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Meet Natesan, the man who may give BJP a foothold in Kerala

Jeemon Jacob | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:28 IST

The alliance

  • The BJP has tied up with Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam secy Vellapally Natesan
  • This is being called the third front in Kerala after the Congress-led UDF and the CPI(M)-led LDF

The man

  • Natesan is a businessman and former Congress student leader
  • He wants to capitalise on the hurt sentiments of the Ezhavas, who have been Left supporters

More in the story

  • How Natesan rose to prominence through money and muscle power
  • The BJP\'s hopes and dreams in Kerala and how Natesan can help

Since 1979, power in Kerala has clearly alternated between the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front, and the Congress-led United Democratic Front. But now, both have to contend with a new player.

The foundation for a third front was laid last week when the BJP joined hands with Vellapally Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP).

Natesan and his family met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP national president Amit Shah on 1 October to cement the political ties between the SNDP and the BJP. It came as no shock.

Afterwards, the 78-year-old was in a bombastic mood. He predicted the new alliance would change the future of the state. His followers also chimed in, claiming he was the chief ministerial candidate for the third front in next year's Kerala assembly elections.

Who is Natesan?

Social reformer Sree Narayana Guru fought all his life to reject casteism and promote social equality. He founded the SNDP Yogam to reform his own community, the Ezhavas, in 1903. He died in 1928 at the age of 72.

Nine years after Guru's death, Natesan was born in what is now Alappuzha district. His father, Kesavan, was a coir merchant and a private money lender.

During his student days, Natesan was an active member of the Congress's student arm, the KSU. He was close to AK Antony and Vayalar Ravi, both of whom went on to become Union ministers in Congress-led governments.

Natesan was a brilliant organiser and became the school leader. His money and muscle power meant that he was unchallenged, till the age of 25, when he contested a Panchayat election and lost by six votes to a local landlord.

Natesan is secretary of Sree Narayana Guru's SNDP Yogam, and a leader of the Ezhava community

He then quit politics and decided to focus on his family business, taking it to heart that he needed greater money power to dominate politics. He expanded his business to PWD contracting and made his name as a railway contractor. He also diversified into the liquor and hotel industries.

In the mid-1990s, the Sivagiri Mutt, headquarters of the SNDP, was rocked by a power struggle. Natesan, who had become an advisor to influential people, got involved when Swami Saswathikananda was thrown out of the Mutt by Swami Prakashananda. Natesan helped Saswathikananda get back to power, and in return, got the role of the SNDP secretary in 1996.

Soon, he became all-powerful within the SNDP, and became its unchallenged leader. He triggered the hurt sentiments of Ezhavas to mobilise his support base and played his cards well. On one occasion, he accused his old friend Antony, the then-Kerala CM, of initiating another Operation Blue Star when he sent police to the Mutt.

Since then, Natesan has often played the role of the king-maker in Kerala politics. The CPI(M) never wooed him, with neither Pianrayi Vijayan nor VS Achuthanandan trusting his political agenda.

Reacting to Natesan's alliance with the BJP, Achuthanandan said: "BJP will be wiped out in the state with this alliance. Now they have a rat in their hole."

Sangh Parivar's hopes and dreams

Leaders of the Jana Sangh, the political predecessor of the BJP, knew very well that the party didn't have much scope in politically-sensitive Kerala. They put their top leaders in electoral battles and had to be satisfied with just cadre votes.

They knew that numbers were against them - the 22% Muslims and 19% Christians in the state were against their political ideology. In addition, the Ezhavas, who constituted 23% of the population, had pledged their loyalty to the Communists.

The RSS also worked for broader Hindu unity in the state where Hindus were divided. But the saffron umbrella never fascinated the public. But it failed to galvanise the Hindus around it.

Both the Congress and the Communist parties took pride in the inability of the BJP and the RSS to become serious players in the electoral battles of the state.

Modi and Shah were aware that to flare up the Hindu pride, they needed a saint and a community. They identified both in 'God's own country' with much ease.

Before lining up Natesan, the RSS and the BJP sought the blessings of Mata Amritanandamayi, the hugging Hindu saint who has among the largest number of followers in the world.

In terms of community base, they have identified the Ezhavas. Not only are they present in huge numbers, but also, there seems to be a growing trend of Hinduisation among the youth of the community. Public displays of religiosity have never been greater.

Modi has already given a couple of hints in this direction - in 2013 when he visited Sivagiri, and then again after becoming PM in 2014, when he praised Sree Narayana Guru in a speech to the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha in New Delhi.

A convenient marriage

Speaking to Catch, Natesan justified his new political avatar. "What's wrong in having an alliance with the BJP? Are they untouchable? The Ezhavas are the most ignored community in Kerala by both the UDF and the LDF. We constitute more than 25% of the population. Everybody needs our vote, but nobody wanted us to progress. Now we are going to demand our due and teach our detractors a lesson for ignoring us," he said.

His political roadmap is clear. The SNDP and the BJP will contest local self government polls, to be held on 2 and 5 November.

The Ezhavas constitute 25% of Kerala's population, and have been Left supporters since the 1930s

Another Ezhava leader and Natesan loyalist, who did not wish to come on record, said: "We will put up our candidates in the ward level where Ezhavas are a sizeable community. We may not win in all the wards, but we can decide the winners. We will test the political grounds with a deadly weapon - the pride of the Ezhavas."

His plan of giving a caste colour to local self government elections is bound to give nightmares to both the Congress and the CPI(M).

State Congress president VM Sudheeran, who also belongs to the Ezhava community and is an arch-rival of Natesan told Catch: "Some vested interest forces are trying to rope in SNDP Yogam followers into the Sangh Parivar. They are using the SNDP for their personal gains and treating it as a private property. They will fail miserably in their attempts."

Eating into the Left vote bank

Natesan's tie-up with the BJP is certain to give CM Oommen Chandy some consolation. He probably understands that the third front will do more damage to the CPI(M) than the Congress.

Since the 1930s, the Ezhavas have been the Communists' vote bank. The coir workers, cashew workers, agricultural labourers and Ezhavas have remained loyal to the Left.

A CPI(M) legislator from central Kerala observed: "If Natesan cuts even 2% of Ezhavas from our fold, it will be a dangerous phenomenon for us. He is a dubious man and capable of playing any role. In central Kerala, he can dent the winning chances of our candidate."

Achuthanandan blasted Natesan for his new wedlock with the BJP. "Now he has shown his real colour. A rare political chameleon, Natesan will have the company of Modi and Shah. He has amassed black money through corruption and needs the BJP to hide that money," the former CM and current Leader of the Opposition told Catch.

According to him, the BJP will be the ultimate loser in this political game: "Everybody should remember what happened to Swami Saswathikananda, who found Natesan a safe bet for asserting his power. He drowned to death in the Periyar. The same fate awaits the BJP, which is using Natesan to get few seats in election."

But Natesan is cool. He has found an ally in the BJP for the time being. He knows that the BJP will never make him the CM candidate, and he doesn't mind. He knows how to make a hard bargain and strike gold. He is good at it.

First published: 6 October 2015, 9:01 IST
Jeemon Jacob

Senior journalist who has been working for 31 years and covering issues related to politics, environment and health.