IF THE BJP finally opened an account in Kerala’s Assembly election, no one is surprised that it was O Rajagopal who did it, perhaps the apt culmination for a political career spreading over 50 years in a state where his party had a marginal presence. Rajagopal had contested and lost elections 13 times before this. That he is now 86 years old just makes the victory all the more sweet for him. “Even AK Antony [Congress leader and former Chief Minister] ridiculed us saying that we have to take a visitor’s pass to enter the legislative Assembly. My victory is a reply to all of them. It is a positive sign that the bipolar politics in Kerala is changing,” he says.
Rajagopal is admired and liked across party lines and labelled the ‘right man in the wrong party’. A lawyer by profession, as far back as 1964, he had been inducted into the national executive of Jan Sangh, a political off-shoot of the RSS and a precursor to the BJP. He went on to be its general secretary and was imprisoned during the Emergency. When Jan Sangh split and the BJP was formed, Rajagopal was its first president in Kerala in 1980.
In a state where minority communities play key roles in politics, the BJP has to do a tightrope walk. Rajagopal, with his moderate image, was instrumental in making inroads for the party in a hostile political environment. Before he first contested a Lok Sabha seat, the BJP’s vote share had been a paltry 7.5 per cent. In 1991, Rajagopal lifted it to 11.3 per cent. In 1999, he doubled his vote share. In 2004, he got almost 30 per cent of the votes polled. The next year, when the BJP contested the same seat with another candidate, it got 36,690 votes, the vote share nosediving from 29.9 to 4.8 per cent—an all-time low.
Even AK Antony ridiculed us saying that we have to take a visitor’s pass to enter the legislative Assembly. My victory is a reply to all of them
As the only BJP man in the 140-member Assembly, Rajagopal will have his work cut out. Pinarayi Vijayan, CPM leader and the new Chief Minister, did not visit Rajagopal at home even though he went calling on leaders of other parties including outgoing Chief Minister Oommen Chandy. Undeterred, Rajagopal went to the CPM headquarters to meet Vijayan and conveyed his concern over the escalating violence between CPM and BJP cadres across the state soon after the polls.
There are also touchy issues he has to manoeuvre around, like the state BJP’s stand on beef and cow slaughter. “The party has only one policy. I don’t believe in being strategic. The Kerala BJP would follow the policies at the national level. I promise that the minorities do not have to be scared of BJP,” he says.
Every time Rajagopal lost an election, he pointed towards Abraham Lincoln’s record of failure before becoming the President of America. “Abraham Lincoln tasted failure fifteen times before his final victory,” Rajagopal told Open when we met him in June 2015 during his campaign for the Aruvikkara by-election. At least at an Assembly election level, his analogy now seems appropriate.