The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is desperate to build its presence in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
The party has little support in the state. It won just a single seat in the 140-member Kerala assembly in the 2016 assembly election. This was the first time it entered the assembly. In the 2019 elections to the Indian parliament, the BJP, which swept the elections in the rest of India, performed dismally in Kerala. None of its candidates was elected from the state, despite its aggressive attempt to mobilize Hindu votes on the Sabarimala Temple issue. However, its vote share more than doubled.
Politics in Kerala has traditionally been dominated by two alliances: the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF), which is currently in power in the state, and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF).
The BJP is trying to improve its performance by projecting itself as a party that provides good governance. To this end it is roping in technocrats like the 88-year-old E. Sreedharan, known for changing the face of public transport in India, to contest from the party.
Importantly, it has promised to enact a law against “love jihad” if voted to power.
A right-wing conspiracy theory alleging that Muslim men are on a mission to convert Hindu women by marriage, “love jihad” first enteredthe popular lexicon in 2009, when two Muslim men married two women, one a Hindu and the other a Christian in Pathanamthitta in Kerala. The men were accused of love jihad, i.e. marrying the women to convert them to Islam. The incident saw dozens of religious groups and right-wing organizations in Kerala and then other Indian states come out with random “facts” and “figures” to claim that women were forced into conversion.
In the years since, the BJP and right-wing vigilante groups have taken up the issue of “love jihad” to target Muslim youth in other parts of India. In some BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh, laws have been enacted criminalizing religious conversion for the purpose of marriage.
The BJP is now promising to bring in a similar law in Kerala if it wins the election. The promise is aimed at attracting Hindu voters.
Hindus comprise 54.72 percent of Kerala’s population, while Muslims and Christians account for 26.56 percent and 18.38 percent, respectively.
However, it cannot win seats without the support of at least one of the religious minority groups.
Central Kerala has a significant number of Christians and Christian voters can influence the outcome of the vote in 33 constituencies. Christian voters have generally supported the UDF.
The BJP is now wooing them. Several BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met the heads of the main churches in Kerala. They have promised to settle disputes between prominent church denominations, look into the community’s grievances over central assistance to minorities, etc.
The BJP has made several high-profile interventions to meet Christian demands. In Alappuzha district, for instance, a 1,000-year old church was to be demolished to make way for a road. Modi is said to have intervened to declare the church a protected monument. The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has come out in support of the BJP.
Additionally, the BJP is playing into the insecurities of Kerala’s Christians. In its campaign, BJP leaders are portraying the UDF and the LDF as alliances that are controlled by Muslim parties. The “love jihad” issue has come in handy for the BJP to bond with Christian Churches.
Various Churches and Christian organizations are deeply Islamophobic and patriarchal. The BJP’s “love jihad” rhetoric strikes a chord with them.
In a statement issued in January this year, the influential Syro Malabar Synod in Kochi said that Muslim men are luring Christian women into relationships and marriage, converting them to Islam and using them for terrorist activities. “’Love jihad’ is not imaginary,” the synod, chaired by Cardinal George Alencherry, said, pointing out that half of the 21 Indians who joined the Islamic State group were Christian converts. Police have not acted on “love jihad” complaints, the statement said.
The BJP was swiftly swooped in. A senior leader in Kerala pointed out that “top bishops of the Church,” have “raised concern” over “love jihad.” The BJP has been drawing attention to “the issue of love jihad from the very beginning,” he said.
The BJP has stepped up its campaign on the “love jihad” issue. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath under whose governance the law against religious conversions was enacted in Uttar Pradesh recently, was in Kerala to campaign for the party. “In 2009, the Kerala High Court had said the love jihad would turn Kerala into an Islamic state. Despite this, the state government is sleeping,” he claimed.
BJP leaders have been claiming that the party will form the next government. This is highly unlikely. According to the Times Now-CVoter opinion poll, the LDF will win around 82 votes to return to power in Kerala. The BJP will secure just one seat, it says.
The BJP’s raising of the “love jihad” issue and other ploys to win votes in Kerala may not work to win the party seats in the Kerala assembly. But it could increase the party’s vote share and cut into votes of the LDF and the UDF.