Will Suresh Gopi's victory change the political landscape of Kerala?

The success in Thrissur has brought a new legitimacy to the BJP which was hitherto an underdog in state politics. If the BJP catches up, there will be a considerable shift in the bipolar political landscape.
Suresh Gopi with the certificate proclaiming his victory from Thrissur
Suresh Gopi with the certificate proclaiming his victory from Thrissur Photo | S Lal

Once the tension and travails of the just-concluded 18th Lok Sabha elections are over, the big question that awaits political analysts will be the future of the bipolar coalition system in Kerala and its consequent impact on Indian politics.

Is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) poised for growth in Kerala, a state which remained isolated from the Hindutva march in Indian politics for long, given the twin challenges of a strong Communist presence and the powerful pressure groups led by the 45% minorities of Christians and Muslims who are mostly associated with the Congress?

The BJP was waiting for a considerable time to achieve a breakthrough in Kerala elections. So far, it could elect one legislator for the Kerala Assembly in 2016, but the same constituency elected a CPI(M) candidate in 2021, ensuring the closure of the lone account of the BJP.

Till now, both the Left Democratic Front and the United Democratic Front were adept at marginalizing the BJP in the electoral canvas as well as the political landscape. Unlike in most states and regions of India, the BJP remained hitherto 'persona non grata' mainly due to its anti-minority stance, especially towards the Muslim community, who constitute 27% of the Kerala population.

Despite having O Rajagopal in the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh in AB Vajpayee's ministry and V Muraleedharan in Narendra Modi's ministry from Maharashtra, the mainstream parties in Kerala consistently tried to resist the rise of a third pole in the axis of coalition politics. Nevertheless, the BJP was growing in an incremental manner, from just 2% in the 1982 Assembly elections to nearly 15.56% in the 2019 elections. In the midst, it has won a few local body elections, especially in Palakkad, Kasaragod, Pandalam and a few pockets of Thiruvananthapuram.

The biggest challenge for the BJP in Kerala is its inability to get a strong coalition partner. Equally important is their constraint to conduct an effective social engineering process.

Given the history of social reforms, the political character and temperament of Kerala were focused on the secularist framework of a deeply diverse society. No mainstream parties were willing to accept the BJP into its fold, especially when the Left forces and the minority vote bank politics remained strong as parallel lines determining the dynamics of party politics. Nor can the BJP chart an alternative discourse to attract the Hindu communities to its fold.

This political culture and setting of Kerala remain unique compared to the Hindi heartland. Despite these limitations, the growth of the RSS in Kerala was spectacular. It enabled the BJP to sustain itself as a cadre party. The RSS has more than 5000 shakhas, next to the strength of the total branches in Uttar Pradesh.

Suresh Gopi with the certificate proclaiming his victory from Thrissur
Kerala paradox: RSS shakhas everywhere, yet not a seat to show for the BJP

Kerala was also witnessing a series of RSS-Marxist clashes until a few years ago. Both the CPI(M) and the BJP accuse each other for the continuous conflicts and the large number of casualties on both sides. With the rise of militant politics since 1992 from the now banned pro-Muslim PFI and the SDPI, the nature of politics in Kerala itself has changed from healthy party competition to areas of violence and tension. This development has further bruised the secular image of the state.

Impact of the Lok Sabha elections on Kerala politics

The struggle of the BJP to capture space in mainstream Kerala society underwent some transition with the growth of the party at the national level.

One of its early breakthroughs was in 2016 when the SNDP, the social arm of the Ezhava community (who constitute 25% of the population) and a prominent OBC group, expressed its willingness to align with the BJP in electoral politics. But this did not yield much result because the bulk of the Ezhava community was already recruited and politically socialized with the CPI(M) and Congress.

The NSS, the social arm of the Nair community, did not formally align with the BJP at any time and resorted to equidistance in party politics. But a large majority of the Nair community has already shifted its preference to the BJP for multiple reasons and this negatively impacted the Congress. The appeal of other Hindu communities towards the BJP was limited despite the fact that the party was trying to attract other OBCs, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes, etc., to its fold.

In the bipolar electoral politics of Kerala, it is hard to win 40 to 45% of the votes for an organisation like the BJP due to some of the factors mentioned above.

Both the UDF and the LDF understood the efforts of the BJP, especially its rising popularity at the national level since 1989. By the late nineties, the BJP became popular in a few pockets of north and south Kerala, but that was not sufficient for getting the winning margin in any of the Assembly constituencies. It was in this context that the BJP brought a few popular personalities like Suresh Gopi, Metroman E Sridharan, K Krishna Kumar and many others to the party fold.

Suresh Gopi with the certificate proclaiming his victory from Thrissur
Meme Pooram: Netizens have a field day after Suresh Gopi’s win

Suresh Gopi tried his luck in 2019 from Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency and polled 28% of the votes. He again contested unsuccessfully in the Thrissur Assembly seat in 2021. But his nomination to the Rajya Sabha was a game-changer for himself and the party.

During the six years (2016-2021) of his membership in the Rajya Sabha, he worked intensively in Kerala and especially in Thrissur district. His empathy for the poor people by intervening in public causes including environmental causes, human rights issues and the support extended to suffering sections earned him the reputation of a true humanist with a philanthropist attitude.

He also worked among the minority sections especially the Christian community who constitute 21% in Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency. The church leaders found him accessible and helpful. The social media followed him with a critical perspective highlighting his theatrical responses, gestures, socio-political involvements and the content of the speeches. All these brought added sheen to his popularity.

The support given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was significant. Modi campaigned for Suresh Gopi by visiting Thrissur thrice which conveyed a message that he is likely to be part of the Modi government in the post-election scenario. Suresh Gopi won the seat by an impressive margin of 74,686 votes in a tightly-contested triangular fight. Notably, the UDF candidate was pushed to the third position.

A few critics have remarked that he won the seat because of his popularity as a film star and therefore it is more of an apolitical victory. But once we analyze the political trends, it will be clear that this is more a political achievement as the party was growing in the state.

Earlier, in 2014, O Rajagopal came a close second in the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha seat against Shashi Tharoor. The BJP expanded its base in Kerala between 2019 and 2024 by a rise of 3.70% to reach an aggregate of 19.26% in 2024.

Besides winning the Thrissur seat, it has ensured triangular fights in most of the constituencies, especially in Trivandrum, Attingal, Alappuzha, Palakkad, Pathanamthitta, Kasaragod, etc. The BJP candidate Rajiv Chandrasekhar came a close second in Thiruvananthapuram against Shashi Tharoor. Also, the party offered a very close fight in the Attingal seat with V Muraleedharan as the party candidate.

In effect, it had a lead in 11 Assembly segments besides emerging second in eight Assembly segments. Its vote share increased in many parliamentary constituencies much to the dismay of the two major coalitions, the UDF and the LDF.

Civil society is thick with a debate as to whose vote share is being apportioned by the emerging BJP. The real fact is that it is able to tap the new generation of voters and women besides the middle class.

In any case, the traditional bipolar politics is on the decline in Kerala. Whether the UDF will be affected more or not is to be seen. Since the UDF in Thrissur has been pushed to the third position, there is no gainsaying that the LDF will be a beneficiary in the coalition game politics. After all, the Hindu base in the LDF is much stronger than it is in its rival, the UDF.

Again, the future of the BJP in Kerala also depends on its organisational efficacy and leadership qualities. It also has to work effectively so as to attract the minorities without which it can never be a strong force in a multicultural society like Kerala.

In the meantime, the success in Thrissur has brought a new legitimacy to the BJP which was hitherto an underdog in state politics. If the BJP catches up, there will be a considerable shift in the bipolar political landscape. Tripolarity will make Kerala politics really vexing and more unpredictable.

(Map and Chart: Immayabharathi K)

(Dr G Gopa Kumar is a senior political scientist and former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Kerala. Views expressed here are personal.)

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