Southern Governors: BJP’s calculated gamble

Notwithstanding winning a bigger mandate this General election, southern India, barring Karnataka, continues to remain elusive for the BJP. Hence, the recent appointments of Governors may well be a roadmap to a future strategy. It’s a fact that conquering south India has always been a tough challenge for the saffron party. The BJP failed to win any seat from Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala but managed a few in Telangana. In particular, it was Kerala where the saffron party banking on the Sabarimala issue was hoping to open its account this time.

In spite of being dejected by these results in the south, BJP didn’t lose time and instead zeroed in to gain foothold there. This can be gauged from the Modi government’s recent two governors’ appointments of five, where Arif Mohammad Khan, a minister in the then Rajiv Gandhi dispensation, was appointed in Kerala and BJP Tamil Nadu chief Tamilisai Soundarajan was installed in Telangana. These appointments assume political significance with the saffron party already working on the ground to increase its base in the elusive States through national membership drive.

Khan, who resigned from Rajiv Gandhi’s ministry protesting against the then dispensation’s move to alter the Supreme Court’s order on Shah Bano, is viewed as a progressive Muslim — known for his resistance against the Islamic orthodoxy. He has been a prominent supporter of the Modi government’s move to criminalise the instant Triple Talaq, even backing the scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Not only this, Khan himself has dismissed several times the narrative of “Muslims being in danger under the present Modi regime” and has asserted that the alienation among the Muslims began in 1986, not in 2014. So, given Khan’s views, it is a calculated move to send him to Kerala, a State where Muslim population hovers around 27%, making it as one of the highest Muslim populous States in the country.

The Modi government, which has been facing criticism allegedly for being offensive against the religious minorities, particularly Muslims, since assuming power, is trying to kill two birds at a time. Firstly, by nominating Khan, the BJP dispensation is trying to send the message nationally that its policies are not against the minorities as propagated by the Opposition and by a section of the leftist intellectuals. Interestingly, Khan is the second Muslim governor to be appointed by the present regime after Najma Hepatulla, in Manipur.

Secondly, Khan’s appointment in Kerala, with a significant minority population of both Muslims and Christains, assumes much significance given the fact that the State has always been a dry place for the lotus to bloom. Importantly, Khan, a seasoned politician, replaced outgoing governor P Sathasivam, a former Chief Justice of India. This decision was to boost the BJP’s camp in Kerala, which itself is divided into factions and demoralised after failing to win any seat in the recent polls, although the party saw an increase of 2 per cent votes by securing 12.9 per cent votes.

Actually, Kerala’s demography has made it difficult for the BJP to gain a foothold in the southern-most Stare. It so happens, the Hindu population, on which the party banks is around 54 per cent and entirely polarising them is almost impossible given their political leanings between the two dominant fronts – the CPM-led LDF and Congress-led UDF. This was evident in these polls, where the large chunk of the Hindu votes, divided by the Sabarimala controversy that BJP was expecting, went into the Congress’ kitty, ultimately helping the party-led United Democratic Front to register almost a clean sweep by winning 19 out of 20 seats. Also, the Front benefitted due to the consolidation of the minority votes in the wake of BJP’s interest to penetrate into the State.

The results clearly pointed out that BJP has to change its strategy, if it has to emerge as a strong power in the State’s politics. And it is perhaps the main reason the party has appointed a progressive Muslim leader like Khan as the Governor. However, that simply doesn’t mean it is doing so only to attract the Muslim vote bank, which has been the backbone of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second largest constituent of the Congress-led UDF. The saffron brigade knows that it is not easy to gain Muslim votes when there is a party like IUML, except getting some votes from the Muslim women community in light of passage of the Triple Talaq bill.

Actually, by appointing Khan, who refuses the narrative that the minorities are in danger under the Modi regime, BJP is seeking to gain the Christian community, which accounts for around 17 per cent. Remember, the Christians mainly support the Kerala Congress, the State’s regional party, known also for constant breaks and unifications, and presently there are many existing fractions. The largest faction is the Kerala Congress (Mani) — a part of the UDF. Already, two small factions — Kerala Congress (Thomas) and Kerala Janapaksham (Secular) led by six-time MLA P.C. George, are with the NDA.

The State’s Christians, a large section being the Syrian Christians, generally, as the BJP believes, are not “so against the Modi government, as they are more concerned with the rising Islamic fundamentalism in the world”. So, the saffron party has earlier too tried to woo the Kerala Congress (Mani), which presently is again divided into two camps, following its iconic leader KM Mani’s death this year. It just may be that the BJP is trying to woo one of the two camps of KC(M) to get into NDA’s basket and Khan may just be their face to suggest it is not against minorities.

On the other hand, by appointing its Tamil Nadu chief Tamilisai Soundarajan as Telangana governor, the BJP has eyed two political goals. Firstly, by assigning the high post to its party face, BJP has tried to assure the people of Tamil Nadu, where the party failed to win any seat that it highly respects their culture. Secondly, it is also a signal to the Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao that coming days wouldn’t be easy for him. More so as Soundarajan is known to be a vocal politician, who doesn’t mind courting controversies to propagate the party’s ideology.

Her appointment is mainly aimed to further boost its cadres in Telangana, where the BJP did surprise many by winning four Lok Sabha seats and is now looking to replace the Congress, already hit by desertions as the main Opposition party there. Be that as it may, it is worth keeping a close watch on the two Governors’ functioning as these will be reflect how close the BJP is successful in its goal.




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