BJP eyes elusive Hindu consolidation with Sabarimala

P S Sreedharan Pillai, president of the BJP in Kerala, takes out a rath yatra on November 8

When P S Sreedharan Pillai, president of the BJP in Kerala, takes out a rath yatra on November 8 to “protect” traditions at the Sabarimala Ayyappa Temple, the more vocal elements in the Sangh Parivar are very likely to pitch it as another call for Hindu mobilisation.

The call for a unified Hindu identity cutting across caste has, so far, failed to bring in electoral returns for the BJP. But Sabarimala is a plank it would not want to miss out on; the political gains will depend on how it handles two key caste outfits -- the upper-caste Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP) Yogam, an influential organisation of the OBC Ezhavas.

The Supreme Court judgment which allowed entry for women of all ages to the temple offers a lead for the BJP to build on. Party president Amit Shah, during two public addresses in Kerala on Saturday, referred to the NSS, BDJS (SNDP’s political arm and a BJP ally) and the Yogam itself as partners in agitation against the CPM-led state government over its implementation of the verdict. SNDP General Secretary Vellappally Natesan clarified that the SNDP, while supporting the devotees, would not join BJP-led protests. The NSS has not taken an overtly political stance on the issue but by leading devotees’ protests against the judgment and slamming the crackdown on protesters in strong terms, the outfit has made clear its position.

In a state where Muslims and Christians constitute about 45% of the population, the BJP also has its work cut out in consolidating the Hindu vote base ahead of the 2019 general election. Party leaders point to impressive turnouts at the protests and claim that consolidation against an “anti-Hindu” government has begun. Sobha Surendran, BJP general secretary, said Natesan’s position was not worrying. “Natesan’s son, Thushar Vellappally, is also leading the yatra. Where’s the discord here? This movement is not about caste; all our protests had a huge presence of SNDP members and people belonging to all castes,” she told DH. She also pointed out how NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair had hit out at the government over implementation of the verdict. As per the 2011 census, Ezhavas and Nairs constitute about 22% and 12%, respectively, of the population in Kerala.

That the main Opposition party, the Congress, has also backed status quo at the temple could leave Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in a go for broke situation he doesn’t seem to mind. On Monday, Congress leader K Muraleedharan said Vijayan, by going ahead with implementation of the verdict, was aspiring to be among celebrated social reformers. The CPM won’t mind credit for reform; what remains to be seen is the political import.

At the rath yatra which starts in Kasaragod and ends in Pathanamthitta, on November 13, the BJP will try to mobilise dissent against the government’s use of force against devotees. Support has emerged from Christian and Muslim communities, through voices that question courts’ intervention in matters of faith.  

The yatra will test the BJP’s claims of acceptability among the backward castes. Punnala Sreekumar, general secretary of the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha – a prominent SC outfit – has welcomed the judgment. M Geethanandan, coordinator of the Adivasi Gothra Mahasabha, said the Sangh was attributing anti-Hindu designs to the verdict to further its political agenda. He also called for the restoration of tribal rituals at the temple and forest rights for tribespeople in and around the hill shrine. Even as the Sangh tries to build consensus in generic terms of “devotees” and “Hindu sentiments”, it cannot ignore an underlying narrative around upper-class orthodoxy and its resistance to reform.

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BJP eyes elusive Hindu consolidation with Sabarimala

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