Behind Suresh Gopi’s bid to win Thrissur for BJP, philanthropy and realpolitik

Suresh Gopi lost two elections in Thrissur, but didn't give up. The actor instead threw his heart and mind into building a narrative and grooming the constituency that rejected him. Can he win?
Suresh Gopi
Suresh GopiX
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In 2019, when actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi staked the claim for the Thrissur constituency in Kerala as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate in the Lok Sabha polls, he did it with theatrical flourish. The line from a campaign speech he rendered, “I need this Thrissur, you should give me Thrissur, I’m taking Thrissur”, belonged to the league of lengthy monologues he delivered as a mass hero in movies where he played angry, idealistic bureaucrats, cops, and young turks. But like popular filmy dialogues often do, it spurred an enterprise of memes that lasted the election season and beyond.

For a state that has steadfastly refused to concede electoral victory to a BJP politician in the Lok Sabha polls, this was at once an audacious challenge and a desperate plea — an expression of a dream coupled with a sense of entitlement that became the target of ridicule.

A high-voltage campaign ensued and predictably, Suresh Gopi lost. But for the first time in a state where actor-turned-politicians have rarely received blank electoral cheques from voters, a rising swell was spotted. Suresh Gopi, a former Rajya Sabha MP, finished third, scaring his opponents and building a three-cornered contest to end up with a tally of 2,93,822 votes, nearly thrice that was polled by BJP’s KP Sreesan in 2014.

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In the 2021 Assembly polls, emboldened by the surge in saffron voters, BJP fielded Suresh Gopi again from Thrissur. He did not disappoint. He secured 31.3% of the votes, though he finished third again. Vote shares of the candidates fielded by the two main fronts – LDF’s P Balachandran (CPI) and UDF’s Padmaja Venugopal (INC) – shrunk compared to 2016 but Suresh Gopi’s kitty showed an increase of 11.84%.

Suresh Gopi lost both the elections but not the plot. He threw his heart and mind into building a narrative and a grooming plan for the constituency.

CPI(M) and Congress leaders TNM spoke to are, however, confident that Suresh Gopi will not be able to breach the fort even this time, primarily because the equation between Christians in the state and the BJP has changed since the Manipur conflict.

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A star philanthropist

For the past five years, Suresh Gopi, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram, has strived to keep up his presence in Thrissur. “Though he lost the elections, he remains committed to the people of Thrissur. He visits the constituency once or twice every month, travels widely to meet people, and provides assistance on a scale even an elected representative cannot,” said Justin Jacob, district general secretary of the BJP in Thrissur.

While serving as a Rajya Sabha MP, Suresh Gopi allocated Rs 1 crore from the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) to renovate Thrissur’s Sakthan Market, though his nodal district was Thiruvananthapuram.

Suresh, a fish seller at Sakthan Market, told TNM that the conditions in the market were unbearable. “Waste used to pile up and we did not have proper facilities. When Suresh Gopi campaigned here in 2019, he saw our plight and promised renovation. Though he lost the election, he began the work in 2021 and the place was transformed. In 2022, he returned, met us all, bought a huge king fish, and left,” Suresh said.

Another move that helped the actor-politician bolster his image and the bond with local party workers was his decision to adopt Avinissery, a BJP-ruled panchayat in Thrissur, under the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana in 2020. He also allocated Rs 1.5 crore from the MPLADS to develop Avinissery. The fund helped the panchayat to construct an anganwadi and day home, install street lights, high-mast lights, and build roads and drainage, according to Hari, president of Avinissery panchayat. “He also distributed coconut saplings to residents of the panchayat,” Hari said.

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Other than using MPLADS, philanthropy is another strategy adopted by Suresh Gopi to get close to voters and widen his influence. Financial assistance to the needy is doled out through the ‘Lakshmi Trust’, which, according to reports, is named after his daughter who died in a vehicle accident in 1992 when she was 18 months old.

BJP Thrissur Facebook page

In September 2023, he extended financial help of Rs 50,000 each to select Pulikali (tiger dance) groups in Thrissur. Pulikali is a recreational folk art and is especially popular in Thrissur.

In Nattika, a village in Thrissur, he contributed Rs 4 lakh when he heard that the SN Trust School was collecting funds to build a home for a Class 12 student.

“There isn’t a single Assembly constituency in Thrissur that Suresh Gopi hasn’t visited. He has helped people in every constituency,” claims Justin Jacob.

Kripesh, BJP mandalam president in Irinjalakuda, said there was a continuous stream of individuals who seek help from the actor-politician. “Every day, people queue up, asking for an opportunity to meet Suresh Gopi,” he said.

Bijoy Thomas, a district level leader of the BJP, said Suresh Gopi brings in the crowds wherever he goes. “Recently, he joined us in Ollur while workers were engaged in painting poll graffiti on the walls. It was night time, but people gathered around him to have a word with him,” he said.

The man also had his share of controversies. In 2020, while he was a Rajya Sabha MP, he said that he accepts letters requesting for his help only if they are attested by district-level BJP leaders.

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In 2019, a chargesheet was filed against him for evading luxury tax for a car by registering the vehicle in Pondicherry. In 2023, he faced allegations of touching a woman journalist inappropriately for which he was booked. When Nadakkavu police summoned him for questioning in the case he turned it into a show of strength for the party with BJP workers taking out a march to the police station. Later, he faced criticism for yelling at another woman journalist who asked questions on his behaviour. 

When Modi visited Thrissur in January first week
When Modi visited Thrissur in January first weekBJP Thrissur Facebook page

Capitalising on local issues

The CPI(M) had faced severe loss of face in the district after the Enforcement Directorate (ED) exposed a massive scam in the Karuvannur Cooperative Bank, which was helmed by leaders belonging to the party.

While the BJP’s state machinery could not effectively take on the CPI(M) over its many failures in the scam initially, once the intriguing nature of the case started to pour in, leaked by investigators, Suresh Gopi undertook a 18-km-long padayatra through the district accompanied by the party’s state president K Surendran. Suresh Gopi dedicated the yatra to victims of the scam, which included many Left supporters.

“Thousands gathered to watch a man walk for the sake of the victims of the Karuvannur scam. It helped to bring the focus back on the scam,” Bijoy said. Suresh Gopi also visited the house of one of the victims, Kolangattuparambil Sasi, a resident of Thelappilly near Karuvannur, who died in August 2023.

Sasi’s daughter Mini told TNM that Suresh Gopi gave the family Rs 3 lakh to clear their debts and promised to arrange funds needed for the medical expenses of her ailing mother. “We were CPI(M) sympathisers, but it was only the BJP that offered us any assistance,” she said.

Kripesh said Suresh Gopi spends money for medicines from his pocket and he arranges them.

It isn’t just the Karuvannur scam that the BJP leader has tried to use to connect to the voters. At times, Suresh Gopi has reacted to minor local issues as in the case of the internal conflict in the Maniyankinar tribal colony near Vaniyampara, which comes under Ollur Assembly constituency in Thrissur. Situated approximately 40 km from Thrissur town, Maniyankinar is a quaint hilly village inhabited by around 85 Malayan tribe families and was once a stronghold of the CPI and CPI(M).

Tensions arose within the tribe regarding financial matters involving their chieftain, Kuttan, affiliated to the CPI(M). Those who questioned Kuttan’s actions were primarily relatives, among whom was Anil Manjarammatti, a BJP member from a neighbouring hamlet who married into the community. Anil said the allegations were not political in nature and concerns were raised because misappropriation of finances were involved. 

Suresh Gopi visited the village in April 2023 during the festival of Vishu to distribute vegetable kits. “It was a calculated move by the BJP. Local leaders informed them of the rift and deemed it an opportune moment to intervene. That’s why Suresh Gopi visited the settlement directly,” alleged Raghavan, a local CPI(M) worker.

The rift culminated in violence in August 2023 when two families clashed over a road dispute. Following the altercation, their homes were allegedly targeted by CPI(M) workers.

“Since childhood, I’ve been dedicated to the CPI’s ideology. That night, as they pelted stones at my home, I reached out to my party colleagues, but no one came to our aid. They dismissed it as a dispute between families,” lamented Manju, whose house was attacked.

Approximately 27 families, including Manju’s, then opted to join the BJP as a mark of protest against the CPI and the CPI(M) against whom the local BJP workers ran a campaign alleging political violence. The families had also grown closer to the BJP because of  the influence wielded by Suresh Gopi.

“This will be the first time that I vote for a different party. It’s my form of protest,” Manju said.

Manju, the CPI worker who joined BJP
Manju, the CPI worker who joined BJP

Using his celebrity status

An articulate speaker, Suresh Gopi is a natural crowd-puller. His celebrity status has ensured him visibility across TV channels and on social media, something that no other BJP politician can dream of.

The evolving political landscape of Thrissur too has helped him. In 2014, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) had polled around 44,000 votes. In 2019, the party was absent from the fray and some analysts were of the view that a bulk of these free floating votes went into Gopi’s kitty.

This was also one reason why the country’s Prime Minister chose to fly down to the constituency twice in January 2024. While his first visit to Thrissur was on January 3, when he addressed a meeting of two lakh women as part of the party’s State Mahila Conference, he returned to attend the marriage of Gopi’s daughter Bhagya on January 17.

At the wedding in Guruvayur, with Suresh Gopi standing beside him, Modi performed the ritual of the bride’s father giving her hand to the groom in a bid to hold sway over Kerala’s Hindu mindspace. It was an act through which he became one among them, a family patriarch. The PM also took out time for a darshan at the Thriprayar Sree Ramaswamy Temple in Thrissur, five days before the consecration of the idol at the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

PM Narendra Modi at Bagya's wedding
PM Narendra Modi at Bagya's weddingSuresh Gopi Facebook page

Behind the BJP’s bid for Thrissur

Before fixing its eyes on Thrissur, the BJP had hopes from seats like Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta. But Congress’ Shashi Tharoor proved unbeatable for the party in Thiruvananthapuram, with his vote share surging to 41.19% in 2019, a significant uptick (7%) from 2014. The BJP’s vote share in the district meanwhile dipped during the period.

Pathanamthitta, once buoyed by the fervour of the Sabarimala movement, failed to materialise as anticipated for the BJP. Despite focusing on Sabarimala and creating a narrative that the CPI(M) government was against Hindus, the party’s candidate, K Surendran, found himself relegated to third place with a 28.97% vote share.

For a party fighting hard for electoral foothold in the state, Thrissur has suddenly given a vestige of hope not just because of a surge in its voter base. While 58% of Thrissur’s population is Hindu, the district also has a considerable Christian presence – 24% – a community that the BJP is wooing desperately in Kerala.

While it is common to see Christians at the helm of BJP’s Minority Morcha, in Thrissur the party has people from the community at the district-level leadership. With the party gaining traction, some are enthused about the party and keen to join.

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The elections are still weeks away but the BJP’s district office on Pazhanakkadavu road, named after Deendayal Upadhyaya, was buzzing with visitors. One of them was Joju Thomas, a Christian from Vadakkencherry, who had three decades of political activism as a Congress party worker.

“I am here to join the BJP” Joju said, expressing disillusionment with the Congress. The party lacked discipline, unity, and focus, he said. He was confident that Suresh Gopi’s candidacy would secure the BJP its first Lok Sabha seat in Kerala. He was welcomed with a saffron-coloured shawl by the party’s district president, KK Aneesh Kumar.

Two days before his daughter Bhagya’s wedding, Suresh Gopi, accompanied by family members and party workers, presented a golden crown to the Our Lady of Lourdes Metropolitan Cathedral in Thrissur. His detractors saw it as an attempt to gain the affection of church followers. Seconds after he placed the crown on the icon’s head, the cameras captured the crown suffering a fall, after which ‘divine displeasure’ became a talking point.

The violent incidents that unfolded in Manipur and the state government’s alleged genocidal intent has forced church leaders in Kerala to take a cautious approach to overtures made by the BJP. The Thrissur archdiocese of the Syro Malabar Church had strong words of criticism for Suresh Gopi and the Union government over the persecution faced by Christians in Manipur. In this backdrop, it’s not going to be easy going for the BJP in Thrissur.

In 2019, TN Prathapan of the Congress, the current MP, polled 1.2 lakh votes more than Suresh Gopi. Though the UDF is yet to announce its candidates, Prathapan would be the party’s likely choice in the constituency. The LDF, according to reports, has decided to field KS Sunilkumar of the CPI, a popular leader, setting the stage for a three-cornered fight similar to the one witnessed in 2019.

The BJP however has high hopes of turning the tables this time around. “If BJP has a chance to break ground in Kerala, it would be Thrissur,” asserted a BJP leader.

A CPI(M) Minister said the BJP’s major support comes from Thrissur town, which has a large population of Hindus, especially belonging to caste Hindus. The Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency comprises seven Assembly constituencies and all of them are currently represented by the Left Democratic Front (LDF). “Suresh Gopi contested from Thrissur Assembly constituency for the Assembly polls. This is supposed to be the region where BJP has the most sway. But even in 2021, when a segment of Christians were supporting the BJP, Suresh Gopi polled only 31% votes, which according to us was his best,” he said.

The Minister who had visited Thrissur after the PM’s visits had enquired with his party members if Suresh Gopi stood a real chance. “They pointed out that the church was wary of the BJP after Manipur and the Thrissur archdiocese in particular had given a statement against the BJP. This will work against Suresh Gopi,” he said.

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