The Christian vote bank in Kerala was considered as a pocket borough of the Congress-led United Democratic Front until recently. The emergence of Bharatiya Janata Party in the last one decade as a force to reckon with has, however, altered the equations.
The Christians, who perceived the communist ideology as a threat to their faith, started believing the Hindutva ideology of the Sangh as a greater threat to them. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) that heads the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) cashed in on the fear by playing up the attacks on churches in various parts of the country and posing themselves as the protector of the minorities.
LDF earned good dividends in the last Lok Sabha elections, in which it bagged three seats, which were traditionally held by the Congress, and the subsequent Assembly election in 2016. But later developments, including a realignment over the Sabarimala issue, saw the CPM game plan gradually floundering.
Initially, it served the cause of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to use the BJP consolidation using Sabarimala as a potential saffron threat to make Kerala a fertile ground for the lotus to bloom. But with the BJP-sponsored Sabarimala protest fizzling out, Pinarayi’s grand plan of uniting all the liberals, including the minority communities, on the axis of new reformism and renaissance did not yield the desired results.
Similarly, the CPM claim regarding Sabarimala that Congress and the BJP were in the league did not seem to cut much ice with the people. And with Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has been personally spearheading a high-voltage campaign against Narendra Modi deciding to contest from Wayanad constituency, the CPM bid to discredit the Congress terming it as a ‘B’ team of the BJP has fallen flat.
Rahul's entry has reinforced the commitment of minority communities towards the UDF and Congress, which is expected to get reflected in the Lok Sabha elections.
Just-released results of a state-wide survey reveal overwhelming support for Rahul among the minorities and women. The results say this will translate into a virtual sweep of the state by the UDF at the expense of LDF.
Circumstances have also played truant with the CPM strategy of projecting itself as the new champion of the minorities. Inter-church politics over new developments in the Christian community also put paid to the CPM hopes of ensuring wholesale support from the community. In fact, internecine fights among the church factions have further complicated the issue.
Gone are the days when the political masters could influence the Church leadership to ensure en bloc transfer of votes by a particular faction. With church leaders themselves getting involved in questionable financial transactions and caught in embarrassing sexual and other criminal acts, the followers have developed a new-found sense of freedom in exercising their decision on the basis of personal choices rather than instructions from the top.
Minority politics, particularly the one involving the Christian community, is expected to play a major role in taking the swing away from the ruling front. Christians constitute nearly 19 percent of the state's 31 million population. The biggest Christian community denomination is the Roman Catholic Church (61 percent), followed by the Jacobite/Orthodox Syrians (21 percent).
In Kerala's political dashboard, Church is an influential pressure group, competing with others such as the Muslim League, the Nair Service Society and the Ezhava-based Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam.
The four central districts in Kerala — Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Thrissur — together account for nearly 60 percent of the Christians in Kerala. And this is the action theatre of the church politics, where the contenting parties can antagonize the community only at the risk of their own peril.
The government’s decision to bury a bill seeking to take away the powers of bishops on the temporal affairs of the church has embittered a large section of the faithful, especially the Roman Catholics. Some reform groups which supported the LDF have entered the fray to register their protests.
The simmering dispute in the Malankara Syrian Church has also proved costly for the CPM with the factions nursing a feeling of betrayal. The dispute relates to the possession of properties and other assets of the Malankara Church between the two factions.
In 2017, the Supreme Court awarded the entire property and control of the churches, including churches and parishes that today constitute the Jacobite Church, to the Orthodox faction as the court made the constitution of the Orthodox Church, drafted and adopted in 1934, as binding on both factions. But most of these churches and parishes were in the control of Jacobites, who refused to leave, leading to a series of unruly scenes of protest and violence at many places.
In the previous assembly elections as well as the Chengannur by-election, the LDF leadership had secured the support of the Orthodox community in return of the promise of help in resolving the issue in favour of the faction. The understanding helped the LDF upstage UDF in Chengannur, which is considered a Congress bastion. But subsequent twists in the dispute made it impossible for the Pinarayi government to fulfil its promise, in the process alienating the Orthodox community.
As the feud intensified, the Orthodox Church demanded the government implement the verdict at the earliest while the Jacobite Church said they were denied justice. And this sets a completely inclemental ground for the government in the Lok Sabha elections.
The Jacobite Church members are present in good numbers in Chalakkudy, Thrissur and Ernakulam parliamentary constituencies. They are also a force to reckon with in Kottayam and Idukki constituencies. The Orthodox strongholds are Pathanamthitta, Mavelikkara and Kottayam. They are also present in Kollam, Idukki, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and Wayanad.
In the Orthodox stronghold Pathanamthitta, the LDF has fielded Veena George, an Orthodox member, who helped the front to snatch a victory in the Aranmula assembly seat, a traditional UDF stronghold. But with the Orthodox Church smarting under the feeling of hurt over the failure of the government to implement the Supreme Court order, it is now their turn to catch up with government. The results of the survey point exactly to the impact of Orthodox determination.
Orthodox Church secretary Biju Oommen was very candid about it when he said it was natural that the elections would reflect “denial of justice”. He threatened that the church would create ‘awareness’ among its members about such denial, implying an open call to defeat the LDF candidates.
The LDF dilemma is that while the Orthodox faction has turned against it, it is not getting any sympathy from the Jacobites as well. In fact, the Kollam, Niranam, and Thumpamon dioceses of the Jacobite Church have announced that they will be boycotting the elections in protest against what they consider to be denial of justice.
This means the ruling front is taking hits from both sides. The survey results are also showing a swing, but not in favour of the LDF. But for the UDF, it is not just a swing, but a tide.
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Updated Date: Apr 10, 2019 17:26:43 IST