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To understand the status of BJP’s Christian vote share in the 2021 election, TNM analysed five constituencies in three districts with significant Christian population.

K Surendran, state BJP president, making a speech standing at a podium. BJP party flags and a poster are seen in the backdrop.
news 2021 Kerala Assembly Election Tuesday, May 04, 2021 - 20:27

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried — they tried barrelling into the minority Christian vote bank in Kerala. But, its experiment in the 2021 Assembly election seems to have failed. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) not only lost its only seat in Kerala —  which it secured after years of effort — the coalition’s vote share in some of the Christian belts, too, seems to have dwindled.

It was not just the BJP that tried to break into the Christian vote this election; the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), too, made aggressive attempts. The LDF welcomed the Kerala Congress (Mani) into their fold, to break into the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s Christain vote bank. However, unlike BJP, the LDF did not give their campaigns a communal overtone.

How BJP approached Christians voters

In April 2021, a controversial video clip of BJP candidate B Gopalakrishnan appealing for votes to a Christian priest in Kerala went viral. In the video, Gopalakrishnan falsely claimed that the Muslim community took away a major share of the minority rights and benefits provided by the Union Ministry of Minority Affairs. He also claimed that the Muslims are trying to increase their religion’s presence in the state, due to which “the Hindus and Christians are suffering.” As expected, the BJP candidate also peppered his polarised message with ‘love jihad’, a concept minted by right-wing groups to describe their fear that the Muslims are wooing and marrying Hindu women to forcefully convert them.

Gopalakrishnan was widely criticised by the Muslim and Christian communities, including a Kerala pastor, who reminded him that Muslims, too, are Indian citizens and that there is no need for hatred against them or their beliefs. 

When the election campaign kicked off in March, K Surendran, the Kerala president of BJP, embarked on a high-decibel campaign (Kerala Vijaya Yatra) in the Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts. While he delivered the inevitable Sabarimala and Hindutva spiel in the Hindu-dominant regions in these districts (including Konni in Pathanamthitta where he contested), Surendran pushed the national party’s unsubstantiated fear over ‘love jihad’ by Muslims into Christian-dominant regions. 

Read: Christians, Hindus should stay united and vote to tackle ‘love jihad’, says Kerala BJP chief

He claimed that Christian women, like the Hindu women, are also being targetted by “terrorists'' under ‘love jihad’. “We must be cautious against this, stay united and fight these religious fundamentalists; if not, what happened in Syria and Yemen could happen in Kerala too,” Surendran said in his impassioned speech in Pathanamthitta’s Thiruvalla taluk, which has 46.35% Christians (according to the 2011 Census).

BJP’s dwindling Christian vote share

The 2016 Assembly election favoured the BJP significantly. It not only opened its account in Kerala for the first time since it entered the state’s political race in 1991, but the BJP also managed to top up its Christian vote share. That has, however, significantly dipped in 2021.

According to the post-poll surveys by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), a social science research institute based in Delhi, BJP's overall Christian vote share in the 2016 Kerala Assembly election was 10%, which was reportedly a significant jump for the party. It dropped to about 2% in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, according to a report by The Hindu.

To understand the status of BJP’s Christian vote share in the 2021 election, TNM analysed five constituencies in three districts with significant Christian population — Pala and Puthupally (Kottayam), Ranni and Thiruvalla (Pathanamthitta), and Nilambur (Wayanad).

In many of these constituencies, the BJP deployed the Thushar Vellappally-led Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) party, its ally in the NDA.

In recent years, both CPI(M) and BJP have been trying to win over the Christian vote bank in the state, with the BJP largely wooing the Syrian Christian block.

The chart above shows how BJP has made no inroads. The Left ended up with larger voter margins in Kottayam (Christian population of 43.48%) compared to previous polls, and managed to swing three seats, which always went to the UDF — Changanassery, Poonjar and Kanjirappally. Two of these seats were won by candidates of Kerala Congress (M), an ally of the LDF this time around.

“I believe that people have also not voted for the BJP simply because their winnability factor is missing. The party simply does not have enough of a presence in the state,” said senior political journalist Pramod.

Mobilising Christian support

As BJP managed to eat into the Christian vote bank of Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in 2016, the BJP probably decided to strengthen its minority appeasement movement further. Since 2020, the party has been seeking the patronage of the Church on multiple occasions.

The feud between the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church’s Jacobite and Orthodox factions was another plum opportunity for the BJP to cash in on. In December 2020, Prime Minister Modi even met the warring factions to resolve the issue, and the Jacobite faction even promised to support the BJP in the state Assembly polls if the Union government was able to resolve the fight. However, no resolution was arrived at by the Modi government. Moreover, a 2017 Supreme Court verdict on which the faction gets to control the 1,000 plus churches and attached properties in Kerala, favoured the Orthodox group.

“When the Left government decided not to act on the Supreme Court order, this was taken as a pro-Jacobite move. And not implementing this verdict could have helped the Left gain support from Jacobite voters,” Pramod said.

“Even if the Union or state government was to pass a legislation, it would be in favour of the Jacobite, which the Orthodox faction would have opposed,” J Prabhash, a professor of political science at the University of Kerala, pointed out.

Incidentally, both the Christian factions are numerically equal, population-wise. “According to the 2011 Census, the Orthodox constitute 8% of the population, while the Jacobites form 7.9%. The BJP politicians wanted the support of both factions, which was impossible given the current dispute,” noted the political science expert. 

Notably, the Church has been giving mixed signals — was it adopting the right-leaning narratives or staying away. On one hand, some Christian denominations have echoed the typical concerns of BJP, including ‘love jihad’ and Muslims eating into the minority benefits in the state, and even openly displayed their Islamophobia. On the other hand, Catholic Church opposed and criticised the Union government for pushing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), both of which puts the Muslim and other minority groups at a disadvantage.

Read: Kerala Church and the BJP: A shift towards the right or seeking patronage?

There are no hard statistics to prove Christain women are being converted. Even if there are any statistics, the percentage of Christian women being forcefully converted is much less, said Prabhash. “Besides, in our daily life, we are not finding such issues, although some churches have made it a big issue. When people themselves feel there is a threat, then the church talks about it and the BJP intervenes, then it will probably be an issue. But currently, Christians are sceptical why the churches are making it an issue when it is not an issue for them,” he said. 

The majoritarian communalism or politics they have been experimenting in other parts of the country may not work in Kerala, as about 49% form the minority population in the state, noted Prabhash. “Unless they are able to attract a brute majority of Hindu votes, they will not be able to make any headway in Kerala. They should opt for cross-sectionalism mobilisation, which means mobilising both majority and minority, for which, they will probably have to change their agenda.” 

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