The RSS and the BJP have launched a joint outreach program aimed at minorities — Muslims and Christians — in Kerala.
It is not clear to me what the end game is — if the last few elections in Kerala, both Assembly and national, made one thing very clear, it is that the BJP has a Hindu problem, not merely a minorities problem.
A typical case study is Pathanamthitta, a predominantly agrarian region in Central Travancore famous for being the home district of the Sabarimala temple. The population is largely rural; Hindus comprise about 60% of the roughly 12-plus lakh population while Christians come second with about 36-37%, following by a sprinkling of Muslims at under 5%.
A local notable is one K Surendran, the BJP’s state party president. He led the saffron brigade’s protests in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment permitting women to enter Sabarimala; during the protests he clashed violently with the police and, for his trouble, spent 21 days in jail before returning as a ‘martyr’ to the Hindu cause.
The BJP gave him the Pathanamthitta ticket for the 2019 national elections, hoping to ride his activism to its first ever Parliament seat from Kerala. Long story short, he came third — behind Anto Antony of the INC and Veena George of the CPM, both Christians who attracted more Hindu votes than the BJP’s state party president did.
In the same year, he fought a by-election from Konni, one of the assembly constituencies within Pathanamthitta. Again he came third, behind Jinesh Kumar of the CPM and P Mohanraj of the Congress.
In the 2021 Assembly elections, Surendran played safe and contested two seats — the above-mentioned Konni and, for some obscure reason, the Muslim-majority Manjeshwar seat in Kasargod. He lost both.
Point being, demographics don’t really matter — the RSS/BJP for all its efforts (a bit more on those efforts later on) still runs a distant third, almost entirely because the saffron brigade hasn’t managed to convince enough Hindus to vote for BJP candidates.
The BJP probably needs a Hindu outreach first, therefore — but anyway. This push to woo the minorities is in large part due to the realisation that its share of the Hindu vote bank and its hold on the community is ebbing, gradually but surely. (That this is almost entirely due to Amit Shah and company setting the agenda and importing the sort of nonsense that works in the Hindi heartland, while totally ignoring local leaders who understand the pulse of Kerala better, is another story.)
Anyway, so now we have a minorities outreach program. Which began with the ‘carrot’ in the case of Cardinal George Alencherry, who is for various reasons the member of the Catholic hierarchy in Kerala most vulnerable to pressure.
As far back as 2018, Alencherry gained notoriety for his efforts to hush up a rape complaint made by a nun against Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal, despite being aware of the nun’s plight.
More recently, Alencherry made the headlines when he was implicated in seven discrete cases of selling land belonging to the Church. He first approached the Kerala High Court seeking exemption from making a personal appearance, but the court shot his plea down. He then went to the Supreme Court, asking that the plea be quashed. The apex court refused and ordered him to stand trial in person.
So he did what anyone right-thinking man caught in a legal vise would do — he tried to build bridges with the BJP. In a public interaction, he praised Narendra Modi’s leadership and averred that Christians do not feel insecure in India.
The pushback was immediate: Members of the Catholic community stormed the church demanding that Alencherry apologize for his remarks and quit his post and vacate his official accommodation. Satyapeedam, the official organ of the Catholic Church, condemned Alencherry in an editorial. AC Michael, president of the Federation of Catholic Associations of Archdiocese of Delhi, repudiated Alencherry’s statement and said the persecution of Christians had spiked under the BJP regime.
Clearly, the Catholic community is in no mood to buy Alencherry’s attempt to get into the BJP’s good books. (Meanwhile, the Vatican has attempted to bail Alencherry out by saying that it has found nothing improper in the land dealings — a temporary relief for the embattled cardinal, but it does not get him off the hook as far as court proceedings are concerned.)
Getting Alencherry to praise Modi in public backfired, but the BJP hasn’t given up on the state’s Christian community just yet. Around Easter, the Hindu groups organized a sneh yatra where party workers visited Christian homes with sweets and good wishes; they then marked Vishu by hosting a breakfast for Christian priests. (This, incidentally, provoked much amusement in the family circle, which includes BJP-affiliated local office-bearers — what does Vishu have to do with Christian priests, was the bemused talk on the family WhatsApp group.)
It is worth noting that in the same week that the Hindutva brigade was brimming over with love for Kerala’s Christian community, three churches were demolished in BJP-ruled Manipur; in Haryana Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal members protested against the planned construction of two churches; and Hindutva leaders presided over an event in Chattisgarh where people took an oath to boycott both Muslims and Christians.
This is what the BJP doesn’t get — the average Keralite reads at least two newspapers, many read even more. Politics and society dominate conversations in vayanashalas (local reading rooms) and tea-shops. Thus, the Christian community is well aware of how their brethren in other parts of the country are treated by the BJP, and thus least likely to be taken in by sneh yatras and suchlike public displays of opportunistic affection. But then, no one accused the BJP leadership of being savvy, so…
Elsewhere, the RSS/BJP outreach embraced the Muslim community by organizing an iftar party on a public highway, in the same week that Uttar Pradesh CM Adityanath decreed that “no religious festival” — clearly meaning Eid — would be permitted to block roads or otherwise occupy public spaces. Muslims read newspapers, too.
Now the state leadership says it is looking forward to Narendra Modi’s impending visit to further boost the outreach program. Good luck with that — Modi’s blanket blitz during the previous elections resulted only in the BJP losing the one assembly seat it had held.
Meanwhile, afsos, RSS worker Vishnu was unable to participate in the outreach program — he was hospitalized for treatment of injuries sustained while making a bomb.
Nothing new to see here — in a post from as far back as September 2017, I had detailed instances of RSS/BJP-sponsored violence in the state, including several instances involving bombs. (A post from a month later details what happened when the BJP attempted to make headway in the state.)
Even that September 2017 post was incomplete — chronicling the RSS-BJP’s attempts to manufacture bombs and create mayhem, heartland-style, is a full-time job. For instance, just two months after I wrote that post, an RSS worker blew the roof of his own home off while trying to make a bomb.
Ask yourself this: Why is a “social service organisation” busy making bombs? The average Keralite voter has a fairly good idea.
All of the above — and more — is why the BJP’s new-found love for Kerala’s minorities is bound to fail. But it is always great fun watching them twist themselves into knots, trying.
PostScript: Deadline pressures kept me from commenting on several other important developments of the week just ending. I’ll try and catch up over the coming days.
Meanwhile, with Twitter gradually imploding, and thanks to the repeated prodding of a good friend, I’ve decided to start a Substack newsletter, and a Discord channel for conversations.
It will have everything — current affairs, longish posts, short notes, some cricket, plenty on books and writing, and it will evolve as it goes along.
Not immediately though — I have some travel coming up in May; the plan is to get everything lined up and kick it off in the last week of next month, after I return.
I’d appreciate thoughts, if you have any, on the paid versus supported versus free models.
Eid Mubarak, to all who celebrate.