Kerala: Steeping Thrissur in saffron, will the 'Modi magic' work?
Kerala's Christmas & New Year certainly superseded the usual red as well as white and green, with the BJP trying to wrest itself a seat—or several—at the 2024 Lok Sabha
The Modi show is on the road again
Thrissur was painted saffron — saffron flags, saffron balloons, saffron ribbons, saffron festoons and banners — when the prime minister arrived on his way back from Lakshadweep on 3 January and stopped to address a BJP women’s conference.
The prime minister was showered, as usual, with bright saffron and yellow marigold petals. The road show was billed as the unofficial launch of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign in the state.
Actor and BJP leader Suresh Gopi, projected as a possible BJP candidate from Thrissur (though he is from Kollam himself) in the Lok Sabha election, accompanied the prime minister on the road show.
In the last Lok Sabha election in 2019, the BJP-led NDA finished a distant third in 19 of the 20 seats in Kerala, and came in second in just one. It had then polled 15.64 per cent of the vote, as opposed to the Congress-led UDF’s 47.48 per cent votes and the CPI(M)-led Left Front’s 36.29 per cent votes, and one seat. In the 2021 state Assembly polls, the BJP’s vote share plunged further to 12.36 per cent.
Thrissur, however, is one of the four Lok Sabha seats in the state where the BJP believes it has a realistic chance to open its account this time. Suresh Gopi polled around 28 per cent of the votes from Thrissur in 2019, but came in a distant third after both the Congress, whose T.N. Prathapan won the seat, and the CPI, which polled 30.9 per cent.
The saffron party is also hopeful of Thiruvananthapuram, from where the Congress’ Shashi Tharoor won for the third time, but where the BJP candidate polled around 32 per cent of votes and was the runner-up.
The BJP seems to be making a conscious bid this time to reach out to women. Its women’s conference drew an estimated 2 lakh women from across the state.
It is also wooing the Church, which explains the spate of Christmas parties hosted by the prime minister as well as other BJP leaders.
The mahila event was attended by the likes of athletes P.T. Usha, Anju Bobby George and Minnu Mani, actor Shobana and also 78-year-old Mariyakutty — who had created ripples in the state when she came out on the street with a begging bowl after not receiving her pension for five months. Narendra Modi made all the right noises and paid tributes to freedom fighters from the state like A.V. Kuttimalu Amma, Akkamma Cheriyan and Rosamma Punnoose. Both Kuttimalu Amma and Cheriyan were influential Congress leaders in their time and Punnoose was the female face of the undivided Communist Party of India.
Now, the encouraging response to the Modi visit to Thrissur has apparently heartened some in the party enough to plan three more visits to Kerala by the prime minister in the next three months’ run-up to the election.
Others see the visit as having not created quite the buzz it should have, however. Beyond the pomp and grandeur, the ostentatious displays, they point out, the Modi road show did little to connect with the people.
On the contrary, by alluding to the alleged links between chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s office and the gold smuggling case, he allowed the UDF and the Congress to ask why investigating agencies are not acting against the chief minister if the prime minister himself is convinced of a nexus. Why is it that the central agencies, which are so active when it comes to Opposition leaders in general, are so reticent when it comes to Kerala, they wondered.
PS: A day after the visit, the Youth Congress and the Kerala Students Union (KSU) members marched towards the Thekkinkadu Maidan, where the event was held, protesting against the cutting down of branches from a banyan tree to facilitate visibility during the prime minister’s programme. It led to a clash with local BJP workers. The tree next to the famed Vadakkumnathan Shiva Temple had been desecrated, it was claimed.
A surprising cameo
Classical dancer and actor Shobana’s appearance at the event and her brief speech praising Narendra Modi for the Women’s Reservation Bill did cause a flutter.
It was a coup of sorts, because the award-winning actor is known to have kept her distance from politics in the past.
“She is not in the same league as Shabana Azmi or Mallika Sarabhai,” said author and critic S. Saradakutty, who felt it was unfair of the Opposition to accuse her of endorsing the BJP’s hard Hindutva. Her appearance was akin to her presence at state government-sponsored cultural events, Saradakutty argued.
As elsewhere, the BJP has been wooing film stars in the state. Besides Suresh Gopi, a few stars like Devan, Krishnakumar and Lakshmi Priya have also joined the party. But barring a few notable exceptions like K. Radhakrishnan, an academic, and the Metro man E. Sreedharan, the BJP has had little success until now in attracting locally popular celebrities. Indeed, film director Rajasenan and actor Rashmi Damodaran, who had joined the BJP, have now resigned and joined the CPI(M).
CPI(M) state secretary M.V. Govindan also played down Shobana’s presence at the event and defended her against a social media backlash. Celebrities are recognised, feted and invited for their talent and contributions and not for their political affiliations, he said.
It was natural for famous personalities from the state to participate in a women-centric event hosted by the prime minister of India, he added.
The BJP’s new priesthood
A priest from the Syrian Orthodox Church joined the BJP, along with 47 other families in Pathanamthitta, in the presence of Union minister V. Muraleedharan. He claimed that church authorities knew of and approved his decision. Following complaints from the congregation, however, the church council removed him as the diocese secretary and vice-president of its Sunday school.
CM Vijayan’s goodwill table
Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, meanwhile, hosted a Christmas feast to placate the clergy who were upset at being ridiculed by state minister Saji Cheriyan.
Cheriyan ridiculed the Church representatives from Kerala who attended the Christmas lunch hosted by the prime minister in New Delhi. He also criticised the clergy for not raising the issues of increased attacks on Christians after 2014 or the destruction of churches in Manipur.
The offending minister partially withdrew his statement on Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council president, Cardinal Mar Baselios Cleemis, demanding as much. Some swift damage control by the LDF government then saw participation of Cardinal Cleemis—besides the Malankara Orthodox Diocese head Yuhanon Mar Diascoros Metropolitan and heads of other churches—at the feast.
Governor Arif Mohammed Khan, meanwhile, was quick to scotch rumours that he had not been invited. He was, he insisted—but would not explain why he did not attend.
Vijayan could also afford to preen over the Indian Union Muslim League MP Abdul Wahab too sitting at the table, though it was understood that the Congress and UDF leaders would not attend the CM’s feast.
A 10-hour musical tribute was organised by Swaralaya on the 84th birthday of singer K.J. Yesudas on Sunday, 7 January. As many as 64 singers from different parts of the state assembled to sing 84 of his hit songs in Malayalam, Tamil, and Hindi.