Thiruvananthapuram: The poll campaign in Kerala has come to an end, along with Easter celebrations, and irrespective of whether or not the BJP improves its tally beyond the single seat it owns in the outgoing assembly, it has been able to establish itself as a party that will continue to sharply focus on religious issues, such as the Sabarimala temple entry and ‘love jihad’.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three rallies at Palakkad, Thiruvananthapuram and Konni (part of Pathanamthitta district where the Sabarimala shrine is located) have not only energised party cadres, they have enabled leaders to reach out to the influential Christian community troubled over allegations of forced conversions.
The party’s stance on Sabarimala — that fecund women should not be allowed into the hill shrine even after a Supreme Court ruling against the practice — forced even the ruling CPI(M) to backtrack on the issue and for once, put the BJP on the same page as the Congress.
The Kerala Congress has promised a law to protect the Sabarimala traditions.
The BJP campaign, however, hasn’t been without its controversies.
The party unit in Kerala had been plagued by charges of gender bias, after there was hesitation in handing over the ticket for the Kazhakkoottam seat, which is part of Thiruvananthapuram city, to state vice-president Sobha Surendran.
State unit chief K. Surendran had reportedly threatened to resign if Kazhakkoottam was handed to Surendran while Minister of State for External Affairs V. Muraleedharan wanted it for himself.
But the feisty 47-year-old Surendran, who believed she deserved the seat, wrote to party president J.P. Nadda and other senior leaders about the gender rivalry consuming the party. The big ace in her favour was Union minister and the party’s Kerala in-charge Pralhad Joshi, who was believed to be backing Surendran for the ticket.
The central party leadership weighed in and Surendran got her ticket — she is now pitted against the controversial Kadakampally Surendran of the CPM, the outgoing minister for the Devaswom board and the one who was directly in-charge of the Sabarimala shrine during the uproar in 2018, when the Supreme Court allowed women of menstruating age to enter the temple.
Kadakampally Surendran, who defeated V. Muraleedharan by 8,000 votes at Kazhakkoottam in the 2016 elections, added to the Sabarimala noise some weeks ago. The controversy should “never have happened”, he said, and promised that if the Left Front returned to power in Kerala, it would implement the larger Supreme Court verdict only after consultation with “believers, political parties and the general public”.
Kerala votes Tuesday, 6 April.
BJP’s Sabarimala focus
The Left minister’s flip-flop over Sabarimala has certainly strengthened Surendran, and is a vindication of her party’s stand.
Much like her party, Surendran has stuck to her stand over Sabarimala, which is that if the deity just doesn’t want menstruating women around him, why should one disrespect the deity? She had even been arrested for protesting on the site in 2018.
“This matter is not about women’s rights, it is about the deity. It is about what the deity wants,” Surendran told ThePrint during her campaign trail in Kazhakkoottam.
Asked what she wanted to do for her constituency if she won the election, she said, “I want to bring it to the notice of Prime Minister Modi.”
Surendran’s refreshing honesty is in sharp contrast to the guile of BJP state chief K. Surendran, who is fighting from two seats — Manjeswaram, on the border with Karnataka, which is said to be a stronghold of the radical right and which he lost by a mere 89 votes in the last election, and from Konni in Pathanamthitta district.
One of PM Modi’s rallies was held in Konni Saturday. During the rally, Modi called out to the deity in the traditional way — ‘Swamiye saranam Ayyappa’ — not once but five times. Modi accused the Left Front government of trying to “destabilise” religious shrines and of using lathis on Ayyappa devotees instead of welcoming them with “flowers”.
Political observers who spoke on the condition of anonymity pointed out that the Left, which won its first Communist government in 1957, was careful never to tamper with the religious beliefs of its voters. So Kerala remained both hugely devout in its personal belief as well as Left in its political orientation. The government never got involved in the matter of who and what kind of women should be allowed to enter Sabarimala or any other religious institution.
In fact, the Left never forgot the power of the former royals and their ability to potentially destabilise the political landscape. So when the former Travancore maharaja, Poonjaar Kerala Varma Raja, decided to fight the 1984 polls for the Hindu Munnani, Left stalwart E.M.S. Namboodiripad was nervous enough to push out a splinter Muslim League from his coalition. Varma Raja finished third in those elections.
The 2018 Sabarimala agitation cost the Left Front hugely in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls — it was wiped out in 19 out of Kerala’s 20 Lok Sabha seats, and its vote-share fell from 40.23 per cent in 2014 to 35.2 per cent in 2019. In contrast, the NDA vote-share increased from 10.85 per cent in 2014 to 15.20 per cent.
But what has come as a huge boost to the BJP is its victory in the Pandalam municipality in Pathanamthitta district in the local body polls in December — even more significant since it is the former royal family at Pandalam that controls the Sabarimala temple.
Since then, Pandalam panchayat president Pandalam Prathapan has quit the Congress and joined the BJP and even shared the stage with Home Minister Amit Shah when he addressed a rally in Pathanamthitta.
A third factor helping the BJP to put down roots in Kerala is its public campaign over allegations of forced conversion and marriage, which its votaries in the Sangh Parivar have termed ‘love jihad’. This has helped it to reach out to influential members of some churches.
The resolution recently passed by the Synod of the Syro-Malabar Church on the “rising cases of love jihad”, Kerala Congress (M) chief Jose K Mani’s comments to ThePrint on the need to discuss the issue, and the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council spokesperson, Fr Jacob Palakapally’s statement backing Jose K Mani, have all buoyed the BJP.
Party chief K. Surendran has hit hard, saying “deceptive conversions to Islam” were growing, while Muraleedharan accused Jose Mani, who as an LDF ally has since back-tracked, of tip-toeing around the matter.
Moreover, the BJP has aligned itself with the Church’s unhappiness over the Turkish government changing the status of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque.
With the campaign closing, all eyes are on how the BJP is able to translate these debates into votes. But irrespective of how many seats it gets, the BJP is certain to expand its presence in the state. That in itself would be a sweet victory.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)