Religion as a poll issue in God's own country

Religion as a poll issue in God's own country

Ahead of the Assembly elections, the state government withdrew the cases filed during the Sabarimala protest

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Credit: PTI Photo

The just-concluded Kerala Assembly polls had the state's three principal political alliances employ deft moves to woo voters on sectarian lines. Ironically, on a pitch seemingly more suited to parties known to fight electoral battles on religious planks, the “godless communists” outmanoeuvred their opponents.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tried to corner the incumbent Left Front government on the issue of entry of women in the sanctum sanctorum of the Sabarimala shrine. Both the UDF and the BJP promised in their manifestos to bring in legislation to ‘protect the age-old traditions of the shrine’ and ‘respect the sentiments of Ayappa devotees.’

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections held in the aftermath of the state roiled by protests opposing the Supreme Court’s 2018 Sabarimala verdict, the UDF had won 19 of the 20 seats, gaining from the protests against the SC verdict.

The Pinarayi Vijayan government’s firm stand taken in favour of the SC verdict was seen as a major reason behind the dip in the electoral fortunes of the Left. Following the loss in the 2019 polls, the LDF softened its stand.

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Ahead of the Assembly elections, the state government withdrew the cases filed during the Sabarimala protest. In March 2021, Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran expressing regrets over the Sabarimala issue had said, “The incident that took place in Sabarimala in 2018 was something which had pained all of us. It should never have happened. It has pained everyone. It has pained me also.”

The minister had assured Ayappa devotees that the Left government would implement the final verdict of the Supreme Court only after consulting with believers, political parties and the general public. A few days later, Surendran was contradicted by CP(M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury.

Predictably, Congress and the BJP tried to leverage Yechury’s comments to corner the LDF. Wary of the price it had to pay for its 2018 stand on the Sabarimala issue, the incumbent Left government performed a balancing act to neutralise the Sabarimala factor in the polls.

On election day, Vijayan set the cat among the pigeons with his comment stating that Ayappa and all other gods were with the LDF which had worked for the welfare of the people. The LDF’s course correction on the Sabarimala issue seems to have paid off as the party won all the five assembly constituencies of Pathanamthitta district. The biggest loser has been the BJP -- ever since the election was announced, huge posters appeared across Kerala, which featured pictures of state BJP chief K Surendran, dressed in the black attire, and his protests against women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple. Surendran came a poor third in the Konni constituency.

While the Sabarimala issue hogged the limelight, ‘love jihad’ was another issue that topped the charts during the campaign. It was Jose K. Mani, the leader of Kerala Congress (M), the new entrant in the ruling LDF, who kicked off the debate on the sensitive issue.

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The BJP wasted no time in joining the ‘love jihad’ bogey. Making use of the opportunity to appeal to conservative Christian voters, BJP State president K. Surendran remarked that the conversion to Islam under the pretext of inter-faith love marriages was a matter of serious concern for Christians.

While campaigning in the state, BJP’s Hindutva mascot Yogi Adityanath also raked up the issue. Voters did not buy the ‘Love Jihad’ theory. Jose. K. Mani, Kerala Congress (M) chief, who had resigned from the Rajya Sabha to contest from the Pala constituency, lost by over 14,000 votes.

Speaking at a rally in Palakkad, PM Narendra Modi had used a reference from the Bible to target the LDF. In a scathing rebuttal to the PM’s Judas jibe, the Kerala CM had lashed out at what he claimed was the BJP’s attempts of wooing Christians using Judas and Jesus. The CM noted that the voters of Kerala had not forgotten the Kandhamal riots and the murder of Graham Staines and his children. The LDF’s impressive performance in the Christian-dominated Central Kerala belt- traditionally considered to be a Congress bastion would not have been possible had it not managed to dent the Congress-led UDF’s Christian base. 

However, the Vijayan-led LDF cannot claim the moral high ground. Buoyed by the success it enjoyed in the December 2020 local body polls, the LDF leaders, had gone all out alleging a nexus between Congress-IUML-radical Muslim outfits, besides accusing the IUML of calling the shots in the UDF and dictating terms to the Congress.

As political parties focussed excessively and exclusively on religion and religious issues, more pressing issues like unemployment were ignored.

Gods and religion reigning supreme in the politics of God’s own Country is a trend that is unfortunately likely to stay. For now, one hopes that after an unprecedented communally divisive campaign, the man of the moment- Pinarayi Vijayan lives up to his reputation of being an able crisis manager by dealing efficaciously with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

(The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist)