When Alphons Kannanthanam took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and contested the 2006 Assembly election from his hometown Kanjirappally in Kerala’s Kottayam district as an independent candidate supported by the Left Democratic Front (LDF), some called it a political misadventure. Though he was a devout Roman Catholic and most of the electorate in Kanjirappally were Christians, the central Kerala plantation town had always remained a Congress Party citadel. However, Kannanthanam managed an easy victory mainly because of his celebrity stature as the then “demolition man” of Delhi for having demolished thousands of illegal encroachments in the national capital, and the district collector who converted Kottayam as India’s first completely literate municipality.
Kannantham joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2011. The Union Minister of State for Tourism in the first Narendra Modi government is still a Rajya Sabha member from Rajasthan. Almost fifteen years after he first contested from Kanjirappally, Kannantham returned this March to fight the Assembly election under the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). His campaigners included Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Finance Minister Nirmala Seetharaman, and at each of his public meetings, Kannanthanam reminded the Christian electorate about the impending dangers of alleged “love jihad,” which is a conspiracy theory about young Muslim men converting women of Christian and Hindu communities to Islam, refuted by the Kerala Police in the state and the Narendra Modi government at the Centre.
Kannanthanam vowed to the voters that his party would enact legislation against “love jihad” if voted to power in the state. An influential church insider, Kannanthanam received the support of several Catholic bishops, priests, and nuns.
However, on Sunday, Kannanthanam suffered a defeat, placing third in Kanjirappally. Interestingly, a candidate of Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF), which had a resounding victory and returned with a massive mandate under the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan, wrested the seat for the first time.
A little away in Irinjalakuda in Thrissur district, a retired police service officer Thomas Jacob contested on BJP ticket, with “love jihad” as his primary campaign issue. Known earlier as an anti-corruption crusader who invited the wrath of the state’s CPI(M) and Congress leaders because of his forthrightness, Jacob had told the Christian electorate that only the BJP would protect the community interests in the given situation. He too came in third in the election despite having the open support of church leaders.
Across Kerala, a state with 140 Assembly constituencies, the BJP had fielded eight Christian and two Muslim candidates and called them as “refined souls” who have strong convictions against radical Islamic indoctrination of young minds. All of them lost their security deposits.
The BJP had claimed that it would win at least 35 seats, and be the party in a position to facilitate the LDF or UDF coming to power.
They won zero, less than the one they had secured in the 2016 Assembly election.
In April, India Ahead News spoke with three Christians, a Roman Catholic, a Jacobite, and a member of the orthodox church. All of them said they planned to vote for the BJP for the first time because of the “love jihad” issue. However, the results show that the vast majority of Christians did not vote for the BJP.
“The BJP rout in Kerala is also a slap on the face of those Christian priests who were campaigning for them and promoting the RSS brand of hatred. How did these wealthy, hedonist, morally corrupt men think that ordinary Christians will follow them inside the polling booth,” asks ecologist turned Thiruvananthapuram-based political commentator S Faizi.
BJP had fielded eight Christian and two Muslim candidates and called them as “refined souls” who have strong convictions against radical Islamic indoctrination of young minds. All of them lost their security deposits.
Other than “love jihad,” in which it found common ground with some of Kerala’s Roman Catholic bishops, who issued several pastoral letters against inter-religious marriages involving Muslim men, the BJP had also attempted to use the women’s entry issue at Sabarimala forest temple.
Abode of celibate god Ayyappa, Sabarimala inside Western Ghats forests was out of bounds for women of reproductive ages. The Supreme Court, in 2018, found that the bar on women entry to Sabarimala had no religious, ceremonial, and historical authenticity. The BJP, which initially supported the women’s entry issue, backtracked soon after the court verdict when the Vijayan government decided to implement the court order without reaping political mileage. After the Vijayan government facilitated Sabarimala entry of women, BJP and its allies used it to mobilize the “Hindus against the Communist government with atheist influence.”
During the election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reached the Konni constituency to which Sabarimala belongs and opened his campaign speech for party state president K Surendran by repeatedly saying “Saranam Ayyappa” (salute to Ayyappa) and asking the crowd to repeat it.
Modi did the same in Kazhakootam near Thiruvananthapuram, where the party’s firebrand leader Sobha Surendran was contesting.
K Surendran, who contested from Konni and Manjeshwar , as well as Sobha Surendran, who contested from Kazhakoottam, lost.
“Surendran had suffered humiliating defeats in both Konni and Manjeshwar constituencies where he contested. Despite the prime minister’s attempts to whip up communal sentiments by chanting Saranam Ayyappa, BJP lost even Konni where a communal build-up around the Sabarimala issue was formed. In all other constituencies too, they misused Sabarimala issue for political motives and used campaign meetings to denigrate progressive women who justified the court order ending gender divide there,” said Lekshmy Rajeev, a writer and social activist, whose research has focused on gender discrimination in Hindu temples.
In the Assembly election in 2016, BJP was able to open an account in the Kerala assembly through veteran leader O Rajagopal who won with a comfortable majority from Nemom on the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram city.
This time, this seat was taken by senior CPI(M) leader V Sivankutty with a thumping majority, with the BJP candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan placing second in a close contest. The presence of senior Congress leader K Muraleedharan in the fray also contributed to Rajasekharan placing second, with Muraleedharan taking away a sizeable portion of upper-caste Nair votes.
Chances of the former Mizoram governor diminished even before the campaign when Rajagopal termed his past victory as the outcome of his ability to garner personal votes and described Rajasekharan as someone who will get only Sangh Parivar votes.
In this election, BJP was hopeful about Kerala, declaring ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan, who contested from Palakkad constituency, as its Chief Minister candidate. He placed second, losing to the Congress candidate MLA Shafi Parambil by 3,859 votes.
Malayalam superstar Suresh Gopi, who is still a nominated member of Rajya Sabha, contested in Thrissur in central Kerala, and he too undertook a high decibel campaign. Gopi placed third after CPI candidate P Balachandran and Congress’ Padmaja Venugopal.
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Other than PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, several other leaders, including party national president J P Nadda, campaigned widely in Kerala. The BJP also tried to use the investigations by central investigation agencies like the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate (ED), and the National Investigative Agency (NIA) into a high-profile gold smuggling case, allegedly involving some top leaders of LDF and their family members, for electoral gains. However, all this has failed to bring them any electoral dividends.
“The BJP is yet to learn the political psychology of Kerala where false propaganda backfires ultimately. Merely recruiting some former Christian officials and electing them to Rajya Sabha would not help them win the minority community’s confidence,” said academic and writer J Devika. “People across the state irrespective of religions found BJP responsible for spiralling prices of petroleum products. Not everything can be purchased using money.”
People across the state irrespective of religions found BJP responsible for spiralling prices of petroleum products. Not everything can be purchased using money.