Since the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the national stage, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have been steadily gaining ground in red bastions like Kerala and Tripura, as well as in Trinamool Congress-ruled West Bengal, earlier a red bastion for long, experts say. All these three states are witnessing changing social and political dynamics, they say.
The increasing popularity of the RSS in Left-ruled Kerala is evident from the fact that Kerala accounts for the maximum number—6,000—of RSS shakhas (branches) in the country, operating on a daily basis across all the state’s regions, and the number is rising. “The Left is losing ground in Kerala as more and more people are joining the RSS. In the last few years, Kerala has witnessed a rapid rise in the number of members joining shakhas and this is also one of the reasons that our workers are being attacked there,” J. Nandkumar, Akhil Bharatiya Sah Prachar Pramukh of the RSS, told The Sunday Guardian.
“The most noticeable sign of the rise of the RSS-BJP has been due to the use of the Kshetra Samrakshana Samiti (KSS or Temple Protection Committee) and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) to build a ‘temple-based organised society’ and a ‘temple-based way of life’. Dozens of kavu, or ancient shrines, where Theyyam (living god) performances have been held for centuries, have joined this drive by the RSS. Also, small family temples and old temples in need of maintenance have joined the KSS, as matters of private faith have been turned into public symbols of majority assertiveness,” said Manindra Nath Thakur, an expert on electoral politics, who teaches political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).
In the November-2015 local body elections, the BJP snatched the Palakkad municipality from the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and also emerged as the second largest party in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation after the Left Democratic Front (LDF). If there are turning points, this certainly was one: the saffron party’s vote share rose from 10.5% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to 14% in the local elections. It was also a signal that the RSS had acquired the “critical mass necessary to openly pursue its agenda”.
“In the local body elections held in November 2015, the BJP emerged as the second largest party in the Thiruvananthapuram corporation after the LDF and this was certainly a turning point for the BJP in Kerala,” said Anand Desai, a political analyst who teaches social science in JNU.
However, experts give credit to Kummanom Rajasekharan for the BJP gaining ground in Kerala. According to them, the appointment of Rajasekharan in 2015 as the BJP chief in Kerala has brought “good fortune for the party in the state”.
“Over the past decades, Rajasekharan has been playing an all-encompassing role in the functioning of the Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV), the VHP, KSS, Balasadanams (for very young children) and Ekal Vidyalayas, schools run by Hindu outfits for children. Also, Rajasekharan brought well-known figures like G. Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation; T.K.A. Nair, principal secretary to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in BJP, which has helped the party gain ground in Kerala,” Desai told The Sunday Guardian.
The rise of the consumerist Malayali and a thriving middle class has made the path for the rise of the BJP in Kerala easier, Desai added.
A similar story of the BJP gaining ground in Bengal is visible. Many Left leaders fear that the Left could be pushed towards political isolation, while the BJP will rise because of “sustained activities of the RSS” in Bengal’s districts where religious divide has started to emerge as a raging issue.
Left, Congress and BJP leaders, who have started preparing for the “biggest micro-level electoral exercise”, feel that 2018 will present a picture Bengal hasn’t witnessed yet and the state’s villages may “significantly break the political equilibrium” when panchayats go to the polls next year. “The number of RSS shakhas in Bengal has gone up from 475 till 2014 to 1,680 this year and members are steadily increasing,” RSS office bearer Nandkumar confirmed.
“In Bengal, it is mostly supporters of the CPI(M) and other Left parties who have switched allegiance to join the BJP and its parent organisation, RSS, in recent years,” Ritesh Tiwari, BJP state secretary of Bengal, told The Sunday Guardian.
The increasing vote share of the BJP in Bengal also tells the story of the party’s growth in the state. According to Election Commission data, in the 2009 parliamentary elections, the BJP manage to get just 6.4% vote. However, in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the party secured 17.02% votes by registering over 10% growth. The vote share of the BJP has increased in all the elections from the panchayat level to Parliament. However, over the same time period, the vote share of the Indian National Congress (INC) and Left parties has gone down.
The BJP has also turned its gaze to Tripura, another red citadel. The tiny northeastern state is significant for the BJP as the Left has been ruling Tripura since 1993 and the Congress seems to be losing ground. Recently, the BJP made its maiden entry into the state Assembly in Tripura—one of the oldest Left bastions in the country—with six rebel Trinamool Congress legislators formally joining the party in Agartala. “A setback in Tripura would further marginalise the Left nationally. If the BJP manages to take on the CPM in Tripura in the coming elections in February, it will be a blow to the Communist party’s efforts to cook up an alliance of non-BJP parties to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 general elections,” said Tapas Majumder, BJP state secretary in Tripura.