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The BJP & Man on the Moon
September 18, 2003
Some twenty years ago I wrote that there was a better chance of an Indian setting foot on the Moon than of a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA entering the Kerala assembly. This provoked a letter from one of the party's leaders who wrote to say that the BJP would send a man not just to the Moon but to Mars! (He meant, I think, that there would soon be a BJP man -- or woman -- from Kerala in the Lok Sabha.) Two decades on, one is still waiting...
Two things brought back this long-forgotten episode to mind. The first was the prime minister's Independence Day promise that Indian scientists would soon be putting an Indian on the Moon. The second is the by-election to the Ernakulam Lok Sabha seat (which interests me greatly not least because I am a Kochi man).
For three decades or more, Kerala's political stage has been dominated by three actors -- the Congress (I) (leader of the United Democratic Front), the CPI(M) (boss of the Left Democratic Front), and the Muslim League. While there are a score of other groups -- notably the Kerala Congress -- all of them have been either too small or too faction-ridden to be of much consequence. But the law of averages suggested that the disease of dissension would strike the Big Three sooner rather than later, and today seems to be the day.
This is what makes the Ernakulam by-election so interesting. In the 1999 general election, George Eden of the Congress (I) polled 394,058 votes -- representing a handy 50.78 percent. Mani Vithayathil, his closest competitor won 36.44 percent (282,753 votes), with the BJP's T D Rajalakshmi having to be content with a mere 10.01 percent (77,640 votes). If memory serves me right, the United Democratic Front also won all the seven assembly seats that make up this Lok Sabha constituency.
History would suggest that this should be another comfortable victory for the Congress (I). So, why is the party worried? And why, come to that, should the Marxists and the Muslim League too be so gloomy?
To begin with the Congress (I), the problem is that Ernakulam has become yet another battleground in the feud between the Karunakaran and Antony wings. The veteran leader evidently believes that the Ernakulam Lok Sabha seat 'belongs' to his group, and is highly miffed that an Antony loyalist has been given the party ticket. (I am not sure why the 'I-Group' think so; all the seven sitting legislators are usually identified as anti-Karunakaran men.) Denouncing the poor man, M O John, as the 'government candidate,' the Karunakaran faction has publicly stated that it is going to stay away from the campaign.
Whether or not this will have any effect on the election remains to be seen, but it has certainly forced the Antony group to concentrate on the poll. The chief minister himself is spending an unusual amount of time on this by-election.
The Muslim League, currently a partner in the ruling United Democratic Front, does not, of course, have any candidate of its own in the fray. However, the party is increasingly worried about the long-term consequences of being identified too closely with the Congress (I), and the Ernakulam election is being seen as something of a test case.
There is a Muslim candidate, P Siraj, who has put up his name, and the Muslim League fears he will draw away a large chunk of the Muslim vote. If Siraj wins, say, 30,000 votes, the Muslim League leadership fears it shall be taken as a sign that the Muslim voter is deserting the party. (It says something of Indian politics that a photograph of a Kerala minister presenting a souvenir to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- at the Government of India's invitation -- has become a talking point -- much to the Muslim League's embarrassment.)
One would have thought that all this confusion in the enemy ranks would rebound to the credit of Sebastian Paul, the Left Democratic Front candidate. (Paul is, like John, a Latin Catholic -- the largest group in the constituency; so much for 'secularism'!) It has not happened that way thanks to the dissidence of the old Communist leader Viswanatha Menon, who is contesting the Ernakulam Lok Sabha by-election as an Independent candidate. Taking advantage of this situation, the BJP has decided to throw its weight behind him.
(For the record, however, Union Minister of State for Defence O Rajagopal has said the former finance minister is not a nominee of either the BJP or the National Democratic Alliance. (I am happy to note as a Kochi man myself that the three principal candidates are all 'clean' men, something that not too many other constituencies can boast about.)
I have no idea who shall win, but one thing is sure: the BJP will not be sending a man to Mars any time soon. In fact, the party seems to be content to be nothing more than a launch pad while somebody else rides the rocket!
T V R Shenoy