Kerala: Left Front shifts a little right on Sabarimala

Dateline: Thiruvananthapuram

The Supreme Court is expected to pronounce its judgement on a batch of PILs challenging ban on entry of women into Kerala's Sabarimala temple.

The Sabarimala women’s entry issue continues to haunt the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front government in Kerala as a double-edged sword. The firm stand taken by the LDF government in implementing the Supreme Court’s order last year scrapping the decades-old belief and tradition banning entry of women in the10-50 age group to the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple was widely considered to be a key reason for the Left Front’s rout in the April-May Lok Sabha polls. The Left Front lost in 19 out of the 20 seats in Kerala, and its vote share declined to 35.2% from 40.23% in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

After a detailed analysis by the highest forums of the party, the CPM came out with a renewed stand that it would “stand with believers” even as it was “bound to enforce the SC order” allowing women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple.

However, this change in stand has not gone down well with those who had joined hands with the Left Front in the state for social movements. Leaders of some social outfits that joined with the Left Front’s renaissance initiatives have openly stated that a progressive approach and the protection of beliefs and faiths could not go hand in hand.

Political analysts feel that from the voter behaviour during the Lok Sabha polls, it seems that a stand in favour of believers would be more advantageous for any political party in electoral politics.

Political analyst and Kerala University assistant professor C A Josukutty said that the Left Front in Kerala is trying out a tight rope walk. It is always good in electoral politics that political parties correct their stand considering the people’s mandate. But the Left Front is quite concerned that a total shift in its stand in favour of belief and faiths may affect its core secular voter base. Hence, the balancing act between the SC order and the demand of the believers.

Josukutty added that while the CPM may have realised that leaning a bit towards the ‘believers’ may be electorally necessary, “We need to wait and watch whether the LDF will be able to regain the voter base it lost due to the stand it took on the Sabarimala issue previously.” As soon as CPM Kerala secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan stated last week that it was not against believers and their faiths, the Kerala Pulayar Mahasabha leader Punnala Sreekumar, who has been a key leader of the Left’s progressive initiatives, retorted that beliefs and faiths could not go along with renaissance movements. He urged Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to clarify his stand.

The chief minister, in turn, did a balancing act. “We were not against devotees at any point of time. But the government is bound to enforce the Supreme Court verdict also. The renaissance initiatives were not against beliefs, but against superstitions,” he said. He further added that a certain section had spread the propaganda that the Left was against devotees, admitting that the Left Front failed to counter the propaganda. The latter had realised the mistake and is now taking corrective steps, he said.

Vijayan also attacked the BJP, which has been trying to take advantage of the Sabarimala issue and had even offered to bring in a law to protect beliefs and faiths. “The BJP offered to bring in a law to protect beliefs and faiths. Now, they have ditched the people by saying that it is not possible.”

The CPM’s stand seemingly in favour of devotees is also a cause for concern for the Congress-led United Democratic Front as well as the BJP-led NDA in Kerala. Hence, both these parties were trying to corner the CPM on the issue, with both adopting similar tones. As soon as Balakrishnan announced the newlu nuanced stand of “standing with the devotees,” the Congress and BJP leaderships in Kerala demanded that the CPM apologise to the people for its earlier stand.

“Unless the CPM leadership tenders an open apology to the devotees for taking an adamant stand against them earlier over the Sabarimala woman entry issue, the present acts of introspection and correction would be seen only as an eye-wash,” said senior Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala, who is also the leader of the Opposition in Kerala.

BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai also said that the CPM should prove that it was sincere in its introspection by apologising to the people for its earlier stand.

However, Chief Minister Vijayan maintains that the Left Front government only tried to enforce the SC order on the Sabarimala issue as it was legally bound to do so. The renaissance initiatives of the Left Front had no connection with the entry of two women (Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga) into the Sabarimala temple. It was only a coincidence that the two women entered the Ayyappa temple immediately after the Left Front organised the ‘Women’s Wall’ on January 1. The initiative received much attention across the world. Hence, a section that wanted to defame the Left Front government used the entry of the two women against it though the party and government had no connection with it, Vijayan has said.

With bypolls to six Assembly seats in Kerala in the offing, the Sabarimala issue is once again being unsheathed as a key political weapon against the Left Front government, and it, in turn, is trying its best to minimise the damage that it might suffer as a result by softening its stand, while the Congress and BJP are trying to deny it any benefit from doing so.

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