Political parties play religion and caste card in Kerala politics

A week ahead of the Lok Sabha election in Kerala, statements by representatives of religious bodies and community organisations continue to make single-column appearances in local newspapers. 

“Will protect those who protect us,” announces a leader; another one seeks caution from voters who belong to his caste against shallow election promises. 

This is familiar poll-season posturing but in Kerala, caste and identity-based politics has been taking unfamiliar proportions way ahead of the April 10 election.
 
Kerala has, over the past couple of decades, seen political parties increasingly playing the caste card during the selection of candidates. 

Prominent leaders have in the past been assigned to broker peace with miffed religious leaders and community heads to evade voter backlash.

 It makes political sense to humour vote banks in an election year. But the largely unconditional patronage from parties of all shades has also led to the rise of fringe pressure groups and self-styled community leaders who with their massive conventions and aggressive television bytes add to the heady mix of the state’s fiercely bipolar politics.

It’s an evolving story political commentators watch with guarded amusement and a touch of concern.
 
With each passing Lok Sabha and Assembly election, identity politics is gaining momentum, feels K M Sajad Ibrahim, Reader in political science at the University of Kerala.

 Ibrahim says that in a political scene where the line of ideological differences is blurring rapidly, it’s natural that religious or caste-based identity comes into play. 

“We used to talk about committed voters who vote only for a certain party irrespective of the candidate or issues discussed during the election. 

The number of these voters has come down drastically over the past 10 to 15 years; the two fronts in Kerala led by the Congress and the CPI(M) could have anywhere between 20 and 30 per cent of these committed voters now. 

The rest of their votes are neutral; many of these voters are increasingly open about their religious or caste-based identities,” says Ibrahim.
 
The Congress party, for long accused of playing appeasement politics with communities in the state, is no longer isolated. 

The CPI(M)-led opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF)’s selection of candidates in at least three of the 20 Lok Sabha constituencies – Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Chalakudy – shows that it doesn’t want to lose out on a community match-up either.
 
Thiruvananthapuram, with its Nair and Nadar vote shares and Ernakulam that has a substantial Latin Catholic population have often been pointers to community-driven electoral politics.
 
No political leader announces these strategies in the open but they are also no longer tacit “deals” that attract the opponent’s derision because the opponent himself is no different.
 
Poster boys
 
The heads of Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) yogam – organisations that represent interests of Nair and Ezhava communities respectively – have been poster-boys for political parties during election seasons and the script is moving on familiar lines in this election. 
 
Chief minister Oommen Chandy has had two rounds of talks with NSS chief G Sukumaran Nair, reportedly to counter damage from a controversial visit by Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) president V M Sudheeran to the NSS headquarters. 

Sudheeran had left the premises without meeting Nair who went ballistic on the “snub” by the KPCC president.
 
So far, there has been no move from Nair that suggests a change in his proclaimed stand of maintaining an equal distance from both the fronts.
 
SNDP chief Vellappalli Natesan has also remained non-committal on extending support to political fronts. Political analysts point out that community outfits don’t build their clout solely on the potential of votes they generate.

 It also comes with a financial angle: community groups affiliated to all religions have also been major contributors to party funds. 
 
K S Pavithran, Professor and Head, department of politics in Calicut University, says hype in the media has also contributed to the rise of caste-based outfits and leaders.
 
“The changes in neo-liberalised, globalised Kerala are not only economical, they are also political and cultural in nature. There are signs of rapid depoliticisation and it’s this depoliticised space that religious and community groups are taking over,” says Pavithran.

In the northern Kerala districts, political leaders have had setbacks due to differences with Muslim outfits. 

In Idukki, the Congress is facing heat from the Catholic Church over the party’s stand in the K Kasturirangan panel report on conservation in the Western Ghats. 

The Church representatives have been hosting leaders of both the fronts and the BJP during the election season. 

Pavithran sees these changes reflected in the stance of the Left that is fielding a Church-backed independent candidate in Idukki. 
 
Ibrahim says that in an era of fractured mandates and wafer-thin victory margins, political parties are only trying to keep potential vote banks in their folds.
 
“There’s no study to prove that people vote based on what leaders of their communities say. Yet, there’s clamour to keep them humoured because no one wants to risk a negative vote swing, even if it’s only one per cent,” he says. 

Pavithran says when the whole political process gets diluted to attempts to gain votes in elections, there is the possibility of these outfits transforming as pressure groups pegged to the politics of exclusion. 

“Interests of communities are represented and addressed only when they come as organised groups with financial muscle. Not many seem to be interested in the politics of marginalised identities,” he says.

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