With his popularity among the Malayali middleclass, Sreedharan would likely attract a lot of support. But Kerala is also a highly politicised vote bank, say experts.

Close up shot of E Sreedharan in a suit and spectacles
news Politics Thursday, February 25, 2021 - 13:39

E Sreedharan recently made news by announcing that he is joining the BJP in Kerala and is likely to contest this year’s Assembly polls. The 88-year-old technocrat is credited with leading the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro projects. He is famously referred to as India’s ‘Metroman’ and is globally renowned. However, this is his first stint in politics. For the BJP in Kerala, it is the first time that a person of Sreedharan’s stature is joining the party. But will it change the BJP’s fortunes in Kerala? 

“Sreedharan’s entry will definitely make an impact, but not that big an impact to win Assembly seats,” says TP Sreenivasan, former diplomat and head of the Kerala State Higher Education Council. Sreenivasan says that it has only been three months since the Metroman decided to enter politics.

“Before this, he has worked on infrastructure projects with the LDF, the UDF and the BJP, and frankly, any party would have welcomed him with open arms. But he says he chose the BJP because they have a ‘national perspective’,” he adds. Sreedharan had also said that his goal is not just to win an MLA seat in Kerala, but to help boost the BJP’s chances in the state.

With his popularity among the Malayali middleclass, especially the Hindus, Sreedharan would likely attract a lot of support. But Kerala is also a highly politicised vote bank, Sreenivasan reminds us.

“A traditional Left or Congress voter will not change his vote for Sreedharan. They will say ‘nice guy’ but continue to vote for their party. In that sense, it’s really tough to break into these old vote banks,” Sreenivasan explains.

Sreenivasan's observations corroborate with the BJP's poll performance in Kerala in previous years. 

Up until 2004, the party’s vote share in Kerala had not gone beyond 6% . In the Lok Sabha elections that year, the BJP finally managed to win a 10% share. But in terms of voting patterns, the state has always remained outside of the national mainstream. 

Even when the Modi wave hit India in 2014, in Kerala the Congress and Left swept the Lok Sabha polls, winning 8 seats and 5 seats respectively. The BJP did not win a single seat from the state in 2014.

However, in the 2016 Assembly polls, the NDA managed to win 15% of the vote share. It has since stagnated, with the party getting 15.56% votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and 15.5% in the 2020 Kerala local body elections. 

BJP needs minority votes

Senior journalist Pramod Kumar believes that the BJP needs a new game plan to win seats in Kerala, not just celebrity candidates.

“The kind of votes that the BJP can secure with high-profile candidates like Sreedharan, the party already has it. I believe they’ve exhausted their Hindu vote base,” Pramod says.

Apart from certain Hindu majority constituencies in Thiruvananthapuram, typically the BJP receives a maximum of 16-17% vote share. In Thiruvananthapuram, constituencies such as Vattiyoorkavu and Nemom are BJP strongholds with a sizable Nair population and a 66% Hindu majority. Nemom is also an ‘elite constituency’ where the party usually fields famous candidates. It fielded O Rajagopal, the party’s sole MLA, from Nemom, where he won with a margin of 10.02% in the 2016 Assembly elections.

“These (Nemom and Vattiyoorkavu) are seats which the party wins and fielding Sreedharan from these seats can guarantee a big win,” Pramod adds.

Besides this, fielding celebrity candidates is a not new trick in the book. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP fielded Suresh Gopi in Thrissur who ended up in the third position trailing behind the Left and Congress, after polling 2,93,811 votes. K Surendran, Kerala’s BJP chief, contested and lost from Pathanamthitta in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Despite the Sabarimala women’s entry issue becoming a burning topic during the election season, Surendran came a distant third in the district after the LDF and the UDF. In essence, none of these high profile candidates managed to better the BJP’s prospects.

“Even if Sreedharan is fielded from a Hindu majority seat and does attract a lot of support, he will get the same polarised Hindu votes. It doesn’t help the BJP break into traditional vote banks,” Pramod adds.

So if the party wants to move forward, it has to win minority support, he adds.

Feminist and social critic J Devika believes that Sreedharan’s political entry should not be trivialised.

“Whatever said and done, his presence will make BJP more acceptable in Kerala, which is a scary prospect. There is a section of the state’s middleclass who are de-politicised and who vote without party affiliations. These people could be swayed by high-profile candidates such as Sreedharan,” she says. 

“From what I have observed so far, Sreedharan has been pushing the development narrative in Kerala. But the fact that he has spoken about being open to a Chief Ministerial position shows his naïveté. He is someone who has spent the best part of his years outside of Kerala and post retirement decided to join the political bandwagon. It is unlikely that he is well versed in the political ecosystem of the state. If he was he wouldn’t have made such a statement,” she added.

Two other analysts TNM spoke to pointed out that Sreedharan's interviews to many media houses after he announced his decision to join BJP has been a revelation of sorts for many. Most believe his comments on love jihad bogey and similar themes has distanced him from many voters who otherwise admired his work. 

Breaking into the Syrian Christian vote bank

With Kerala comprising 55% Hindus and 45% Muslims and Christians, the BJP is unlikely to win in the state without minority votes.

Understanding this, the party has already taken efforts to bring Kerala’s Syrian Christian population into its fold. Out of the 17% Christian population, the majority is Syrian Christian, namely – Syrian Catholics, Orthodox and Jacobite Syrians. These communities are more open to voting for the BJP unlike Latin Catholics who are a strong UDF voter base, Pramod adds.

“For a while now, some of the Syrian Christian priests have spoken out about ‘Love Jihad’ and about innocent girls from their community being its victims. They have raised other allegations stating that the Muslim League (IUML) is controlling the UDF (Congress) and that the Syrian Christian community is losing its dominance in the party,” says Pramod.

The community, which was once en bloc a UDF vote bank, has now broken down, with both the Left and the BJP being able to cut into the Syrian Christian votes.

“The BJP is getting their support by feeding Islamophobic ideas, such as discussions around ‘Love Jihad’. Syrian Christians have historically had no grievances against the BJP and some of the people in the community are also Modi fans, making the vote bank a soft target for the party,” he explains.

In an effort to appease the warring Jacobite and Orthodox factions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi too met representatives from both sides to mediate the church conflict. Modi’s action was considered an exercise in vote bank appeasement by many.

The age factor

A section also believes that Sreedharan’s age could be a deterrent in his race to the legislative Assembly. Several social media users have also wondered why he decided to enter politics for the first time at 88.

“Frankly I think that is a wrong attitude to have. We’re talking about a man who wakes up at 4 am to do yoga and keeps perfect health, both mentally and physically. So why must he not try his luck in another career?” Sreenivasan asks. 

If Metroman does win a seat in the Assembly, Sreenivasan believes that the centre-state relationship could improve.

“He’ll be able to get more resources and money from the Union government for Kerala, as he has a good pull at the Centre, even with Prime Minister Modi. What we see now is a very confrontational relationship. But it could get better if he wins,” he says.

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