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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Poll campaign focus on Sabarimala row

Come 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to gain mileage from the violent protests against the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age in to the Sabarimala temple.

lok sabha elections Updated: Mar 28, 2019 07:28 IST
Ramesh Babu
Ramesh Babu
Hindustan Times, Thiruvananthapura
Sabarimala,India news,Lok Sabha elections 2019
A view of pilgrims at the Sabarimala Sannidhanam or the main temple complex which opened for five-day monthly puja in Pathanamthitta district, Kerala, India on Wednesday, February 13, 2019. (Photo: Vivek R Nair / Hindustan Times)

For decades, Kerala witnessed bipolar contests in the Lok Sabha polls and the assembly elections, with the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front and the Congress-led United Democratic Front swapping power. But come 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to gain mileage from the violent protests against the entry of women between 10 and 50 years of age in to the Sabarimala temple.

In September last year, the Supreme Court (SC) set aside a decades-old ban
on the entry of women of menstruating age to the hilltop shrine that is frequented by more than 20 million pilgrims annually.

Since then, Kerala has been roiled by protests by religious groups and devotees against the ruling – including three statewide shut downs, the arrest of at least 10,000 people and riots after two women entered the shrine in January -- and though both the Congress and the BJP have backed the protesters, the saffron party has been more vocal in its opposition.

The emotional issue has taken centre stage in the coastal state, and pits the ruling LDF against the UDF and BJP, which has till now been a distant third-place finisher.

“The CPI(M) may lose at least 5% traditional Hindu votes benefitting the BJP,” said veteran journalist P Rajan. But he said this was not enough to win too many seats for the saffron party and tactical voting of angry voters will benefit the Congress finally. At any rate, Sabarimala appears to have emerged
as the swing issue in this election season.

The Left parties say they are not perturbed by the scale of the protests, and cite the “women wall” erected from one end of the state to the other on New Year’s day by more than 500,000 women to buttress its point that the state is progressive, not inward-looking.

It seems the ruling CPI(M) has taken a calculated risk on Sabarimala. At one point, CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan said that even if the party lost one or two seats due to its stand, it won’t matter and that the issue would help his party in the long run. The party feels the Hindu community votes will be split between the Congress and the BJP, and that Muslims and Christians (who together form 45% of the population) will consolidate behind it.

Experts say this is a high-risk strategy, especially for the Left that is banking heavily on Kerala’s 20 seats after a collapse in its erstwhile bastion of West Bengal. But the party is putting up a brave face.

“Well- informed people are progressive in Kerala and they won’t fall in the trap of saffron forces. The successful women’s wall proved it beyond any doubt,” said state finance minister Thomas Issac.

CONGRESS DILEMMA

For weeks after the Supreme Court decision, there was tension between the local unit of the Congress and its central leadership. The Delhi leadership was reluctant to support the protests but was convinced by state leaders that party workers would move to the BJP if it remained silent.

“Let the BJP do its daydreaming. Majority votes won’t split so as to ensure the Left victory. The CPI(M) rubbed salt on the wounds of believers. They will teach the party a lesson. We expect at least 15 seats from the state,” said senior Congress leader K Muralidharan, adding the Sabarimala issue will help the party. “We protested peacefully, unlike Sangh outfits. People will see through their game plan,” he said.

The previous Congress-led government in Kerala had opposed the entry of women in the temple, and had asked for status-quo to be maintained. Congress leaders say that their campaign will underline this record.

The Congress-led UDF holds 12 and CPM-led LDF eight seats. The Congress says it will project the fact that it is the only alternative to the BJP nationally, and hopes that anti-BJP votes will consolidate behind it. “We all know the secular fabric of the county is under threat and institutions such as the CBI and RBI are being negated. Even the judiciary is not spared. People know only Congress can take on BJP and CPI (M) is shrunk to a regional party with some base in Kerala,” said UDF convener Benny Behnan.

BJP STRATEGY

For the BJP, the emotive temple issue is a golden opportunity, after having failed earlier to woo the Christian and the Ezhava communities. The party feels particularly buoyed by the growing closeness with an influential caste body, the Nair Service Society (NSS).

NSS, a social outfit of the influential Nair community that comprises 13% of the population, usually keeps equal distance from all political parties but this time it is on the forefront of the Sabrimala protests.

After the announcement of 10% reservation to economically weaker sections among upper castes, NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair wrote a letter to PM Modi, profusely thanking him. “The NSS stand gives us much hope,”
said party general secretary K
Surendran.

While addressing a party rally in Kollam (south Kerala) last month, Modi came down heavily on the Left government. “Its handling of the Sabarimala issue will go down in the history as one of the most shameful acts,” he had said. The party has lined up many national leaders to whip up the issue.

But observers say the Sabarimala agitation might not translate into votes.“The BJP vote percentage can go up slightly but I don’t think it will get any seat in the state,” said political analyst K Venu.

The BJP’s strategy will be tested at the ground zero of the Sabarimala protests, the Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency in the heart of southern Kerala. The seat, which came into existence after the 2008 delimitation exercise, has been held by the Congress since its inception.

CPI(M) RESPONSE

The Left Front hopes its work in restoring civic infrastructure and building a “new Kerala” after the devastating floods of 2018, the worst in almost a century, will net it votes. It is also banking on the completion of some big-ticket infrastructure projects, such as the Kannur airport and the Liquified Natural Gas project in Kochi, which was hanging fire for more than a decade.

“Nothing will happen in Kerala - that perspective has undergone a sea change. Many new projects like Nissan digital hub came here,” said chief minister
Pinarayi Vijayan, saying the state’s outlook has changed in last two years and that it would fetch them popular
backing.

“We heavily bank on the performance of the Pinarayi government. Whether it is the Nipah outbreak, flood of the century or Ockhi cyclone, the government handled it well. The entire world lauded the state for its deft handling of the worst flood of the century,” said CPI(M) politburo member MA Baby.

Vijayan said nearly 700,000 flood-affected persons have received financial aid. “With effective utilisation of funds and strategic planning the state is back on its feet in record time. As many as 687, 843 people have received financial assistance of ₹10,000. Destroyed dwellings were classified into four groups and efforts are on to rebuild them,” he
said.

But many in the state are still dissatisfied with the government.

“Where is new Kerala? The government is busy erecting ‘women wall’ or taking women to Sabarimala. In the race to defeat the right wing’s plan to hijack the issue, the government has forgotten the core issue that would have fetched it more laurels,” said Viswambharan Pillai, a retired government servant,
who lost his house in Alappuzha
district.

But political commentator Sebastian Paul said that the LDF has a chance of improving its tally. “I don’t think we can go by pre-poll surveys. It is too early. More than 10% voters exercise their franchise weighing their candidates. Tackling of flood situation and other issues will fetch the Left more,” he
said.

First Published: Mar 28, 2019 06:36 IST