Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Kerala last week, his first after assuming office, was rife with aftershocks that will have reverberations in the lead-up to the Assembly elections of April-May 2016. His prophecy, based on Hindu mythology, that a BJP-led third front will emerge in Kerala as the third eye of Lord Siva, might have been divine amrith for party workers and hopeful leaders, but one has to wait and see if his party’s dependence on Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam leader Vellappalli Natesan turns out to be a bane or a boon.
PM Modi’s mid-December two-day visit was primarily to meet the armed forces’ chiefs aboard INS Vikrant in Kochi for a round-table security review. But BJP’s growing ambition, egged on by a creditable performance in the local body elections last month, to have a foothold in this elusive southern state prompted him to squeeze in a political rally in Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur, followed by the unveiling of the statue of a former Chief Minister of Kerala, R. Sankar in Kollam the next day.
Sankar, a hardcore Congressman and the third Chief Minister of the state, was the face of the Ezhavas, a backward community, in the 1950s. A multi-faceted personality, Sankar was instrumental in setting up the Sree Narayana Trust in 1952, initially to manage the prestigious Sree Narayana College in Kollam, where the statue was inaugurated. Over the years, the SN Trust, begun with the noble intention of imparting education to the deprived in society, has grown into a mammoth institution controlling a number of medical, engineering, management, arts, science and law colleges and fisheries and agriculture polytechnics across the state. Once the trust turned into a huge empire, the tussle to control it intensified, with the SNDP, under the stewardship of the businessman Natesan, over the past two decades, staking a claim. It is in this backdrop that Natesan, who has floated a political outfit, Sree Dharma Jana Sena, recently stole the limelight from under the very nose of SN Trust and the Congress-led UDF government, by inviting Prime Minister Modi to inaugurate the statue. The state BJP, which has been courting Natesan in the hope of opening its account in the state Assembly, saw this as an opportunity to derive some political capital.
As was the practice whenever a Prime Minister visits a state, Kerala’s Congress Chief Minister Oommen Chandy was to preside over the function at Kollam. But two days before the function, Chandy was given to understand, through one of his ministers, that his presence was “not desirable” at the function as protests at his presence were expected from the audience. Since Natesan has been calling the shots, the state Congress saw it as a conspiracy plotted at the BJP headquarters in Delhi and delivered through its proxy to belittle the Chief Minister. The opposition, including the Marxists, joined the chorus, even terming it as an insult to Malayalis and Kerala. They cited protocol issues, whereby the Chief Minister is supposed to be present at a public function of the Prime Minister. But nothing, not even the hue and cry, moved Natesan, who stood his ground that Chandy should stay away in the “interest of security”.
On his part, the PM was silent on Chandy’s absence in Kollam. Instead, he fondly recalled how Sankar had sought the help of Jan Sangh’s Syama Prasad Mookerjee to form a Hindu Mahamandal in Kerala along the lines of the Jan Sangh, the past avatar of the BJP, with the Nair stalwart of the time, Mannathu Padmanabhan. Though the fact is that the Mandal was formed as part of their fight for gaining entry into the temples for all sections of Hindu society, a burning issue of that period, the PM hit the Congress where it hurts most, secularism. While Natesan and company basked in Sankar’s glory, Congress fretted and fumed.
But what put the Congress on the defensive was that the Chief Minister and his ministers, who were present to see off the Prime Minister at Thiruvananthapuram, did not even once raise with him the issue of Chandy being kept out. The Chief Minister’s claim that he had handed over an official protest letter to the PM did not hold much water with the general public.
What put both the Congress and the Marxists in the dock was their conspicuous soft-peddling of their attacks on Natesan. This has exposed their caste-based political agenda, though both claim to the contrary. Natesan still has a considerable sway over the Ezhava community, which has over 20% vote share in the state. Hence, both Congress and the CPM were guarded in their attacks against Natesan, while stridently accusing the BJP of trying to divide Kerala communally”.
Natesan’s may be a temporary victory, but he succeeded in casting a shadow of doubt over both the fronts that have been ruling the state alternatively for over six decades. Vellappalli Natesan is here to torment them, at least till May, together with his BJP ally.