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V. Muraleedharan interview | ‘Expectations of PM Modi coming back to power will improve chances of BJP candidates in Kerala’

Union Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan, a two-time Kerala State president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is in the middle of hectic campaigning for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections from the Attingal constituency in Kerala.

The constituency is set for a three-cornered fight with sitting MP Adoor Prakash of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and sitting MLA V. Joy of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) also in the fray.

In an interview with The Hindu ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, Mr. Muraleedharan spoke extensively on issues that have dominated the poll campaign in recent weeks in Kerala. He expressed confidence that the expectations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi coming back to power will improve the chances of the party’s candidates in Kerala where the BJP is yet to win a Lok Sabha seat.

Mr. Muraleedharan said framing of rules for implementing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) “is not an issue that affects Kerala”, and hence would not have any electoral impact. He further rubbished Opposition allegations of quid pro quo in electoral bonds as well as accusations that the Central agencies are being selectively used to target Opposition politicians. The dropping of charges against leaders who shift to the BJP could be a case of “coincidence”, he said.

The Minister also countered the LDF’s allegations of denial of funds by the Union government.

Attingal is one of the constituencies in which the BJP had the biggest gains in the 2019 General Elections, increasing its vote share from 9% to 24%. You have also been spending time in the constituency for some time? Do you think the party can better its performance this time. What are the factors that you find favourable?

Compared to 2019, there is a general opinion across the country that Narendra Modi is going to come back as the Prime Minister. That is the biggest positive aspect that will be working in favour of the BJP. So naturally, the BJP will improve upon its vote share and we hope it will get converted into victory.

Are there any other State-specific positives for Kerala? Will you be projecting your own performance as a Union Minister?

I am a person in the Modi government. So, whatever the Modi government has done is a positive thing for me, or whatever I have done is part of the Modi government’s efforts. There is nothing individual about it. At the same time, people are more and more fed up with the misrule of the LDF government and the incapability of the Congress to come together and fight against the CPI(M). All these aspects will work in my favour.

My firm view is that the BJP has a vote share of 20%-30% across Kerala. It does not get polled when we don’t have a candidate who can get all those votes. Wherever we have good candidates, we get this 25%-30%. That is why the last time Sobha Surendran got that in Attingal. During the Assembly elections in Kazhakuttam in 2016, I came second with 43,000 votes, while previously the BJP got around 8,000 only. So, wherever the BJP has a strong candidate and people feel we are serious, they vote in favour of us. All these years, people were under the impression that we were serious about Thiruvananthapuram, but not about Attingal. For the first time, people felt that the BJP was serious about Attingal when Sobha Surendran contested. So, this time, we will continue with this pattern.

At least since 2014, the BJP has been making a major electoral push in Kerala, with the Central leadership too giving it major attention in the campaign. But, although there has been an increase in vote share, seats have remained elusive. What do you think is lacking? And how do you plan to overcome this? You were talking about issues with candidate selection in the past. Are you happy with the candidates in all the 20 seats this time?

This time, all the 16 candidates we have put up are serious contenders and cater to the imagination of the people. Even our ally Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS) has strong candidates such as Thushar Vellappally who is contesting from Kottayam. I feel that all the candidates are going to put up a big fight in this election.

What are the key issues you are foregrounding in the campaign?

This (Attingal) is a diverse constituency. We have the coastal belt as well as the hilly terrain. We have traditional industries as well as the agricultural sector. We have issues related to tourism on one hand and issues related to basic productivity on the other. What I am pitching for is the idea that development of a particular area need not be geographically limited. Thiruvananthapuram city’s progress spills over to nearby areas. Connectivity will be a major issue. If connectivity is there, industry will come, people will travel and the area will develop.

Since you mentioned connectivity, has the Union government’s stand on the K-Rail semi-high-speed railway network changed?

It was not a viable project, which was not even planned properly. The government feels that Kerala requires faster trains, but for faster trains, it is not required to evacuate the people and go against people making their livelihood.

But you have similar projects in other States?

There are no similar projects anywhere else except the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train which was conceived as a special case because Mumbai is the financial capital (of the country) and it will be a corridor to connect to another industrial city.

So, does the Union government have other alternate plans to improve Kerala’s connectivity?

Light metro is now being conceived but only within Thiruvananthapuram city up to Kazhakuttam. But buy connectivity, I don’t mean only the metro but also road transport or even the connectivity through telecommunications. When all these types of connectivity is provided, there is potential for all these areas to improve.

Do you think the notification of CAA Rules just ahead of the Lok Sabha election has put the BJP on the defensive in Kerala? The LDF has made it a major campaign plank, the Church leadership has spoken out against it and the UDF is also organising protests, to a lesser extent.

The CAA issue has no relevance in Kerala. Nobody who has come from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan are settled in Kerala and applied for citizenship. Everyone knows that. But, it is being raised for the simple reason that the CPI(M) wants to get the support of a particular community. They also want an escape route from the embarrassing position that they are in, where the Chief Minister’s daughter herself is embroiled in, and she has not been able to explain the service that was provided by her company for the money received. I don’t know if the CPI(M) is raising the issue in West Bengal. Also, when they raise this, the Congress cannot be silent. But, it is not taking up this issue in other States.

This is the CPI(M)‘s political ploy. People will see through that. We are positive. This is a demand that was raised by Manmohan Singh in Parliament. It was a promise given by Mahatma Gandhi.

But there are also fears that if this is implemented along with the National Register of Citizen (NRC), people will be excluded

Why do you want to link it with the NRC?

It is proposed to be implemented at a later point in time

If it is to be implemented at a later point in time, you fight it at that time. Why do they create a fear psychosis now? That means they have a political agenda.

The Opposition parties are also raising the electoral bonds issue, the alleged quid pro quo involved in it, and the alleged targeting of Opposition leadersby Central agencies. On March 31, there was a rally of the INDIA alliance parties. How do you plan to counter these allegations?

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has informed the Election Commission about the CPI(M)’s undisclosed accounts in many cooperative banks in Thrissur district, where the Karuvannur cooperative bank money was looted. How do you explain that? If you want to raise the issue of transparency, the electoral bonds were conceptualised as a means of transparency. So, out of ₹20,000-crore worth bonds issued, the BJP received only ₹6,000 crore.

But the total amount of bonds issued was ₹12,000 crore, and not ₹20,000 crore, right?

Even if it is ₹12,000 core, for argument’s sake, the BJP got only half. The other half went to the Opposition. Why would that happen? If you are so much for transparency, how do you explain these things?

Also, the ED is not an agency created by the BJP. We didn’t bring about the law about PMLA (Prevention of Money Laundering Act). These are all existing laws.

But the allegation is that these agencies and laws are being selectively used to target Opposition parties

Why didn’t Arvind Kejriwal respond to summons issued to him eight times? He could have gone much before the election. So, was it was his ploy when he chose a period closer to the election that he will get sympathy. The INDIA alliance has no issues to raise. So they wanted an issue. Beyond that, there is nothing. His (Kejriwal’s) remand has been extended. If there is nothing prima facie, he would have got bail. This means that the Opposition feels ‘we will do our looting, but we are the Opposition, don’t touch us.’

But they are pointing at leaders such as Praful Patel who have shifted to the BJP and against whom investigation is dropped.

That would be a coincidence. He might have shifted to the BJP. The charges were not proved, which was why it was not taken ahead. If that is the case, the Congress can go to the court. There is an independent judiciary. The ED is not dropping the case.Wherever enquired, if they get evidence, the ED will go ahead (with the cases). If there is no evidence, they are unable to go ahead and the case gets closed. The government appoints the director, officers and provides the manpower, but the agency is independent.

The State government (Kerala) has also been consistently raising allegations of the Union government denying funds to non-BJP governments, including Kerala.

Each State is raising a different issue. Karnataka’s issue was about flood relief funds. Kerala’s demand has now fallen flat with the Supreme Court now saying the balance of convenienceis with the Union government. It has said there is no such urgency in providing these funds beyond the borrowing limits. A Constitutional Bench will look into the norms of sharing money, of FRBM (Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management) Act, the validity of budgetary restrictions and whether that needs a rethink. But the immediate issue of Kerala being discriminated against was rejected.

The Supreme Court has allowed Kerala to borrow ₹13,000 crore.

The Supreme Court has only asked to give a bailout package, but not agreed with the demand of ₹22,000 crore. As for the ₹13,000 crore borrowing demand, the government had agreed already.

But that happened during the litigation.

No. Even before that too. The Kerala government refused to take it and said it will will go to the court and get more. Their basic issue was that the Government of India was discriminating. The government is functioning as per Constitutional norms, whether Constitutional norms need a re-examination, let the Constitutional Bench decide.

How do you see the BJP’s chances in Kerala this time?

For the first time, a general mood is there in the whole society and people also feel, even in Kerala, that Modi is going to form the government again. So, naturally when PM Modi is going to form the government again, people naturally think that the constituency will benefit if we are sending an MP who supports the government.

So, this one factor will counter all the others?

No, there is no countering. It will add on to the positives. There has been unprecedented infrastructure development with national highways development and the bypasses across Kerala.

There is this whole debate on highway development, with the State government also saying it is bearing 25% of the land acquisition cost.

I have personally read out the percentage of land cost being borne by various States in the presence of the Chief Minister (Pinarayi Vijayan) at Kazhakuttam. Many States are spending on land acquisition. In Kerala, the land cost is high, so the amount may be high, but the percentage is not high. So, there is no discrimination at all. The State government creates an impression that it is the only Kerala that is giving.

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