Whether it’s true or not, the media in Kerala reported last week that a wing of the BJP would form a collective to protect Christians in the state in the wake of the Sri Lankan church blasts. Local TV news channels made it a talking point on their prime time shows, while on social media it triggered many derisive memes even as the BJP refused to officially confirm the news.
But why Christians?
That’s where the answer to BJP’s future growth in the state lies. The biggest stumbling block for the party’s electoral prospects in the state, unlike in the Hindi heartland, is its demography. Its traditional strategy of polarising Hindu votes will not work in Kerala because the state doesn’t have enough free and fence-sitting Hindus who can be motivated to side with the BJP. Only a little more than half the population of the state are Hindus, and wooing a majority of them, that too when their political interests are historically polarised between the Congress-led UDF and the CPI(M)-led LDF, is impossible. All that the party would be able to manage, even in the best case scenario, will be about 20%, that too in places where both the religious composition and political climate are in their favour. In a few places, they may get close to victory because of certain extenuating circumstances such as Sabarimala.
Therefore, the only option before the BJP to beat its stagnation in the state is to polarise the remaining voters: the minority block, that’s about 45% of Kerala’s population. Ideally, it should be the Muslims, because they have more numbers and account for about 27% of the population; but obviously, that’s not going to work for BJP.
And so, the only option left is Christians, who account for about 17% of the population. Raising the total catchment of voters from about 55% to 72% (Hindus and Christians together) alters the situation dramatically. Even half of this catchment could help them win in three-cornered contests that have become the standard in most parts of the state now.
The BJP and a lot of others believe that Christians, particularly Syrian Christians who constitute the majority, are not averse to the BJP’s ideology, and are possibly vulnerable to the allure of political endowments. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that they also carry with them the same caste-based elitism that’s associated with Hindus. They are considered to be upper caste Hindu converts, and the RSS itself in the past has asked Muslims to “learn from them” on how to adapt to the state’s cultural milieu, a euphemism for Hindu cultural practices.
Many Syrian Christian denominations carry the vestige of the upper caste Hindu cultural identity. As a minority-community, they are not on the forefront of the fight against the BJP, unlike in other parts of the state, because the aetiology and evolution of their religious belief is different.
However, what makes the BJP assume that the Christians could be on their side is that the latter are not overly fond of Muslims, and that they are less vehement against Narendra Modi. No major church head has spoken against Modi and the BJP, although all of them are not averse to making politically loaded statements otherwise. However, with regard to Muslims, they appear to have been on the same page with the BJP on issues such as “Love Jihad”.
Moreover, Christian political leaders keep joining the BJP or the NDA from time to time, and BJP leaders miss no opportunity to get friendly with the church. Unlike in the past when the BJP looked at both Christians and Muslims through the same lens, and even organised campaigns against the former, of late, the party has chosen to target only the latter. With the “Christian Protection Force,” it’s building on this existing friendship and is making the final move.
Will it work? It’s hard to tell, but one cannot rule it out completely. If there are sufficient sops and major political gains such as a share of the power, part of the Christian block may succumb because their party – the Kerala Congress and its various factions – has never been ideologically stable. It has always stayed with, or leaned towards, those in power.
Traditionally, Kerala Congress, that often breaks up and reunites partly for the convenience of opportunistic alliances, has been part of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), but never shied away from the CPI(M)-led LDF, either completely or partly. Till some time back, either one part or a vestige of the party was with the LDF while the main body was with the UDF. The aim has been to protect the interests of the community, and the leaders have had no qualms in admitting it.
Even during the previous UDF regime, the Kerala Congress was actively lured by the CPI(M) and it almost appeared that it might cross over, until the efforts were torpedoed by corruption cases. There were even speculations about backchannel negotiations with the BJP because its relationship with the UDF had strained owing to corruption cases.
Interestingly, the reported move also brings the BJP on the same side as the CPI(M) in terms of political strategy. The CPI(M) had been trying to polarise the minority votes to weaken the UDF, because the minorities are considered to be its core-voters. The CPI(M) has been actively promoting a direct contest between itself and the BJP, thinking that it would deplete the Hindu votes of the Congress, as it happened in many parts of the country, and keep it in perpetual power.
It did work in the 2014 elections with Congress losing seats where BJP raised its vote share substantially, however the minority consolidation in 2019 is projected to help the Congress and the UDF offset the loss of Hindu votes. To sink the Congress and the UDF, the CPI(M) has been trying hard to break both the Christian and Muslim votes and bring a part of them to its camp.
The UDF needs to be extremely vigilant and respond strategically to protect its vote-share. So far, the attack to its stable minority vote-base came only from the CPI(M), but now a more potent rival is on the prowl. If the Christian votes erode, both the Congress and the UDF will be in irreversible trouble.
If the UDF loses its winnability, Muslims may migrate to the LDF. CPI(M) would be happy to see its principal rival getting edged out of the electoral equation.
The author is a former journalist and UNDP Senior Adviser in Asia Pacific who is presently a writer based out of Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram. Views expressed are the author's own.