resentment

When E Sreedharan was called out of retirement to stand as the BJP candidate in Palakkad, there was a reason why that constituency was chosen. Palakkad – the rice bowl of Kerala – was one of the districts where 50-year-old land reforms had hit hard.

The slogan “land to the tiller” resulted in many from the upper castes losing their lands to their former dependents, resulting in a large Malayali Hindu diaspora to spread out across the country and join government service, journalism and academe.

Many adapted to their new environments and generated a distinct worldview. Malayalam novels were set in Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and authors like Anand and C Radhakrishnan wrote about the larger landscapes that Malayalis now occupied. The other side of this was a regressive nostalgia, a sense of loss and resentment that was undergirded by feelings of being hard done by and being usurped by former underlings.

A meme that circulated showed fair-skinned, smiling Sreedharan (with a caption: lost by 3,000 votes) and a dark-skinned, grimacing MM Mani from CPI(M), who had won by over 38,000 votes in Udumbanchola, Idukki district. The heading stated, “The Malayali has again proved that education and knowledge are two different things altogether”.

The message was clear: lower castes (indexed by the dark skin) had no sense of the capabilities required for a legislator. This was ironic considering that Sreedharan had little experience of politics, except for his early association in childhood with the RSS that came as a revelation to many.

Both VS Achuthanandan and Pinarayi Vijayan have been subjected to casteist abuse, and much of the humour generated by their opponents makes it a point to speak about the connection between lower castes and a lack of panache. In Kerala, while one may not have the kind of caste violence that is seen elsewhere in India, casteism runs like a rotting vein through daily conversation, visual representation and the association of dark-skinned characters with comedy in Malayalam cinema.

Upper caste resentment about material loss, as much as the undeserved rise to prominence of lower castes, is another wellspring that the BJP taps into. It has not yielded much so far.

Gulf remittance

Sreedharan’s opponent was Shafi Parambil, a respected Muslim candidate from Congress who had won the 2016 Kerala Assembly polls.

Several Muslims and lower caste former agricultural workers who benefited from the land reforms sent members of their families to work in the Arab states. The remittances then allowed their families to buy land, causing a great alarm among conservative Hindus. Writer MT Vasudevan Nair called this at this Gulf boom of the 1970s “Arabi ponnu” (Arab gold).

The Gulf money created a turnaround in a previously impoverished Malayalam film industry. This emerged as a theme in many of the Malayalam films of the 1980s in which the declining genteel Nair and the upstart Muslim parvenu were stock characters.

There are deep pockets of Hindu resentment in Kerala, particularly in the northern Malabar region, towards the growing prosperity and cultural prominence of Muslims. Palakkad is one such seat of the aggrieved Hindu.

Meanwhile, the inflow of money from the Gulf has created a self-confident Muslim community, sections among whom are aligned with Islamic trends in the United Arab Emirates. The BJP draws upon larger anti-Islamic rhetoric, prominent worldwide since the 9/11 attacks in the United States, as also the local configuration.

Kerala is a remittance economy (with $14 billion-$15 billion in remittances in 2019) and this has allowed a degree of prosperity, with little investment in industry and more in real estate. It has also allowed Kerala to become the preferred site for migrant labourers from eastern India, so that much of the economy is dependent on the migrant.

This is a fragile situation. Each time the Gulf countries catch a cold, Kerala sneezes. The state is haunted by the idea of the permanent return of the Malayali migrants. If that happens, the state has no resources to employ or care for what will be a massive influx. This would mean a further influx of Hindus with prejudices against Islam honed in countries that define themselves as Muslim.

The persistence of violence, caste and a remittance economy remain like powder kegs at the heart of Kerala’s progressive politics. One may be jubilant about the election results, but not sanguine. There are resentments and fault lines in Kerala that the BJP will continue to work with, as they have done in the rest of India. Termites always work with the grain of the wood.

Dilip Menon is Mellon Chair of Indian Studies, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and works on histories of the global south. He has recently edited Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford, 2020).

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