Can BJP do a Tripura in Kerala with its Christian outreach?

Wednesday 17th March 2021 06:30 EDT

Kerala has a reputation of voting out the government in every assembly election. It has done so since 1980. And, Kerala is a strong Left-bastion - the last fort standing since the BJP breached Tripura in 2018. Also, like Tripura, the Congress-led alliance is the principal rival of the Left in Kerala. The BJP is an underdog challenger, just like in the 2018 Tripura polls, in the upcoming Kerala Assembly election.

While Hindutva and development remain the core poll plank for the BJP, the party has reached out to the Christian community in a big way ahead of the Kerala Assembly polls. In the local body polls held in December 2020, the BJP fielded about 500 Christian candidates in Kerala. Its community outreach strategy bore fruits as the BJP improved its position in Kerala grassroots bodies including a boosting win in the Sabarimala battleground Pandalam municipality in the Pathanamthitta district.

BJP’s Christian outreach

Next came a meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a delegation of Church leaders on January 19 this year. Reports claimed that the Church leaders “conveyed” to PM Modi their grievances over the Muslim community being given extra benefits of the minority welfare schemes. Some reports also suggested that the Church leaders spoke about ‘love jihad’, a term that originated from Kerala but became popular in northern states with the BJP government of Uttar Pradesh legislating a law to deal with it.

In February, another incident took place that showed BJP-Church bonhomie in Kerala. The matter was related to the St Georgre Orthodox Church built in 1050 AD. It was to be demolished for expansion of a national highway. The Church reached out to all political parties, but reports say only Balashankar responded and took the matter to PM Modi. An intervention from PM Modi saw the church building being handed over to the Archaeological Survey of India.

Now in March, it has emerged that Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has extended support to BJP leader R Balashankar in the Kerala Assembly polls from the Chenganuru constituency in the Alappuzha district. The seat is held by the CPM. Some other reports quoted other Church officials saying this was ‘fake news’. But it is not unusual for the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church to support PM Modi and the BJP. In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the Jacobite Syrian and Malankara Orthodox churches of Kerala had “unexpectedly” backed the prime ministerial candidature of Narendra Modi.

The church officials had then cited positive “feedback” from their followers in Gujarat for their decision. KJ Alphons, the bureaucrat-turned-politician, was then credited with this “image makeover” of the BJP in Kerala.

Love jihad

Last week, the BJP nominated E Sreedharan, another bureaucrat who earned his reputation in Delhi, as its chief ministerial candidate. Incidentally, before joining the BJP, Sreedharan raked up the issue of ‘love jihad’ in one of his remarks. A section of Christians and the Church had raised the issue of ‘love jihad’ in Kerala before alleging that certain groups of Muslims deliberately lure girls and women from their community and force them to convert before or after marriage. The BJP leaders have made similar allegations. This has apparently brought a section of Christians closer to the BJP, reports from Kerala say.

Kerala has about 18-20 per cent Christian voters while the Muslims comprise about 26-28 per cent of the electorate. Though none of the communities vote entirely as a block, there is an impression that Christian voters have backed the Congress since 1950s and the Muslims have stood up for the Left. However, this trend could be changing now.

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