Kerala paradox: RSS shakhas everywhere, yet not a seat to show for the BJP

There are 5142 shakhas in the state. This is in contrast to 8000 for Uttar Pradesh, 1453 for Madhya Pradesh,1000 for Gujarat, and 4000 for Maharashtra.
RSS/BJP workers during a protest rally in Kerala.
RSS/BJP workers during a protest rally in Kerala.(File Photo)

Kerala's politics has moved back and forth between two contradictory poles, the alliances led by the CPM and the Congress, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the United Democratic Front (UDF) respectively. So far, this pattern has not been broken though the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP has been projecting itself as a third front.

In this election, top BJP leaders like Amit Shah and political strategists like Prashant Kishor have been saying that the party will win their first Lok Sabha seat in the state. But the fact remains that notwithstanding their winning a seat in the 2016 assembly elections and gaining power in quite a few local bodies, neither the party nor its alliance has succeeded in reaching the threshold of 20-25% votes. This is, quite simply, a necessary condition for a third force to emerge as a serious contender for power in a state dominated by two blocs.

Many then are those who wonder why the BJP has not been able to do so and upset the political status quo. The question assumes significance when one takes into account the fact that among Indian states Kerala has the highest density of RSS shakhas.

Though estimates vary, as per data provided by the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha (ABPS), the top decision-making body of the RSS, there are 5142 shakhas in the state. This is in contrast to 8000 for Uttar Pradesh, 1453 for Madhya Pradesh,1000 for Gujarat, and 4000 for Maharashtra.

According to the ABPS, the organization plans to take this tally in Kerala to 8000 by next year!

From the aforesaid numbers, it's clear that relative to its population Kerala has more shakhas than other states. Stated differently, the per capita shakha in the state is much higher than in even UP, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh where the saffron party has a near monopoly of state power. Hence, many political analysts treat this as a paradox and wonder as to what's wrong with the Kerala BJP.

In reality, it is wiser for them to ponder on whether there is any rational relationship between the number of shakhas and the party's electoral prospects in a state. If the answer is 'yes', then it begs an important question, how could BJP come to power in states in which the number of RSS shakhas is relatively less?

Viewed thus, shakhas and political power seem to diverge. We may, therefore, delink the relationship that is supposed to exist between them and the electoral arithmetic, or, at least, argue that the density of shakhas is not a sufficient condition for achieving political power for the BJP. This would be clear if one takes into account a distinctive political feature of the states in which the party came to power.

In almost all of them, there was a political vacuum that was ready to be filled, to wit, the space created by the decline of the Congress. BJP with its Hindutva politics and the strong leadership provided by Narendra Modi (earlier the Vajpayee-Advani duo) readily filled that gap.

However, in Kerala, politics is still bipolar with the LDF and UDF dominating. In such a situation, to emerge as a prominent political actor, the BJP has to win over the electoral base of either the Congress or of the Left or, perhaps, a chunk from both.

It's also worth noting that, unlike in other parts of India, in Kerala, the majority of the Hindus identify themselves with the Left parties rather than with the Congress. The writing on the wall is thus clear: so long as the two communist parties (CPM and CPI) and the Congress remain the defining forces in state politics, the saffron outfit has little chance of gaining a foothold in this part of the country.

Otherwise, it has to change its political narrative in such a way as to attract the masses without any regard for their religious identities.

Here one is reminded of a signed article written by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in The Indian Express (shared below) way back in 1979 in which he argued that the RSS should open its doors to the non-Hindus.

Needless to say, politics, to quote Lenin, is where the masses are, not where they are in thousands, but where they are in millions. That's where serious politics begins. This points towards the need for mobilising people on a non-sectarian platform, around the lowest common denominator.

This is especially so in Kerala where roughly 45% (44.94% to be exact) people hail from the minority communities -- 26.86% Muslims and 18.38% Christians. While elsewhere in the country, in the midst of the neo-liberal era, when people moved towards the BJP culturally and politically, the same did not happen here partly due to this demographic trend and the other part due to the absence of a palpable minority-majority divide on communal lines.

The role played by the social reform movements and the communist parties is also noteworthy in this regard.

It is here that the BJP with its Hindutva politics is found wanting. The party either doesn't understand this common sense of Kerala politics, or it understands this but refuses to change its agenda. The looming presence of RSS is a poor substitute for this.

RSS/BJP workers during a protest rally in Kerala.
When BJP's K Surendran said 'religious polarisation doesn't work in Kerala, we need minorities'

Added to this is the leadership crisis and intra-party feuds that afflict the state unit and the absence of credible partners in the front. All these, in varying degrees, have taken their political toll as far as the BJP is concerned.

The presence of RSS shakhas in such great numbers can hardly address issues of this magnitude. Just as the habit does not make the monk and the sceptre does not make the King, RSS does not make the BJP.

Its future in Kerala, therefore, depends basically on its capacity to think differently than it does at the national level. It has to realise that the Hindus in the state have rejected Hindutva, at least for the time being.

As such, either it has to wait patiently till such time that the majority community changes its mind or has to evolve a more innovative and inclusive idea of justice which at present seems to be a tall order for the party.

The author was Professor of Political Science at the University of Kerala.

Vajpayee's article.
Vajpayee's article.From our archives

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