In March this year, G Karthikeyan, Congress leader and speaker of Kerala’s Assembly, passed away, leaving his Aruvikkara seat vacant. When the Election Commission announced a by-poll for it, the contest— true to Kerala’s long-standing tradition of equally divided votes between the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Left Democratic Front (LDF)—seemed evenly poised. The UDF nominated Karthikeyan’s son KS Sabarinathan for it, while the LDF has senior CPM leader and former speaker M Vijayakumar in the fray. But then, the game suddenly changed when the BJP announced its nominee. Ordinarily, it should not have mattered. But it did—all because of just one man, an 84-year-old, who quickly put a spanner in the works. O Rajagopal might have lost eight times in different Kerala elections but whenever he contests, there is a sense that this could be the election that will finally give his party a shot at power. This time is no different.
Olanchery Rajagopal, affectionately known as Rajettan among his Sangh brethren, has been the electoral face of the BJP in Kerala for decades. “He is the only candidate who we can put forward without even an introduction,” says V Muraleedharan, BJP’s state unit president. “If we are to convince the people that we are contesting to win, Rajagopal has to be the candidate.”
Rajagopal began his political career with the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in the 1960s, going on to become its state president and then a member of its National Executive Council. He first contested a Lok Sabha seat in 1980 as a Janata Party candidate from Kasaragod and failed. He then made a parliamentary bid in the 1989 General Election from Manjeri; he was unsuccessful. Since then, he has tried to get elected to Parliament from Thiruvananthapuram four times—1991, 1999, 2004 and 2014—and failed. The long list of failures, however, doesn’t reflect his popular appeal. Thiruvananthapuram, especially, has a special affinity for him. When he first came to contest a Lok Sabha seat there in 1991, the BJP’s vote share was a paltry 7.5 per cent. In 1991, Rajagopal lifted it to 11.3 per cent, getting 80,566 votes. Again in 1999, he not only managed to achieve the four-figure mark by securing 158,221 votes, but almost doubled his vote share. In 2004, after a telling performance as a Union minister in the AB Vajpayee Government, he was at his peak. That particular election was his party’s best performance ever, with 228,052 votes, almost 30 per cent of the votes polled. Despite the leap, he finished third behind the CPI candidate and former Chief Minister of Kerala, PK Vasudevan Nair, who won the seat. Next year, the BJP contested the seat again, but this time it was not Rajagopal and the results made it evident. Its candidate CK Padmanabhan,got only 36,690 votes and the party’s vote share nosedived from 29.9 to 4.8 per cent, an all-time low. In 2009, the BJP tried one more time with its then state president PK Krishnadas, but he also managed to secure only 84,094 votes.
In 2014, with the Modi wave in full swing across India, Rajagopal returned to Thiruvananthapuram and almost pulled it off, falling marginally short of Congress’ poster boy, Shashi Tharoor. For the first time in the history of the LDF in Kerala, its candidate was third. Rajagopal got 282,336 votes—a BJP record.
Rajagopal has been a regular performer for Assembly elections as well. In 2011, he contested the Nemom constituency in Thiruvananthapuram and got 33 per cent votes, once again coming second behind the LDF candidate but ahead of the UDF. “You must have read the autobiography of Abraham Lincoln, right? He won the presidential election of the United States of America after 15 defeats,” smiles Rajagopal when asked about his ever-elusive election victory. “This time things are different. This by-election is going to be a game changer. The politics of Kerala will not be the same anymore.”
Even as electoral victories eluded him, the BJP rewarded Rajagopal by appointing him a Rajya Sabha MP twice. “His performance as the Minister of State for Railways was exemplary. He is a leader of the masses, like VS Achuthanandan of CPM or AK Antony of Congress,” says the BJP’s Muraleedharan of Rajagopal’s stint with the Vajpayee regime.
C Gouridasan Nair, a senior journalist, believes that people vote for Rajagopal without a sense of guilt, even if they might not agree with his political stance. “That is his advantage compared to other BJP leaders,” says Nair.
Right now, BJP campaign managers are working overtime to project Rajagopal as a champion of development in Kerala. The highlights include his role in introducing new train services to the state when he was in the Railway Ministry. The BJP also claims that Rajagopal is responsible for the proposed Vizhinjam port, development of the international airport and the effort to set up a High Court bench.
“Even AK Antony himself called O Rajagopal the state’s ambassador in the capital city of Delhi,” says PS Sreedharan Pillai, who was president of the BJP state unit when Rajagopal was a minister at the Centre. “There is no one else like Rajagopal in the Kerala BJP. Leaders of his standing are not made overnight.”
Rajagopal epitomises the BJP’s prospects in Kerala but its limitations as well. He has shown that the party can win a Lok Sabha seat here—and, crucially, that there is no one else who can do it for the BJP. Thinking beyond him seems all but impossible for the BJP at present.
“Rajagopal carries the legacy of the anti- Emergency struggle that many of the present BJP leaders do not have. He is mild mannered despite a strong Sangh background. This has enabled him to gain respect cutting across party lines in the state. Apart from him, the BJP in Kerala is a party with no effective leadership,” says C Gouridasan Nair, a journalist.
Besides Rajagopal, the other state BJP leader who rose to prominence in the anti-Emergency struggle was the late KG Marar—the first-ever BJP candidate to come close to a victory in Kerala Assembly polls, losing the Manjeswaram seat by a wafer-thin margin of 1,000 odd votes in 1991. But there is a story behind it. It was widely believed that CPM cadres meticulously engineered cross-voting to keep Marar out of the Assembly, while, on the other hand, the BJP allegedly had a pact with the Congress to secure his win in return for supporting the UDF.
Marar’s biography, written in 1999 by K Kunhikkannan, a journalist of the BJP mouthpiece Janmabhumi, refers to this illicit pact. The book accuses the Congress of not keeping its side of the bargain. After the controversy, the BJP was accused at every election of trading votes with the Congress against the LDF. Rajagopal’s entry to the electoral arena ended these charges and he contested by appealing to traditional voters.
“O Rajagopal might be the BJP’s best bet for an election, but his liberal image being projected by the media is far from the truth,” says Pinarayi Vijayan, a CPM politburo member who is at the helm of the LDF electoral campaign in Aruvikkara. “He is a hardcore Sangh Parivar ideologue, one of the original converts. Anyhow, the so called ‘Rajagopal effect’ is over. It will not work this time.”
KP Sethunath, another senior journalist in Kerala, has a ‘caste theory’ for Rajagopal’s popularity. “The primary reason for Rajagopal being the BJP’s permanent candidate is his ability to capture votes of the Nair community,” he says. The Aruvikkara constituency is said to have 40 per cent Nair votes.
Rajagopal admits that caste is indeed a decisive factor. “But I do not think that it is the prime factor. There are several things which can impact voters. I have a decent connect with the people of Thiruvananthapuram. I live among them. I participate not only in political events but cultural and spiritual programmes as well. In Kerala, the Muslim League and Kerala Congress have successfully consolidated Muslim and Christian votes. What is wrong with the BJP using the same idea?” asks Rajagopal.
Though he is known to be non-controversial, Rajagopal did get land himself in a soup last year when he made a television remark about the late BJP leader Gopinath Munde. He had allegedly said that simply marrying a Brahmin woman does not grant an OBC man that status, referring to Munde’s marriage with Pramod Mahajan’s sister.
Sethunath says Rajagopal is not beyond using communalism for political ends. “During the Kandahar hijack incident, he tried to make communal gains out of the crisis. He had said that the hijackers demanded the release of Abdul Nasar Madani (the People’s Democratic Party leader who had been jailed for alleged terrorist connections). This was later denied by the then External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh. His sole intention was to vitiate the communal situation in Kerala,” recalls the journalist.
Fielding Rajagopal in Aruvikkara this time is critical to the BJP’s plan for a big push in the state. The strategy chalked out by party president Amit Shah aims to wean away the CPM’s support base, which is mostly Hindus, particularly OBCs and SC/STs. In a state where there is a fairly strong RSS organisation in place, the BJP’s target is to make inroads in the local elections slated for October 2015, to be followed by Assembly polls in April 2016. The party’s primary aim is to win the Thiruvananthapuram Municipal Corporation, judging by the last Lok Sabha poll outcome (Rajagopal had a lead in 63 of the 100 corporation wards).
As the UDF and LDF compete for minority votes, the BJP plans to press hard for a subtle polarisation of Hindu votes in the state using a soft Hindutva agenda. The party would be assisted in its attempts by the Muslim League’s dominance in the state and the corruption of Kerala’s Congress. Hindu voters in Kerala have started looking for an alternative to the LDF.
Meanwhile, in Aruvikkara, the Congress is relying on sympathy votes towards the late Karthikeyan’s son, leaving it to the LDF to defend itself against Rajagopal. The front’s candidate M Vijayakumar is popular among local voters and says he is not particularly worried. “Both my rival candidates are good human beings but we are way ahead of them as far as politics goes,” he says.
The Aruvikkara constituency has 176,697 voters this time round. In the last Assembly election, Karthikeyan had defeated the LDF’s RSP candidate Ambalathara Sreedharan Nair by a margin of 10,674 votes. C Sivankutty, the BJP candidate, could only get 7,694 votes. Will Rajagopal win? This is the BJP’s big question now. The answer may hold the key to the party’s future in Kerala.