Can a generational change in leadership do the trick for BJP in Kerala?

Kerala remains the final frontier for BJP.  It has won Lok Sabha elections everywhere, save for Kerala. It won an assembly seat in 2016 but progress has been slow since. But there is no denying that progress has been steady since 2013 when Narendra Modi took charge of the party. The appointment of K Surendran, who turns 50 next month, as the state BJP president will be watched with keen interest in Kerala. While 50 is well into middle age for the ordinary person, different rules of agein apply in politics. Surendran has been an energetic face in many of BJP’s recent struggles, capably fronting the party on news channel debates before going on to lead agitations from the front and gaining a statewide following.

A knack to dig out paper trails and discomfit governments, both UDF and LDF, first brought him to notice. As the face of the Sabarimala agitation, courting arrest and facing dozens of criminal cases, Surendran soon became the darling of the BJP’s youth brigade. Yet progress to the top echelons has been a struggle despite making a mark both on the cerebral and agitational fronts. Widely seen as leading Union minister V Muraleedharan’s faction after the latter shifted base to Delhi, Surendran has struggled to gain acceptance with other powerful interest groups in the party, especially the PK Krishnadas faction raising the hackles.

In a state notorious for caste consciousness, Surendran’s biggest  challenge will be to navigate the pitfalls within the Hindu community on this score. The ascent of Ramesh Chennithala in Congress could wean away many Nairs who had shifted sides to BJP in 2014 and left the Congress a much weakened political force. Surendran’s own Ezhava community has so far remained firmly in the CPM camp.

BJP workers accord a reception to K Surendran in front of Pazhavanvady temple after release from Poojapura central prison in Thiruvananthapuram on Saturday
photo by: A S Nidhin

In recent months, Surendran has upped the ante with statements that appeared designed to alienate the sizeable Muslim population in the state. But as party president it will be a tough act to sustain. The BJP’s original hardline Hindutva face Kummanam Rajasekharan quickly moderated his positions after being elevated to the top post. With Muslims and Christians forming 45% of the state and a significant percentage of the Hindu community aligned to left and liberal politics,  it was no surprise that Rajasekharan saw the need to broaden his personal appeal.

Surendran may have won admirers for his doughty street politics and his spirited articulation of BJP ideas on television. But his first challenge will be to unite the entire saffron brigade in Kerala including senior leaders and the RSS firmament behind him. BJP has made a generational change in its top leadership, something both Congress and CPM are struggling to achieve. This first mover advantage will infuse some dynamism in BJP. But will this suffice to make an impact in the assembly elections due next year? Surendran will be the first to admit he has an unenviable task lying ahead of him.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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