An avalanche of WhatsApp jokes and memes tell the story of today’s Assembly election in Kerala. A friend in Kochi was so deluged that he deleted a chunk before he forwarded some, and they all concerned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hubristic remarks comparing the living standards of Kerala’s tribes with that of Somalia, an impoverished African country. They ranged from logos of “Somalia — God’s own Country” to jokes about how the Royal Challengers Bangalore team is going to be banned from the IPL because it broke the four foreign player limit — along with Chris Gayle (WI), Shane Watson (Australia), AB DeVilliers (South Africa), and Chris Jordan (UK), it has Sachin Baby (‘Somalia’). BJP candidate and ex-cricketer Sreesanth, in tears, features in many jokes; one, captioned in Malayalam, says “Poor Somalian kid watching PM Modi eat.” Malayalam actor Suresh Gopi, another BJP candidate stuffs his face with a large thali in another photo, captioned (in Malayalam):
RCB batsman Sachin Baby. Pic/AFP (right) Solar scam prime accused Saritha Nair
“A poor man from Somalia after eating Gujarati food.” There is even a video of a Somalian who addresses Modi directly: “Somalia is not better than Kerala; Somalia is better than you. For I am a Somalian with a degree. And you don’t have (a) degree.” Obviously, for him Delhi University’s authentication of Modi’s degree rings as hollow as Cambridge University’s parroted insistences that Rahul Gandhi completed his MPhil on time.
Keralites openly say that Modi’s stature has diminished. This is an achievement, even for Modi. Till now he was the BJP’s star orator, head and shoulders above the moral and intellectual pygmies that comprise his party. Modi had high hopes for Kerala. Before the election began, the BJP was confident it could make a breakthrough in Kerala and pick up a handful of seats in the 140-member assembly. The party was optimistic of replicating in Kerala the same kind of beginning it has had in Karnataka, where it has now completed a couple of stints in power. Pre-poll surveys saw its vote-share rising from 6.3 per cent to around 18 per cent. The Ezhava community was set to vote en masse for the party and fetch it at least three seats; community leader Vellapally Natesan formed a party that is in alliance with the BJP. But then Modi came a-visiting.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have had such a high-voltage campaign,” a local BJP leader recently confessed, anonymously, to a vernacular newspaper. Modi’s campaign has had two consequences: one, the Somalia comparison has soured Ezhava voters, and two, fear of the BJP has consolidated the state’s 25 per cent Muslims and 19 per cent Christians to vote tactically.
Such was the Modi’s impact that as an election issue, Somalia replaced Saritha. The incumbent chief minister, Oommen Chandy of the Congress-led UDF (United Democratic Front) was facing electorally-crippling allegations regarding a solar energy scam, in which Saritha S Nair, owner of a fraudlent solar energy company, claimed to have links with the CM and duped investors of crores. The scam gained traction among Keralites because Saritha is photogenic. Indeed, WhatsApp messages furtively exchanged among the global Malayali community included an intimate video clip. Despite Chandy’s personal popularity (his public outreach programmes in which petitioners are allowed to meet him for quick administrative solutions have been successful), the Left-led LDF went to town with the solar scam, and pre-poll surveys predicted that the UDF would lose power. (In any case, Kerala is one of those states where each election is a game of musical chairs between two players.)
Somalia erased all that from the collective mindscape, so it was perhaps natural that Saritha made a reappearance last week on a popular TV channel. Once Modi fled Kerala (#PoMoneModi became a popular social media hashtag; it’s a line from a Mohanlal movie that literally translates to ‘jao beta’ but in effect means F.O.), Saritha announced that she had submitted to the Justice B Sivarajan Commission (which is investigating the solar scam) digital proof of her links with politicians. It would not surprise anyone if the LDF — which is set to gain from Modi’s faux pas with the Ezhava community returning to its fold — ‘persuaded’ Saritha to go on air; with the BJP eroding its own chances, the LDF’s prime concern shifted once again towards politically wounding CM Chandy.
But with the ruling UDF having mobilised much of the minority vote behind it, no sane person is willing to give either formation an edge as Kerala goes to the voting booth. Each constituency will be keenly contested. The BJP’s desperation can be seen in party chief Amit Shah’s last-minute exhortation to disregard the Somalia remark. He need not worry, though. Modi has laid the ground for polarisation in the state, and the BJP will cash in on it in the next election in Kerala.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the recently published anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to email@example.com