In Kerala’s Kozhikode Lok Sabha constituency, BJP candidate KP Prakash Babu’s campaign stood out for one simple reason: he was nowhere to be found. Instead, his party members and other well-wishers would set out to exhort people to vote for the state president of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the BJP’s youth wing.
This was because Babu was in jail after a Pathanamthitta judicial magistrate court remanded him to 14 days of custody for allegedly attacking a woman devotee at the Sabarimala temple in November last year.
Babu, said the prosecution, was among the men who defied a Supreme Court order by abusing, intimidating and turning back women who had come to enter the temple. The charges against him include attempt to murder, rioting and destruction of public property. He filed his nomination from the Kottarakkara sub jail after getting special permission from the court. The Kerala high court granted him conditional bail on Thursday.
The case against Babu didn’t prevent the BJP from giving Babu a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha election.
And he’s not alone. The party’s Pathanamthitta candidate, K Surendran, has 242 criminal cases against him, all of them related to preventing the entry of women into Sabarimala.
The Supreme Court’s September order allowing women of all ages to enter the hill shrine had led to a period of unrest in Kerala, especially during the auspicious Mandalakaalam over November and December, as mobs of angry men physically prevented women from entering the temple. The BJP used this opportunity to expand its flock in a state where it had been unable to make much headway till now. While the RSS has a large base in Kerala, this has not translated into electoral gains for the BJP—it has not won a single Lok Sabha seat from the state till now, and its lone Assembly seat win was only in 2016.
This time, thanks to the furore over Sabarimala, it hopes that things will be different. While the party was hoping to wrest votes away from the Congress, party president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad may have made this difficult. Both the Congress-led United Democratic Front and CPM-led Left Democratic Front have tried not to let the issue dominate the campaign so that the BJP doesn’t get a chance at polarisation.
As best as it can, the BJP tries to communicate to voters that the Left government “bruised Hindu sentiment” by allowing women to enter Sabarimala in January.
“No government that disrespects the faith will survive,” proclaim Babu’s campaign posters in Kozhikode.
It’s a difficult task though, as Kerala’s Chief Election Officer Teeka Ram Meena has made it clear that the Sabarimala issue cannot be used to appeal for votes.
“Sabarimala is a religious place. If somebody is using the name of a temple or a mosque for soliciting votes, it is a clear violation of the model code of conduct,” he said.
Actor and Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi, the BJP’s Thrissur candidate, has already got a notice from the district collector and returning officer TV Anupama for asking people to vote for him “to safeguard Lord Ayyappa’s interests”.
He remains defiant, terming it unfortunate that a bhaktan (devotee) can’t even use the word ‘Sabarimala’ in public now.
“Ayyappa is my emotion. The brutal government will get a befitting reply in this election for inviting Ayyappa’s wrath. The Ayyappa devotees across India will turn it into a wave,” Gopi said at subsequent campaign meetings.
Meanwhile, a social media smear campaign has been unleashed against the collector.
So, does the BJP have a chance anywhere?
The rightwing party is pulling out all stops in two constituencies out of 20 in Kerala—one is Pathanamthitta, where Sabarimala is located. Surendran, who spent about 20 days in jail at the height of the protests, has been portraying himself as a kind of “living martyr” of the movement to protect the Hindu faith. The politician, who is from North Kerala, has been fielded from Pathanamthitta to cash in on the alleged Hindu anger towards the LDF government.
Hindus constitute 56.93% of the constituency, while Christians account for 38.12%. Muslims constitute the remaining 5%, according to the 2011 Census data.
Speaking to HuffPost India, Surendran said the BJP’s inclusion of Sabarimala in its election manifesto is a sign of its commitment to the issue.
“Our national manifesto promises attempts to enlighten the apex court on prevailing faith and tradition at Sabarimala. We are also committed to promote Sabarimala as a world-famous pilgrim centre,” he said.
The Pathanamthitta constituency, spread over five Assembly segments in Pathanamthitta district and two in Kottayam, has been sending Congress leader Anto Antony to the Lok Sabha since its formation in 2009. However, Antony’s victory margin fell to 56,000 votes in 2004 from 1.16 lakh after the LDF fielded a Congress rebel against him.
While Antony is aiming for a hat-trick victory, the CPM’s sitting Aranmula MLA and former TV journalist, Veena George says there has been no communal realignment post Sabarimala.
“Huge crowds are attending my election campaign meetings in which we speak of plurality and coexistence. Our Sabarimala policy never hurt any believer,’’ she said.
The other high-profile constituency in Kerala where BJP is pinning its hopes is Thiruvananthapuram, where diplomat-turned-politician Shashi Tharoor is taking on former Mizoram governor Kummanam Rajasekharan.
The BJP had tried its best to convince superstar Mohanlal to contest from its platform, but failed. Tharoor is popular among voters, but had faced a tough fight from senior BJP leader O Rajagopal in 2014.
In Thiruvananthapuram, the decisive votes are that of Nadar and Nair communities. While Nair votes may get divided between Tharoor and Rajasekharan, Congress is anticipating an almost complete backing from the Nadar community, especially the sizeable Christian converts among them. Nadars living in Parassala, Neyyattinkara and Kovalam assembly constituency areas and their political preference would decide the winner this time, according to political analyst J Prabhash. In the Left’s case, leaders are accepting there is an erosion of their mass base among Nairs and Nadars in the recent years.
A Mathrubhumi-Nielsen poll published earlier this week has also given the BJP an edge in Thiruvananthapuram, saying that Rajasekharan is likely to get 40% of votes. The Manorama poll says the constituency will witness a tight contest with a slight advantage to BJP, though it was conducted before Rajasekharan was declared the candidate.
In the meantime, what could upset BJP’s hopes is the the Nair Service Society, the organisation representing the powerful Nair community. While it had been at the forefront of the Sabarimala protests, it issued a circular last week, emphasising that that it will continue to maintain a distance from the UDF, LDF and NDA.
The Pandalam royal family, associated with the Sabarimala temple and active in the agitation, has also said that it will not campaign for the BJP in the polls.
Now, the state BJP unit is trying to ensure that either Prime Minister Narendra Modi or BJP president Amit Shah visits Sabarimala before the elections to polarise voters further, even if the leaders will not be able to make any political appeal from the temple.
Dalit writer Sunny Kapikkad, however, says the Sangh Parivar will not make any electoral gains in either constituency.
“Only a minuscule section of Kerala society has objected women’s entry to the hill shrine. After all, the Lok Sabha election is for discussing matters of national importance,’’ he said.