BJP Leader Suresh Gopi is leading the charge against the Cooperative Banks who have defrauded thousands in Kerala. It is a moment of reckoning for the entire Cooperative Sector that has been the bedrock of Kerala Politics.
The cooperative movement has a long history in Kerala, and in many ways underpins the strength of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) in the state. The cooperative sector in the state is not only an important employer, but also the co-op bank sector hosts the life savings of lakhs of Keralites. The Uralingal Labour Contract Cooperative, the crown jewel of CPM’s cooperatives has won many an award including international recognition. The Kerala Government in the recent past had consolidated all the state-run cooperative banks in the state to create the ‘Kerala Bank’ that has also won accolades. Yet there has been an apparent disquiet about the functioning of the cooperative sector, especially banking.
That the cooperatives have long been used to ensure the domination of the ‘party’ (meaning CPM) is no secret in Kerala. The nature and circumstances in which the CPM took over the management of the first private cooperative-run medical college in Pariyaram, Kannur is well known. However the use of power politics in the running of cooperatives is very different from the outright fraud and criminal irregularities that have been unearthed in cooperative banks in the state. A taste of this lies in the fact that the Cooperative department itself has put 399 cooperatives under the scanner.
The Never Ending Saga of Co-op Bank Scams
At the centre of all this is the initial Rs. 100 crore scam unearthed in the CPM-run Karavanur Cooperative Bank in Irinjalakuda, a town in the Thrissur district of the State. The scam, which came to light in 2021, has gone in and out of the spotlight since then and was supposed to primarily involve local CPM leaders. However, there were suspicions from the beginning that much higher profile leaders were involved in the scam since the state government was aware of the scam for more than nine months and took no action. It was only after the Enforcement Directorate turned up the heat that the involvement of senior leaders of the CPM, such as AC Moideen, a former Minister, came to light.
The money that has gone under in Karavannur or the money at risk in other cooperatives in the state is that of those aligned or linked to the ‘party’ who trusted their establishment and leaders to ensure the safety of their money and a healthy return. Those who have lost their entire life savings find no solace in the ‘party’ that has chosen to protect its own leadership than be subject to any amount of self-reflection. Karavannur is not the story of just the run-of-the-mill bank scam. It is a deep expose of the underlying exploitation of CPM’s patronage politics.
CPM, whose foundational ideals are supposedly meant to empower the masses, has become the establishment in the state whose first priority is to maintain its power and protect its leadership. Even worse, the primary opposition force/party in the state, the Congress, is caught in a catch-22 situation. CPM has deftly accused its cooperatives of being the cause of majority of the irregularities while it tries to fire back on charges in Karuvannur. Yet its partners have joined CPM leaders in alleging a ‘Central Hand’ to the deteriorating confidence in cooperatives in the state.
The BJP’s Ace: Suresh Gopi
It is in this context, we should view the BJP leader and film star Suresh Gopi’s protest march against CPM’s involvement in Cooperative Bank scams in Thrissur. The film star is a former Rajya Sabha MP and is projected to be the BJP’s candidate in Thrissur in the 2024 Elections. Suresh Gopi, in a rally with Union Home and Cooperative Minister Amit Shah back in March 2023, had pointed out specifically how the cooperative scams are causing misery like no other. The BJP State President, K. Surendran flanked by Suresh Gopi announced that neither the BJP nor Suresh Gopi would rest until they achieve justice for the victims of cooperative bank scams.
The BJP has never experienced power in Kerala, despite polling around 15% of the votes in elections, and does not have an MP in Parliament or MLA in the State Legislative Assembly. It is the third-pole of politics and a complete outside challenger in the cooperative sector. It has run its own experiments to grow its strength in the cooperative sector but has no baggage unlike the CPM-led LDF or Congress-led UDF. This puts them in a unique position in the state, and Suresh Gopi leading the charge from the forefront is part of the wider BJP approach in the state. The CPM and Congress have long influenced the masses with their clientelistic approach to cooperatives.
The creation of the Cooperation Ministry at the Union level has multiple ‘macro’ level objectives for the BJP, including both political and ideological motivations. The fact however remains that in many micro-level scenarios like that in Kerala the intervention of the central government in setting the terms of running cooperatives seems imperative.
The recent set of amendments on Multi-State Cooperatives that the Central Government has pushed promotes greater accountability, transparency and better fundraising for Cooperatives. Kerala’s cooperative sector would doubtlessly benefit from such reforms at the state level. The CPM Government though, is intent on obfuscating issues and cast the BJP and the Central Investigative Agencies in a bad light than take any move to reform the Cooperative sector in any meaningful way. Even the offers of public support (prompted by the Media) by Kerala Bank President was that RBI norms would not stand in the way of the decisions of the ‘party’. That the CPM is directly responsible for the woes of depositors in Cooperative banks is without question; they are more than aware of the moral responsibility they have in the entire debacle.
A Unique Character, and a Golden Opportunity for BJP in Kerala
Suresh Gopi is a unique character in Kerala politics in more than one way. Unlike the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, film superstars have not made their mark in the politics of Kerala. While Mammotty is a public supporter of the CPM who chairs the party’s media channel, he is not partisan in his public persona, and neither is Mohanlal, though his political inclinations are well-known. Those from the film arena who have found success - such as Innocent, who became an MP in 2014 or the sitting MLA from Kollam, Mukesh, have succeeded as candidates of the CPM. K.B. Ganesh Kumar, another actor, is an LDF MLA from Pathanapuram, but his political career is a result of his illustrious father K. Balakrishna Pillai.
Suresh Gopi’s task is distinct - he represents a party who has not been able to succeed in the state and a larger-than-life public persona. As an actor, he was known for his portrayal of Police roles that went against the system for the ends of justice against a politico-bureaucratic nexus, and especially for his ‘punch’ dialogues (meaning an iconic dialogue). Since entering the active political arena in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Suresh Gopi has given more than a few of his own ‘punch dialogues’ and his retorts and wit have been a source of amusement for the general public and an excitement for the BJP’s workers in the state. Another factor working in his favour is that he is a complete outsider to the BJP leadership within the state, and thus has no political baggage. His long involvement in charity and his emphasis on the victims of the scams boost his credibility among the general public, and the positive response to the protest is no surprise. In both of his earlier electoral contests, he was short charged - in 2019 he was a late entrant to the campaign and in the 2021 Assembly Elections, he was both unwell and reluctant to contest.
As the 2024 elections loom large, Suresh Gopi represents the best hope for the BJP to send an MP from Kerala. His role in the protests against cooperative bank scams can be a landmark for the BJP in the state. But as in politics, fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, and the elections of 2024 are more than six months away.
The author would like to thank Aishwarya Ajayan for her inputs.