For the unfamiliar, the growth of political Hindutva and by extension the BJP in Kerala might seem like a process fractured through time. For many progressives inside and outside Kerala, the forces of Hindutva in the state, at least electorally, might seem small and kept in check by the left. Such notions are often based more on hubris than reality, and grossly underestimate the Hindu rightwing’s ability for long-term political planning.
Kerala has also been experiencing a rapid Sanskritisation of the Bahujans over the last few decades, a process that the RSS has spearheaded. This is seen in the processes through which traditional sacred groves turn into temples and the Bahujans identifying more and more with Brahmanical traditions.
The Sangh Parivar has existed within the social fabric of Kerala since its foundation. Although their political wing- the BJP, still only holds a small vote share in the state, their paramilitary organisation- the RSS, as of 2020, has more shakhas in Kerala than Maharashtra and Gujarat combined. The RSS started spreading its roots throughout the state in the 1940s and quickly became a mainstream force among the upper caste Hindus in the state. In his memoirs, Jnanpith award-winning poet and young communist ONV recollects the frustration he felt after witnessing the members of the RSS openly celebrating Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.
In the 1970s, the RSS had gained enough grounds and confidence to orchestrate their first acts of organised communal violence in the state. Communal rumor-mongering by the RSS in Kannur led to the 1972 Thalassery riots. It was during this incident that the current Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan led the CPIM into a determined fight to resist the RSS attack on mosques in the region. The riots also saw the murder of UK Kunhiraman, the first CPIM martyr to the RSS, who died guarding the Meruvambayi mosque against the attackers. The riots marked the beginning of the RSS onslaught against the left in Kerala. These protracted series of attacks by the RSS continues to date and has claimed scores of lives.
Now with almost 7000 shakhas, the RSS continues to grow at a dangerous pace in the state. With the Sangh Parivar shifting its political focus to Kerala from 2014, the BJP has consistently grown its vote share. Following this, RSS members and affiliates who had earlier been voters and activists of the Indian National Congress in Kerala were quick to shift to the BJP. This trend was highlighted in the 2016 Kerala Assembly Elections when BJP leader O Rajagopal won from Nemom to become the first BJP MLA in the history of Kerala. A simple glance at the vote shares of the three major parties, the Congress, BJP, and CPIM, in Nemom between the last three assembly elections point to the alarming transfer of votes from the Congress to the BJP.
There are several reasons for this shift, but the most important one is the soft-Hindutva that the congress has been peddling in a botched effort to win back the ground that it has been losing to the BJP. This culminated in 2018 with the Congress taking a line indistinguishable from the BJP on the Supreme Court ruling on the issue of women’s entry into Sabarimala. Both the Congress and the BJP raved on about how ‘traditions must be protected’ despite its patriarchal implications, and how the ‘communists are attacking Hindu values’ in the state.
On top of this Kerala has also been experiencing a rapid Sanskritisation of the Bahujans over the last few decades, a process that the RSS has spearheaded. This is seen in the processes through which traditional sacred groves turn into temples and the Bahujans identifying more and more with Brahmanical traditions. With the emergence of the BJP electorally this means the breaking of historical caste-based party voting that Kerala has seen since 1957. Since the first Communist-led government in Kerala was brought down by a coalition of savarna landlords 60 years ago, Kerala had been voting based on caste lines, with the Communists consistently winning on Dalit-OBC votes in the state.
All this development coupled with the Hindu rightwing’s ability to do effective and organised misinformation campaigns through WhatsApp forwards spells disaster for a state as digitally well connected as Kerala. Unless there is a radical change in the Congress’ approach to politics in Kerala, the state will witness a dramatic shift in partisan politics, with BJP replacing the Congress as the primary opposition to the Left. This would result in a phase of extreme polarisation that can last indefinitely.
The writer is a Student of Sociology at the Delhi School of Economics, State Committee Member of SFI Delhi.