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Lok Sabha elections 2019: After Sabarimala stir, BJP eyes temple route for votes

Following months of protests at the temple site, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate K Surendran played a visible and voluble part, he is being feted in a God-like way.

india Updated: Apr 20, 2019 16:02 IST
Revati Laul and Ramesh Babu
Revati Laul and Ramesh Babu
Following months of protests at the temple site, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate K Surendran played a visible and voluble part, he is being feted in a God-like way.(PTI)

Rows of women line both sides of the street in traditional Kerala Kasavu cream cotton saris with the trademark gold border, plates in hand, fragrant flowers in hair, grandmothers, mothers and granddaughters. This is not a puja, though. It is an election rally in the Adoor block of Kerala’s Pathanamthitta, the place where the Sabarimala temple is located.

Following months of protests at the temple site, in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate K Surendran played a visible and voluble part, he is being feted in this God-like way. Surendran, the man from North Kerala’s Kozhikode region, who contested from another northern region seat, Kasaragod, in the past and lost, is now, post Sabarimala, seen as the defender of the faith. He has been fielded from the southern constituency of Pathanamthitta.

The 49-year old politician became a hero overnight for protesting a court order that allowed women between the ages of 10 and 50 to enter the Sabarimala temple, striking down an age-old practice. In September 2018, when the Supreme Court said the Indian constitution does not permit any form of discrimination and therefore the Sabarimala temple cannot continue to prevent women of childbearing age from entering the temple, it raised a storm in Kerala.

Surendran post Sabarimala - feted by BJP followers like a God. Grandmothers, granddaughters and all ( Revati Laul )

The Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM)-led Left parties’ government tried to enforce the court order and arrested Surendran, charging him under various counts of endangering the peace. But politics is an entirely different process from the court. And in that world, the more Surendran offended the law and the state, the bigger hero he became in the eyes of temple worshippers. Pathanamthitta’s women, aged seven to 70, are lining the streets of Adoor to pay him back for his defiance. “As a political worker I am with the feelings of the public. That’s it,” Surendran says, stepping away from his fans. “In Kerala, you cannot underestimate the feelings of devotees. Lakhs and lakhs of devotees.” His supporters agree. Among them is 72-year old Lakshmi Kuttyamma, who says in her slightly shaky voice: “This is the first time I am voting for the BJP.” She is flanked by a little girl in class two. “I came to see Surendran,” she says. When asked who he is, she replies – “He is not my relative.”

Surendran’s Sabarimala protest is actually a political manoeuvre in the longer history of the Hindu right’s attempts to breach the country’s only remaining communist bastion. The BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and its affiliates have worked in Kerala for decades, slowly and steadily gaining ground until an opportunity like Sabarimala gave them the spurt and the ideological foot-in-the-door they were looking for.

Kumanam Rajsekharan visits BJP voters in their homes in Thiruvananthapuram ( Revati Laul )

Long-term gains

Senior RSS leader KB Sreekumar said the organization is now going “door to door, campaigning on the Sabarimala issue”. At stake are the sentiments of 50 million people who believe this is a question of their identity. And while the RSS is “not against the Supreme Court verdict,” Kumar explains that reform must come from the people, and not the courts. On the larger issue of the rationale for the practice at the temple, he has nothing to offer, only that “it is the desire of that deity.” The RSS has over 5,000 branches or shakhas in the state – among the largest numbers in the country after states such as Uttar Pradesh. While the Hindutva or hardline Hindu proselytization isn’t visible in votes or electoral seats gained by the BJP yet, there has been a steady gain in the party’s vote share over time from a measly 5% in 2001 to 14.6% in the state election in 2016.

The Sangh has its eye not just on the one-odd seat the BJP may win in this election, but on gains in the long term. It would eventually like a repeat of Tripura where the communist government lost to the BJP for the first time in the state’s history in 2018.

The build-up has been gradual and it has attracted people such as 45-year old C Sajith Kumar, the BJP Mandalam president for the Kazakottam assembly constituency in Kerala’s capital city, Thiruvananthapuram. The pull for him was the Sangh’s grassroots cadre base and the protective umbrella it offers to someone like him from a difficult background.

“I was attracted to the Sangh from a young age, from when I was 12 or so. I joined the RSS first. When I was a child I used to go to the temple and there was a shakha there,” Kumar says. “My father was a drug addict. Being in the shakha helped deal with the trauma of my father’s addiction and develop a personality.”

Another young recruit from the RSS, who did not want to be named, said it was the “josh, the adrenalin rush” after the Kargil conflict and the RSS’s emphasis on ultra-nationalism that made him join. Now he is part of the network’s Vishwa Sampad Kendra in the state, an agency that collects and disseminates news on cultural nationalism to various media outlets looking for such content. In this election season, Sabarimala is a hugely emotional issue, he admits.

No discrimination

In Thiruvananthapuram, the Sangh Parivar has made sure the Sabarimala issue is uppermost in the minds of those going to the shakha meetings. At an evening shakha in the precinct of the Kulangara Sri Krishna temple, a group of IT professionals gather for their daily shakha meeting. Prayers and exercise done, they sit down to a conversation on the most important issue in this election. “Women only started the agitation. This is therefore not a matter of discrimination. The RSS stood behind women,” says one. Very quickly, the conversation gets loud and heated. “Women activists have misunderstood Hindu religion because we worship women,” adds the oldest member in the group who says he had spent 45 years in the Sangh. He says: “The temple is the private abode of the deity. It is not for the judge and judiciary to infringe upon the right…that is the beginning. When I come to your house and I come naked and you tell me to get out, then it is not discrimination because it is your propriety right.”

“ You can’t understand a 1,000-year-old tradition in two years. You want a ‘Swiggy’ (a food order-in app) to be delivered, you want a quick-fix. We are all programmers here. You don’t know the code; you can’t write the programme,” adds another.

The BJP candidate from Thiruvananthapuram, Kummanam Rajsekharan, puts across the same point more gently, suggesting what the Kerala state government could have done to avoid a political disaster on its hands that is turning out to be a bonus for him. “The government should have presented to the court the difficulties for implementation,” he says, smiling as he dips the idlis on his plate into some coconut chutney. He is at the house of an influencer -- part of his door-to-door street-by-street campaign. “So many court orders are there,” he adds. “There is one on the Church. State says it is very difficult to implement it.” The 66-year-old seasoned politician started his political career in the Sangh’s Vishwa Hindu Parishad. In the dining room of the influencer’s home, sculptures of the Gods gleam brightly. Outside, even as he walks past his own campaign posters and those of his rival from the Congress party, Shashi Tharoor, one thing is perfectly clear. This election, at least in the constituencies close to Sabarimala, it is a God versus the communists, religion versus atheism, and tradition versus reason fight. As far the Sangh Parivar is concerned, the fact that even the liberal Tharoor said that “abstract notions of constitutional principle also have to pass the test of societal acceptance,” is a concession to what it has achieved in the state.

Ramesh Babu is with HT in Kerala.

Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate’, published by Westland/Context in December 2018. She tweets @revatilaul l

First Published: Apr 20, 2019 07:02 IST