Sabarimala row throws CPM into a political conundrum in Kerala as BJP, Congress scramble for Hindu votes

In December 1991, a furious Murli Manohar Joshi, then the BJP President, nearly threw me out of a press conference. This was after I reported that his 14-state “Ekta Yatra” received lukewarm response when it passed Kerala. Narendra Modi, who was then the BJP’s national executive member and who had been an acclaimed nuts-and-bolts fixer for LK Advani’s rath yatra the year before, played a key role in Joshi’s "national integrity" mission as well.

Modi exhibited his awesome organisational skills by visiting some places in advance to mobilise crowds for Joshi. Accompanying the Ekta Yatra on its southern leg, I found that it attracted crowds everywhere — except Kerala.

Last week, BJP kicked off another rath yatra, this time exclusively for Kerala, to crank up Hindu opinion against the 28 September Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict. If the Ekta Yatra had been a marathon, this one was a jog in the park, but the party is delighted that it was a roaring success that might win it some Lok Sabha seats in Kerala for the first time. The BJP has indeed come a long way.

 Sabarimala row throws CPM into a political conundrum in Kerala as BJP, Congress scramble for Hindu votes

Devotees enter the Sabarimala temple as it opens amid tight security on Friday. PTI

Kerala’s saffron groundswell

The BJP’s popular vote in the state has been climbing up, partly due to minority appeasement by both the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the saffron brigade’s own effort to polarise the majority. From just 4.75 percent in the 2006 Assembly election, BJP’s vote share along with allies went up to 6 percent in the 2011 Assembly election and then to 10.84 percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll. And then again it rose to 13.3 percent in the 2015 civic polls and finally to 15 percent in the 2016 Assembly election. The party has never won a single Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala, but picked up its first Assembly seat in 2016.

Yet, the rising Hindu anger against the Supreme Court verdict that allowed entry of women in 10-50 age group into the Sabarimala temple, overturning a tradition that banned it, is unlikely to be of too much help to BJP. The party may still fall short of its goal of winning 12 of the Kerala’s 20 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha Election. As things stand today, it might be lucky to win two seats. One good reason for that is that BJP is not alone in trying to tap the uprising against the Supreme Court verdict. Congress too flagged off a series of padayatras to fight the judgment. The enthusiasm of BJP and Congress to “save Sabarimala” is, of course, driven by their desire to save their Hindu votes.

Congress and BJP are now wary of each other. Each is afraid the other will eat into its Hindu vote. Evidently, Congress has more to lose.

If the vote share of BJP and allies shot up to 15 percent in 2016, it was mostly because of an exodus of Hindus from Congress. Fed up with Muslims and Christians calling the shots in the Congress-led UDF, upper-caste Nairs, among others, had been shifting loyalty to BJP. The UDF has been traditionally receiving approximately half its votes from Muslims and Christians. (According to the 2011 census, of Kerala’s 3.3-crore population, Hindus constitute 54.73 percent, Muslims are 26.56 percent and Christians, 18.38 percent.)

AK Antony’s warning

In 2003 and 2014, Kerala’s prominent Congress leader AK Antony openly said "minority appeasement" by his party undermined true secularism. He warned that "minority and majority communalism" were equally dangerousThough minorities continue to back UDF almost to the same degree as before, the party has been losing the Hindu vote. Congress is now terrified of an erosion of its Hindu support any more than it already suffered in 2016.

In Kerala’s electoral caste matrix, Congress has been depending on, besides the minority vote, the backing of some of the Ezhavas, a backward caste that constitutes 23 percent of Hindus, and some of the Nairs (14 percent) and Dalits. The Ezhavas have been the traditional backbone of CPM, which also gets votes from other backward classes, Dalits, some from upper castes and some from the minorities.

Game plans of Congress and BJP

By throwing their weight behind the Sabarimala protestors, Congress hopes to win back the Hindu votes it lost, largely to BJP and some to CPM in 2016. It wants to make sure that BJP doesn’t raise its 2016 vote share of 15 percent. If that happens, in nearly half of Kerala’s 20 Lok Sabha seats where Hindus account for more than 60 percent of voters, Congress might lose some seats to BJP. On its part, the BJP’s strategy is precisely the opposite: net more Hindu votes, primarily from Congress and also from CPM.

The LDF, whose popular vote in the 2016 Assembly poll dropped marginally by 1.63 percent to 43.48 percent though it won 91 of the 140 seats and formed the government, is alarmed that the resentment over Sabarimala might lead to a further depletion of its support.

The CPM’s quandary is clear. If it doesn’t comply with the Supreme Court verdict, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and his colleagues can be accused of committing contempt of court as well as pandering to sentiments of religion, supposedly an anathema to even the bizarre brand of Marxism that they claim to practise. And by implementing the judgment, they face music from angry Hindus.

Marxist doublespeak                  

S Ramachandran Pillai, a CPM politburo member, says in an article in the party’s mouthpiece People’s Democracy: “The RSS and the BJP want to take the Kerala society back to the old days of darkness, superstition and obscurantist practices. The Congress-led UDF is supporting the efforts of the BJP."

Behind this highfalutin, ideological rant lies the stark fact that even the CPM leaders run after religious figures during elections and pick up candidates on caste considerations.

The rare spectacle of both Congress and BJP being ranged against it, each for its own reason, has left the CPM flummoxed.

It’s not surprising that the chief minister is desperately trying to wriggle out of the predicament despite brave pronouncements to the contrary. As time passed, he increasingly became reconciliatory to protestors. After having first ruled out an all-party meet, he convened one. And after demurring at first, he gave a quiet nod to the Travancore Devaswom Board, which runs the temple and is headed by CPM leader A Padmakumar, to ask the apex court to seek more time to implement the verdict. His "compromise" suggestion that women might be allowed into the temple on some days was, however, rejected outright by priests.

If the Supreme Court rejects the board’s request for more time and if the agitation continues, it is likely to polarise at least a part of the Hindu vote against the Left camp, though the question of whether the BJP or the Congress will benefit from it is anybody’s guess at this point.

That might depend on how the two parties will conduct themselves during the pilgrimage season till January-end and how other factors unrelated to the temple controversy might simultaneously work.

As for now, all that Vijayan can hope is that the confrontation won’t continue and spark violence, which might hasten the process of CPM's downfall in the only state where it rules.

The author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Nov 17, 2018 12:14:52 IST