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Last Updated Saturday September 21 2019 03:31 PM IST

Kerala BJP's moment of truth: Strategist Amit Shah struggles with leadership drought

G. Ragesh
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Suresh Gopi and Amit Shah Actor Suresh Gopi and BJP president Amit Shah at an election meet in Paravoor, Ernakulam. Josekutty Panackal

Is the BJP gambling away a chance to expand its bridgehead in Kerala's politics, blowing it up big time even before it fights what could be the state unit's make-or-break 2019 Lok Sabha polls?

Reports say that party's national leadership wants actor and Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi to take the lead in strengthening National Democratic Alliance's (NDA) popular base in the state, as it starts to work out strategies for the 2019 polls.

Party boss Amit Shah's strategy is to fight the polls with fresh faces with wider appeal, which spells political sunset for the old war horses of the party's state unit. Perhaps that stems from a realization that the traditional Hindutva card alone may not work and the party needs to broaden its appeal to win over the crucial so-called impartial voters.

Shah had tried a variant of the strategy in the May Assembly polls – by parachuting in RSS man Kummanam Rajasekharan. That move caused plenty of heartburn among the old boys' club that lorded over the Kerala unit of the party. Shah also fielded actors, directors and even former cricketer Sreeshanth in the polls. None of them won but the BJP could notch up some serious gains in vote share; and the party actually broke through a poll barrier and got an MLA elected to the state assembly.

But those same polls also showed up Suresh Gopi, who had been the BJP's star campaigner. His chopper sorties across the state, appeals to the crowds for Hindu unity and praise for Modi did not convert to votes. He is definitely not the tall leader the BJP needs to connect with and convince skeptical non-party voters.

Suresh Gopi Suresh Gopi during an election rally.

Even the actor's Nair identity did not seem to have helped the last time, with the NSS leadership staying cold to his overtures. The NSS may have limited control over Nair votes but in a highly fragmented voterscape even that counts.

The only plus here is probably that Gopi helps the party assuage any anxiety among its traditional Nair supporters may have over the elevation of SNDP Yogam's Thushar Vellappally as the NDA's state convener.

The dependence on an actor who is definitely not on the front ranks when it comes to on-screen, or off-screen, appeal, lays bare a frightening leadership bankruptcy in the BJP Kerala unit.

Shah does not have leadership talent to turn to at a time when the Congress-led UDF, long a pillar of the bi-polar political system in Kerala, is showing definite signs of aging. The UDF, even the LDF, may start ceding political space soon – but the BJP is still not really ready to occupy that space.

The BJP-RSS old guard is on the way out; Kummanam, Thushar Vellappally, et al, don't have across-the-base voter appeal.

Media baron Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who was recently appointed the NDA's vice chairman in Kerala, is a virtual non-entity in state's politics although he may be hoping to be another Shashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram.

PM Modi with Suresh Gopi

Given the paucity of leadership talent, it makes sense for Shah to settle for Suresh Gopi – a known quantity in the BJP's state politics.

But the real challenge for him is to increase the party's electoral equity – make it a fighting machine capable of going for the kill. Pull off what Modi did in Delhi as the Congress declined.

His inability to do that could hold disturbing consequences for not only the BJP but also Kerala politics.

Will Kerala prove to be the Waterloo for the Shah of India?

(Views expressed are personal)

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