BJP’s Kerala gambit: Established names, some surprises, but one focus seat | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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BJP’s Kerala gambit: Established names, some surprises, but one focus seat

Mar 03, 2024 04:31 PM IST

If PM Narendra Modi’s recent visits to the state are any indication, the top brass in the party has trained its eyes on Thrissur, and its candidate, Suresh Gopi

On March 2, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) announced candidates for 12 of the 16 seats it will contest in Kerala — the remaining four of the 20 parliamentary constituency seats in the state will go to other National Democratic Alliance (NDA) constituents.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi blesses the newly-wedded daughter and son-in-law of actor-politician Suresh Gopi (centre) while visiting Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur district(ANI) PREMIUM
Prime Minister Narendra Modi blesses the newly-wedded daughter and son-in-law of actor-politician Suresh Gopi (centre) while visiting Guruvayur Temple in Thrissur district(ANI)

Rajeev Chandrasekhar has been fielded from Thiruvananthapuram to take on Sashi Tharoor. Chandrasekhar has little clout over the constituency though it has considerable BJP votes. He owns Kerala’s topmost news channel Asianet.

Anil Antony, the son of veteran and now retired Congress leader AK Antony, has been fielded from Pathanamthitta where Christian votes are crucial. The candidate in Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s Wayanad seat was not announced in this list.

BJP state president K Surendran said that the party feels the fight in Thrissur is prestigious and has deputed Suresh Gopi — their 2019 candidate who lost, though he garnered over 290,000 votes — as the Malayalam film star has enormous public support and charisma.

The angry young man of Malayalam cinema is BJP’s best bet in the progressive state.

For the actor-turned-politician, the summer now looks crucial, and the steps he takes in both film releases and politics have the potential to make lasting impressions. Varaham, the mystery drama set for release by the middle of April, will be the politician’s 257th film.

With Gopi in the running, Thrissur will see a three-cornered contest with sitting Congress MP T N Prathapan and CPI leader V S Sunil Kumar, who represents Kerala's ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF).

Gopi’s campaign has already begun: BJP activists have scribbled on nearly every empty wall in Thrissur in central Kerala to seek votes for the “angry cop” who, for over three decades, has repeatedly taken on almost all villains of the Malayalam tinsel world. This, even before the Election Commission has made any announcement of dates, and before the BJP released its first list of candidates.

In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Thrissur twice, projecting Gopi as the chosen leader. On each occasion, he told the constituency that Gopi was the only one who could represent it properly.

On January 3, Modi conducted a roadshow in Thrissur with Gopi and BJP state president K Surendran accompanying him in the open jeep. Then, he attended a sizable women's gathering of the party, demonstrating how much significance the party gave to Gopi and Thrissur this time.

On January 17, Modi visited Thrissur again, to attend the marriage of Gopi's daughter Bhavya, which was solemnised at the famous Guruvayur Sri Krishna temple. Now, more national BJP leaders are set to descend in Thrissur, making the electioneering there a high-voltage one.

Will all these significant efforts undertaken by the BJP help Gopi, a former nominated member of Rajya Sabha, to wrest Thrissur at least with a thin margin?

Gopi's pull

Thiruvananthapuram-born Gopi debuted in Mollywood as a child artist and became popular in the mid-1980s as an anti-hero. He gained a fan following after depicting the role of the angry young man.

He bagged the National Award for Best Actor for his performance in the 1997 movie Kaliyattam, an adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello.

Malayalam movie star Suresh Gopi often portrayed the role of the angry cop.(Image courtesy: cineshots.in)
Malayalam movie star Suresh Gopi often portrayed the role of the angry cop.(Image courtesy: cineshots.in)

Gopi's political beliefs have travelled the spectrum: he was active in the Students’ Federation of India, a left wing students organisation, during his college days; in 2006, he actively campaigned for his relative and Congress candidate MP Gangadharan in the Ponnani Assembly constituency as well as the CPI (M) candidate, veteran VS Achuthanadan, in Malampuzha. This was the first time a celebrity campaigned for both rival fronts, the United Democratic Front (led by the Congress) and Left Democratic Front (led by the CPIM) in Kerala. When asked about the conflict, Gopi said he admired both leaders. Since then, he has won Modi's trust. He was nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 2016.

Starting 2019, when he was made the BJP's candidate for the Lok Sabha elections, he has been travelling to every nook and cranny of Thrissur, mingling freely with people from different walks of life. The constituency has several beneficiaries of the charity organisation he established in memory of his daughter Lakshmy, who died in a road accident when she was an infant. Recently, he led an 18-kilometre padayatra to mount public opinion against a cooperative bank scam allegedly orchestrated by local CPI(M) leaders.

Gopi has also channelised a sizable portion of his MP local area development fund to Thrissur. Gopi is known to make high-decibel speeches, ending usually with a dramatic dialogue: “I need this Thrissur, you should give me Thrissur, and I am grabbing Thrissur.”

But Thrissur, known as the cultural capital of Kerala, still retains its preference for Congress-led UDF and CPI(M) )-led LDF, as the Hindutva ideology fails to find many takers there.

Yet 64-year-old Gopi, who recently celebrated the 34th wedding anniversary with Radhika Nair, says he has high hopes.

Accused of alleged harassment by a journalist

On October 28, 2023, Gopi was booked by the Nadakkavu police in Kozhikode under Section 354(A)(1)(i) of the Indian Penal Code for physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures, after a journalist’s allegations of inappropriate behaviour.

The case was later altered to Section 354 of the IPC for assault or criminal force to outrage the modesty of a woman.

The journalist, who works with a news channel, alleged that Gopi touched her inappropriately during a press briefing. The BJP leader later claimed that he placed his hand on the woman's shoulder in an act of affection and that if she felt mentally troubled over it, he would apologise for it.

On November 15, the actor was questioned for around two hours at the Nadakkavu police station over the incident. Dozens of party workers accompanied him to the station in an act of solidarity with him.

The BJP state leadership started cornering the complainant, alleging that she was part of a CPI(M) coterie.

Gopi moved the Kerala high court in January seeking anticipatory bail. The matter is pending in the court.

A pattern of behaviour?

In the meantime, his behaviour with another journalist in Thrissur was also brought under the scanner. At a special women’s only screening of Gopi-starrer Garudan in Thrissur's Girija theatre on November 4, 2023, the actor, who was the chief guest, was mobbed by the audience during a public interaction. The movie was riveting, as Gopi played the role of a police officer after a hiatus. However, dramatic scenes unfolded outside the theatre after the screening.

After the photo shoot, a group of television journalists approached Gopi and asked him about the film. They also sought his response to a scathing editorial that the Catholicasabha, the Malayalam mouthpiece of the Thrissur Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, had published against his candidature in the Thrissur Lok Sabha constituency.

Even as the interaction was on, a journalist tried to move towards the front row. However, on seeing her, Gopi advised her to keep her distance, saying he was “terrified”. “No one should touch me. Please keep away from me,” he said while walking towards his car. "Don't deny me my right to a path. I will also file a case. Please don't block my way. I have the right to walk. Do you want to know the clause?” he reportedly shouted at the journalists.

The female journalist at whom Gopi’s ire was directed, asked the actor the precise reason behind the police action against him at Nadakkavu.

In response, Gopi placed his hand on the shoulder of a male journalist after seeking his permission. The female journalist asked him to take responsibility for the Kozhikode incident. Gopi yelled at the journalist, asking her not to be “overly smart”.

The other journalists around did not intervene when an angry Gopi yelled at the woman journalist, often cutting her off mid-sentence. She walked away, even as the state, which saw the visuals, debated his behaviour.

The Network of Women in Media, a national collective of women journalists, issued a statement which pointed to the incidents in Kozhikode and Thrissur and called them professional harassment. For an on-duty journalist, even public space could be construed as a workplace, it stated.

Suresh Gopi at a recent political event(Photo from X)
Suresh Gopi at a recent political event(Photo from X)

The crucial Christian vote

The editorial in Catholicasabha's November issue was based on a statement that Gopi reportedly made. At a public meeting at Kunnamkulam (in Thrissur constituency) on October 31, he reportedly said, “the people of Thrissur do not have to worry about Uttar Pradesh and Manipur as there are ‘men’ to handle the issues there”.

The editorial slammed the Central government, prime minister Narendra Modi, and Gopi for their “apathy” and “criminal negligence” in dealing with the Manipur riots, where tribal communities that practise the Christian faith are engaged in ethnic riots with other tribal communities that follow the dominant faith.

“As the Lok Sabha elections approach, there is an attempt to conceal the Manipur issue. The political party that aspires to return to power at the Centre is making efforts in this regard,” the editorial said.

Gopi's detractors are also alleging that the BJP-led Centre had a role to play in not doing enough to curb the anti-Christian ethnic violence in Manipur. However, the actor-turned-politician continues his outreach to the community at home. He recently made an offering of a golden crown to Our Lady of Lourdes statue at the Metropolitan Catholic Cathedral.

Gopi has not responded to the allegations in the editorial.

The Christians in Thrissur have traditionally supported the Congress, and while a section are supporters of Gopi's charity, political commentators wonder whether the support would convert into votes. “And Kerala has never lenient towards actor turned politicians,” said Anu Pappachan, writer and an assistant professor with Thrissur's Vimala College.

Gopi's behaviour with the lady journalist evoked widespread condemnation, but it may not turn into a deciding factor for or against him in Thrissur, she said. "The police are wilfully delaying investigation in the case and Gopi's rivals are not making it a campaign issue," Pappachan said.

Kerala is yet to give any gains for BJP in Lok Sabha elections so far, and in the case of Thrissur, influencing the Christian voters, who account for 24% of the electorate, remains a severe challenge.

Gopi unsuccessfully contested from Thrissur in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and also tested his mettle in the last assembly election. In 2019, he won 293,822 votes giving a tough fight to Congress’ Prathapan. BJP leaders say he polled more votes than the party’s 2014 candidate K P Sreesan.

However, in the assembly election, Gopi won 31.3% votes and facilitated the winning of CPI candidate over top Congress leader Padmaja Venugopal, the daughter of the late chief minister K Karunakaran.

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