That leaders in charge of the BJP’s campaign for the Kerala Assembly elections earlier this year – Pralhad Joshi, CN Ashwath Narayan and Sunil Kumar Karkala – are all from Karnataka is no coincidence.

A collage of BJP Kerala chief K Surendran on the left and Karnataka MP Shobha Karandlaje on the right
news Politics Thursday, July 01, 2021 - 11:55

The Kerala Assembly elections earlier this year saw an influx of BJP leaders and cadres from Karnataka to Kerala. That the leaders who were in charge of the party’s campaign in Kerala – Pralhad Joshi, CN Ashwath Narayan and Sunil Kumar Karkala – are all from Karnataka is no coincidence. But the link is not limited to the elections. Much before and even after, the interest and involvement shown by Karnataka leaders in the neighbouring state has continued.

Leaders like Shobha Karandlaje, who is a Lok Sabha MP from Udupi-Chikkamagaluru, have repeatedly taken to social media against the Left government in Kerala as well as against minority leaders in the state. Most of her social media posts have been highly controversial and divisive too, with some having proven to be fake news. Whether it was the Sabarimala temple women's entry, anti-CAA protests in Kerala, or claiming that Kerala is a breeding ground for terrorists or wishing the people of the state during festivals, in the last two years the MP has taken an avid and perhaps unnatural interest in Kerala. So much so that she once tweeted, “Why am I raising Kerala issues? Often came through these questions. How can I ignore my Hindus brothers, who are fighting whole of anti-Hindu elements in Kerala?!!” (sic).

Last year, the Kerala police had booked her for a post in which she claimed that Hindus in Malappuram’s Kuttipuram in north Kerala were being denied water as they supported the Union government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act.

But it isn't just Shobha. The Karnataka leaders’ tryst with Kerala started many years ago and was very visible during the Sabarimala protests when the BJP, RSS and other right-wing organisations were on the ground agitating against the entry of women into the shrine. So why do BJP leaders from Karnataka take so much interest in Kerala?

Shared culture with coastal Karnataka

A BJP leader from the state told TNM that since many of the influential leaders in Karnataka hail from the coastal part of the state, which has a large influence of Kerala on its culture, they feel that they can be useful in breaching the state where they have had little electoral success. Leaders like Shobha Karandlaje, BJP Karnataka President Nalin Kumar Kateel, MLA Sunil Kumar Karkala all are from coastal Karnataka. Language too is an important factor for these leaders as many people from parts of coastal Karnataka speak fluent Malayalam, the BJP leader said.

Ideological warfare

“The Left ideology and their stance on several issues makes it easier for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar to target the government. We have often found that we manage to emotionally connect with people on several issues,” said a district president of the BJP from Kerala. “Leaders from Karnataka often give these campaigns the much-needed attention and gravitas nationally to help the Kerala unit reach greater masses,” he added.

BJP leaders from Karnataka like Shobha Karandlaje have often resorted to fearmongering with buzzwords like jihad, love jihad, anti-Hindu and Pakistan and have targeted the Left government and the opposition Congress. In the run up to the election, most of the issues that BJP leaders from Karnataka have chosen to speak about were communal in nature. The gold smuggling scam in which the Chief Minister’s Principal Secretary is one of the accused also featured prominently.

The Karnataka experiment duplicated

In the south, which behaves very differently from the north politically, Karnataka is the only state where the BJP has had electoral success. The success the BJP had in Karnataka initially was in places like the north-western belt and the coastal areas. And religious polarisation played a pivotal role in their campaigns there.

“While every state in the south behaves differently politically, the BJP national leadership believes that the closest to Kerala in terms of demography, geography and even beliefs is parts of Karnataka. Since we have made significant inroads in the state, they believe that the experience of leaders from Karnataka can be used in Kerala,” said a BJP leader from Karnataka.

Social media lessons

The BJP learnt early on that social media platforms are instrumental in shaping narratives in their favour. In Karnataka too, both while in power and as an opposition party, platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, have been leveraged by the BJP to use digital penetration to its advantage.

BJP’s digital war rooms in Bengaluru and Mangaluru have frequently used social media to spread fake news and to attack the Left government. 

Organisational structure

While Kerala has the highest number of RSS shakhas in the country, including some of the oldest and largest, the BJP cadre is not very strong. So, routinely, Karnataka leaders have been asked to bolster the party in the neighbouring state. In addition, the party in-charge of Kerala is National General Secretary BL Santhosh, who also hails from Karnataka. This has led to many leaders from Karnataka taking an interest in Kerala; some because they are his trusted lieutenants; and some others to gain favour.

‘We have a cultural, emotional shared heritage with Kerala’

BJP’s National General Secretary CT Ravi told TNM that it is seen as a duty of leaders from Karnataka BJP to help the party grow in other states. “When we were not a significant party in Karnataka, many leaders from across the country visited the state and helped us grow. Now, we should do the same in other states. It’s our duty,” he said.

He added that similarities in language and culture have also forged an emotional bond with neighbouring states. “We’re a national party with regional aspirations. Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and other such states have an emotional, cultural relationship based on demography. For example, do only Malayalis go to Sabarimala? No, people from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh all visit the shrine because of a shared heritage,” Ravi added.

Topic tags,
Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.