Social media trolls have been relentless since the 88-year-old made the pitch.
It isn’t clear, yet, whether E Sreedharan was sending out a signal of intent or was simply attempting disruption as the assembly election campaign gathers pace in the South Indian state of Kerala, when he hinted at ambitions of becoming the first right-wing chief minister of the state. What the technocrat, for long revered in India as the Metro Man, did not leave open for interpretation was his strong ideological affiliation to the political party he had just joined.
Social media trolls have been relentless since the 88-year-old made the pitch. He claimed that with him as the CM face, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could set off a landslide electoral switch in the state. The meme humour could be justified, considering that the party has only one legislator in the 140-member state assembly. The BJP’s increasing presence in Kerala’s socio-cultural spaces and its modest vote-share jumps notwithstanding, the state’s big electoral battles have remained two-corner bouts fought between alliances led by the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the opposition Congress party.
The more acerbic responses to Sreedharan’s decision to join the BJP, however, have gone beyond the party’s electoral possibilities and have directly questioned the man’s accountability and his stature as a national icon. Sreedharan, who led and guided some of the country’s biggest Metro Rail projects, is now being reduced by his critics to a big-game recruit for a party desperate to win unfriendly territory; for many, his decades-long administrative legacy now comes with a critical footnote.
With Sreedharan’s entry, the BJP could be trying to validate the perceived interest it holds for non-political players who are seen as able, upright nationalists, who don’t need to take up politics as a career choice. This could work in a play of perceptions; these are people who are seen as the real nation-builders who cannot be corrupted by political power. They are largely believed to have, at least, what the middle classes call “good intentions”. This is also counter-productive because they run the risk of being dismissed as people who have dodged public scrutiny, as novices who aren’t cut out for realpolitik. Ask Rajinikanth, the superstar who remained famously indecisive for years before calling off his political entry.
Sreedharan is unlikely to translate into a big electoral push for the BJP in Kerala but his entry does rekindle the debate on political affiliations being used to undermine, or overstate, the work of men and women successful in their own fields.
K Surendran, state president of the BJP, while welcoming Sreedharan to the party, spoke about his acceptability and “unimpeachable integrity” which even the two leading political fronts in the state had endorsed earlier. Surendran said it was the realisation that the BJP could bring in a viable, development-centric governance alternative in Kerala that led men including Sreedharan and former DGP Jacob Thomas to its fold.
Surendran’s pointers to Sreedharan’s record as an administrator are pre-emptive and aimed at forcing the Left and Congress-led fronts to limit their counter-narratives to one point – his decision to go with the “wrong party”. This is political nous but with that crossover Sreedharan made, with the choice he made to state his ideological bearings, the man as we knew him has perhaps become a thing of the past, at least in poll-season Kerala where social media platforms have opened up an equally noisy third corner for the BJP and its ideological affiliates.
The outrage over his choice could also be traced to a criticism of former bureaucrats who have, almost in a pattern, proclaimed a nation-first position to attach themselves to the BJP, claiming it’s the only political party that pushes this narrative. It’s pertinent to look at the criticism of this criticism, backed with examples of bureaucrats and celebrities who have joined other political parties; it’s interesting to probe why a personal choice should trigger scathing reactions even from corners that resist any attempt made to undermine democracy and free speech.
Sreedharan’s roots in the Sangh and his views on the BJP as a party of nation lovers have already hit right-wing media headlines. His remarks following his formal political induction indicate that he’s not going to play it soft. Sreedharan does raise questions on the development models adopted by successive governments in Kerala but more significantly, he also endorses the right-wing views on ‘love jihad’ (he says Hindu girls are being “tricked into marriage” and left to suffer) and consumption of beef (he’s a “very, very strict vegetarian” who doesn’t like anybody eating meat). Looking at the start he has made, Sreedharan looks ready to risk his, or at least what the others perceive as his, legacy.
Sreedharan, even when he announces himself as a politician, says his poll campaign – if he does contest the election – will not have the clamour associated with electioneering. In a way, he’s telling us how different he is from the “regular” politician; how he expects the masses to see his work as a technocrat as something that at once places him above politics and validates his promises as a politician.
The Sreedharan situation will be an interesting point to revisit after the election in Kerala. In a national context, it’s an even more important association considering how the BJP has continued to attract big names from outside of political spaces, their choice also doubling as endorsement of the party’s brand of nationalism.
It will be interesting to see if the wild-card entrants signify anything more than fleeting star power ahead of elections. Are they themselves in here for the short haul, one poll defeat away from political irrelevance? They are, after all, not career politicians who have to persevere even after electoral setbacks; they still have their reputations to go back to. Or do they?