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Rejig in Kerala BJP Fails to Resolve Widening Rift

Azhar Moideen |
The recent reshuffle in the organisational leadership and announcement of nominees to the national executive of the party has only increased the rift inside the Kerala unit of the BJP.
Kerala Local body election Campaign 2020

BJP's Kerala Local body election Campaign 2020

For a brief period on May 2 this year, when votes were being counted and results of the Kerala assembly elections were declared, all eyes in the state turned to the constituency of Palakkad. In an election that gave a massive mandate to the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and a historic consecutive term for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the two-horse race in Palakkad between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to steal the limelight.

Palakkad was the last constituency in which BJP had retained hopes of winning. Though BJP’s ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan had been leading in the initial hours of counting, by up to 7000 votes at one point, incumbent Congress MLA Shafi Parambil managed a comfortable victory by a margin of 3,859 votes. After five years of having a lone member in the Kerala Assembly, the BJP returned to having none despite its strongest campaign to date. The state had pronounced a clear verdict on the communal and divisive designs of the BJP, and rifts within the party began to widen soon after.

Dissent had been growing from within against the state leadership of the BJP even as it fond itself embroiled in charges of illegal poll fund disbursal, bribing of candidates and harassment of women leaders. On October 5, BJP State President K Surendran announced a revamp of the state unit’s organisational structure by appointing five new district heads amid growing calls for him to step down. However, the move was viewed by sections within the party as a cosmetic exercise aimed at keeping the power structure intact and resulted in mass resignation in one of the Mandal Committees in the state. Thirteen members of the Sultan Bathery Mandal Committee, including its President KB Madanlal, tendered their resignation from the party on October 7 in protest against the unilateral decision to replace the district head of Wayanad.

Former BJP State Secretary AK Nazeer hit out at the leadership at a press conference held on Friday in Alappuzha, stating that the leaders were using elections to amass wealth and that the state unit was in free fall as a result. Both Nazeer and Madanlal have since been suspended from the party. 

With prominent leader Sobha Surendran, who had expressed differences with the state leadership, being dropped from the National Executive on Wednesday, the factional fights are expected to intensify. Surendran was the first and only woman from Kerala to become a National Executive member of the BJP. Five months on after the election debacle, the BJP is in disarray in Kerala, much like the Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF).


Black Money Heist, Election Bribery and Harassment of Women Leaders

On April 3, just three days before polling for the assembly elections, a car driven by a man named Shamjeer Shamsudeen was waylaid on the Kodakara flyover in Thrissur district, and the money he was carrying was looted. On April 7, Shamsudeen filed a police complaint stating that he was robbed of Rs 25 lakh meant for a land deal. 

The ensuing police investigation, however, revealed that the looted amount came to Rs 3.5 crore and had been given to him by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) member AK Dharmarajan, who himself had been assigned the task of distributing the money for BJP’s election work. Dharmarajan revealed to the police that he was allegedly acting on the orders of BJP’s State Office Secretary Gireeshan Nair and State General Secretary (Organisation) M Ganesh, with the full knowledge of State President K Surendran.

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) probing the heist case, in its chargesheet submitted before the Irinjalakuda magistrate court on July 23, stated that Rs 40 crore of ‘hawala’ money had been funnelled by Dharmajan and his associates from merchants in Bengaluru and Kozhikode and distributed to the BJP’s district leaders in the state in one month before the polling day. The chargesheet accused 22 persons of conspiring to cause the accident on April 3 and stealing the money, of which close to Rs 1.5 crore, along with gold ornaments and other articles, has already been recovered. The SIT added 19 BJP leaders, including Surendran, as witnesses in the heist case, and the second round of interrogation of the accused is currently underway

However, the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which works under the Union government’s Ministry of Finance, is yet to file its response to a petition filed by Loktantrik Yuva Janata Dal’s National President at the Kerala High Court. The petition seeks a probe into money laundering in the incident. On October 7, for the third time in four months, the ED asked for additional time to file a reply.

Charges of illegal poll fund disbursal by the BJP extend to bribery. On June 2, Praseeda Azhikode, State Treasurer of Janadhipathya Rashtriya Sabha (JRS), had alleged that Surendran had handed over Rs 10 lakh to tribal leader and JRS Chairperson CK Janu to bring her back to the fold of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) a month before the assembly elections. Azhikode released two audio clips of her phone conversations with Surendran regarding the bribe. Wayanad district crime branch is investigating the case, and Surendran has been directed by the Sultan Bathery magistrate court to provide his voice samples on October 10 to ascertain the veracity of the clips.

Not long after Azhikode’s allegation came another explosive revelation that Surendran had offered money of up to Rs 15 lakh to competing candidate and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader K Sundara and coerced him to withdraw his nomination papers from the constituency of Manjeswaram. Sundara alleged that a close aide of Surendran had paid him a sum of Rs 2.5 lakh, along with a phone worth Rs 15,000 out of the promised money. Surendran has been questioned by the Crime Branch in connection with this case.

Early last month, two BJP women councilors from the party-controlled Palakkad municipality also wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah seeking action against fellow councilor and Mandal President P Smithesh for harassing and issuing death threats against them at a party parliamentary committee meeting held on August 26. The councillors, one of whom is also the wife of state General Secretary C Krishna Kumar, said that they would approach the police and the state women’s commission if the party did not take appropriate action against Smithesh. To make matters worse, the state leadership is also now facing criticism for recently inducting a man charged in a sexual assault case into the party.

Rifts Within State Unit Widens After Poll Debacle

In the run up to the local body elections in the state last year, Sobha Surendran and 24 other senior BJP leaders in Kerala, including former and serving state and national council members, had organised a signature campaign and written to the central leadership seeking intervention against State President K Surendran. They had alleged that only loyalists of his faction were inducted into the party’s core committee in the state and that organisational activities were taking a back seat. 

Surendran, who had been appointed State President in February 2020, had become the prominent face of the party’s 2018 campaign against the LDF government’s implementation of the Supreme Court verdict lifting the ban against women aged 10-50 from entering the Sabarimala temple. Surendran is known to be part of the faction controlled by V Muraleedharan, Union Minister of State for External Affairs.

Surendran’s candidature in two constituencies, both of which he lost, and BJP’s shrunken vote percentage in the assembly elections renewed the factional feuds within the party. The faction led by PK Krishnadas blamed Surendran’s statements and aggressive stance on religious issues during the election campaign as reasons for the poor showing. Calls for a leadership change grew louder in the run-up to the party’s core committee meeting last month. With the recent reshuffle in the state organisation and exclusion of a few prominent leaders from the National Executive, the rift is only likely to widen. Surendran’s entanglement in the cases of bribery and money laundering is seen by sections in the Kerala BJP as the reason for the disillusionment amongst party workers post-elections.

That state General Secretary (Organisation) M Ganesh, who acts as the coordinator between the BJP and RSS in the state, has retained his position in the organisation despite being at the centre of the allegations levelled against the party, has already resulted in dissent. Surendran has warned that there will be a crackdown against party leaders and members for any action that amounts to indiscipline, but it remains to be seen how big that stick is

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