Christians now seem disillusioned with both the Congress and Communist fronts.

 

New Delhi: Even as BJP national president J.P. Nadda began his two-day visit to Kerala on Wednesday to formally launch the NDA’s Assembly campaign in the state, one of its partners was on the verge of a vertical split. A section of leaders of the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), which is headed by the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam—the socio-cultural organisation of the powerful Ezhava community-vice-president Thushar Vellappally, on Thursday resigned from the party and formed a breakaway outfit called the Bharatheeya Jana Sena (BJS). The faction is led by a former general secretary of BDJS and a close aide of Thushar who together have formed a 15-member state committee. The faction has decided to support the Congress-led United Front in the coming Assembly elections.

BDJS was floated by Tushar’s father Vellappally Natesan just before the 2016 assembly election. He had joined the NDA to the surprise of many as Ezhavas are known for their long-standing association with the communist movement in the state. Natesan has been running the SNDP, formed by social reformist Sree Narayana Guru to give a voice to his deprived community, and its affiliate organisations like a family fiefdom for over two decades. He is sitting on a goldmine as SNDP controls a large number of educational institutions, many now named after him and his wife rather than the Guru. Ezhavas constitute 23 per cent of Kerala’s population and are perhaps the largest Hindu community or second to the upper caste Nairs.  Since Natesan as the general secretary of SNDP wields enormous clout over the community, though many strongly question this claim, both the Congress-led United Front and the CPM-led Left Front had all along tried to appease him. And he was cleverly using them for his own aggrandisement. He decided to join forces with the BJP hoping to make his son a minister in the Union Cabinet and a gubernatorial post for himself.

Nothing of that sort happened. BJP also did not gain as expected in the 2016 assembly from Ezhava strongholds, except that the party could open its account in the State Assembly for the first time. BDJS without saying remained blank giving credence that the community was not at the beck and call of the Vellappally family. Since there were no gains, Natesan has been blowing hot and cold with BJP’s state and national leadership for quite some time. BJP too had started to distance itself from Natesan and has been looking elsewhere for support, especially among the minority Christians. A former state president of the BJP and now Mizoram governor P.S. Sreedharan Pillai has been trying to broker peace between two prominent Christian communities in the state namely Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the Malankara church. The two have been at war with each over ownership and possession of about a thousand churches and their properties for almost a century. There have been violent clashes resulting even in few deaths.

At the end of a long-drawn out legal battle the Supreme Court in 2017 ruled the ownership rights of the properties vest with the Orthodox faction. However, the Jacobite faction which controls most of the properties refused to oblige. Even burial of the dead became an issue. Both the factions have pockets of influence in central and north Kerala where they can decide the fate of a candidate in elections. The Pinarayi Vijayan –led Left government which had jumped in haste to implement the controversial Sabarimala judgment allowing menstruating women entry into the temple played it safe trying its best not to force implementation of the top court verdict. It is at this time that Sreedharan Pillai arranged an audience of the heads of the two factions with Prime Minister Modi. Though the meeting went off well, nothing concrete came out with both factions sticking to their guns. How the PM can resolve an issue over which the Supreme Court had made a ruling remained unanswered and the dispute hangs in the balance.

Following Nadda’s visit, the state president of the BJP K. Surendran has announced that one third of the party candidates would be from the Christian communities. If the party can elicit the support of the warring factions, there is every chance that BJP can even reach double figures in the coming elections. Earlier the party’s attempt to woo Muslims did not bear much fruit.

It has even made one time CPM turned Congress youth leader Abdullahkutty one of the national vice-presidents. But it did not cut much ice with the community largely because of its antipathy against the RSS. The Christian community right now looks disillusioned with both the traditional Congress, Communist fronts. The larger question is whether the state BJP is capable of offering an alternative. Right now the task looks uphill, but there are quite a few in the party who believe that Nadda could make some change where Amit Shah had failed.

Already he has successfully brought back a few leaders who had stayed away in protest against the current leadership. According to sources, Nadda’s open assurance has paved the way for prominent dissident  Sobha Surendran (no relative of state president) and others who had kept away ever since the state unit was reconstituted in March last year to return and participate actively in the party’s election campaign.

Many of them were present at Nadda’s Thursday rally in Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala, where the BJP hopes to do well. This singular factor is considered a good omen in the state BJP. But it is to be seen whether all differences are sorted out.  Sobha told media persons that she attended the Thrissur meeting since “friends and well wishers” wanted her to do so.  “I am not interested in making any statements other than the explanations given by the national president,” Sobha said. Nadda had earlier referred to Sobha’s complaints as “normal in a party that functions as a family”.