05/01/2019 11:21 PM IST | Updated 24/01/2019 12:29 PM IST

Will Sabarimala Issue Help BJP In Kerala Before Lok Sabha Polls?

The BJP is looking to increase its support base in Kerala but political observers say it is unlikely to reap substantial gains in the upcoming general election.

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THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, Kerala—Since September last year, when the Supreme Court pronounced its historic verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been trying its best to use the opportunity to increase its support base in Kerala. The party, which had a vote share of 11% in the state assembly elections in 2016, is in power in more than 15 states in India either on its own or as part of an alliance.

While the Kerala BJP is eyeing the anti-left space that has been occupied by the Congress and its alliance partners for decades, the large-scale violence it has unleashed in the state since two women, Bindu and Kanakadurga, entered the hill shrine on 2 January, has left it on the back foot. Political observers say the right-wing party is unlikely to reap substantial gains in Kerala in the upcoming general election. Kerala sends 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha and till now, not a single one has been from the BJP.

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Protesters throw stones at police in Palakkad on 3 January. The large-scale violence the BJP unleashed in Kerala after two women entered Sabarimala has left it on the back foot.

Caste equations

Though the BJP has been able to bring over the Nair Service Society (NSS), the public face of the powerful Nair community, to its side on the issue, the organisation’s leadership has already expressed displeasure over trying to gain political mileage from the controversy. Community members who don’t agree with the Sangh Parivar’s agenda have also been mounting pressure on the NSS leadership to desist from any move that would harm the reformist legacy of the organisation’s founder Mannath Padmanabhan.

Kerala sends 20 MPs to the Lok Sabha and till now, not a single one has been from the BJP.

Even otherwise, say political observers, only a minuscule section of the Nair community has a strong allegiance to the NSS. The clout that both the CPI(M)-led Left Front and Congress-led United Democratic Front exercise over the community remains intact.

The numerically strong Ezhava community is expected to remain strongly aligned with the left. The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), the social organisation founded by Sree Narayana Guru, is now divided over its approach to BJP and its political agenda related to Sabarimala. The Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), set up by Thushar Vellappally and his father and SNDP supremo Vellappally Natesan, is an NDA ally but has not always got along with the BJP in the state. While Tushar is sharing the BJP platform and echoing the party stand, Natesan has been more cautious in his approach. Even while he opposed women entering Sabarimala, Natesan threw his weight behind the historic women’s wall formed across the state on New Year Day.

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Women participate in the women's wall in Kerala on 1 January.

While the Congress is facing questions over its political position on Sabarimala and the alleged sacrificing of its reformist tradition, the Left looks confident due to the shift in the political preference of dalit masses in the state.  

Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, the largest among the dalit groups in Kerala, which hitherto distanced itself from the CPI(M) over the latter’s preference for class over caste, is now standing with the LDF. Dalit leaders such as Sunny Kapikkad have praised Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan for taking a progressive stand on the issue and for ‘torpedoing’ the upper caste agenda of the BJP.

Political prospects

Political analyst John Samuel said the BJP would not gain any seats in the upcoming general election, with the 20 seats being divided between the LDF and the UDF.

“BJP might have to wait till the local body elections in the state, which may happen in another three years, to see if the Sabarimala agenda benefitted it or not,’’ said political analyst John Samuel.

The BJP’s attempt to create a momentum similar to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement out of Sabarimala by unleashing violence and roughing up journalists may also work against it in a state where Hindus form just about 56% of the population.

Organisational lapses and failure to evolve strategies are also haunting the state unit of BJP, a deeply divided house where leaders have been blaming each other for weakening the Hindutva agenda.

Despite the RSS having a well-knit organisational structure in Kerala, Hindus in the state have not encouraged the BJP’s communal agenda till now—it was only in 2016 that the party managed to win a lone Assembly seat. Even in Sabarimala, women who attempted to enter the temple have said that it was the lumpen elements belonging to the RSS-BJP who were creating a ruckus, not the ordinary devotees.

While TV channels have shown thousands of women out on the roads, opposing women’s entry into the temple, some activists say all of these are not devotees.

“Don’t mistake the women in large numbers who chant nama japam (chanting the name of Lord Ayyappa) in front of television cameras as some devotees who shifted their political preferences to BJP. They are, in fact, existing BJP cadres and sympathizers,’’ said Dalit activist Rekha Raj.

Despite the RSS having a well-knit organisational structure in Kerala, Hindus in the state have not encouraged the BJP’s communal agenda till now—it was only in 2016 that the party managed to win a lone Assembly seat.

BJP started a satyagraha with much fanfare near Sabarimala but that was soon shifted to state capital Thiruvananthapuram for want of public attention. Even mainstream Malayalam media channels and newspaper, which have often been soft in its approach to BJP and other Sangh Parivar organisations, are now boycotting or blacking out BJP press conferences and speeches, citing its leaders’ inaction when journalists were attacked by cadre.

Shaji Jacob, an educationist and social thinker, agrees with Samuel’s assessment on the election.

“It was a long-pending dream of BJP to make inroads into Kerala but the wish got new wings when Amit Shah emerged as national president of the party. He made a number of trips to the state and got directly involved in party programmes to hard-sell issues as per their Hindutva agenda. But the party itself is feeling it is missing its target... The middle class is realizing now how harder would be the situation if BJP gets sizable control over the state,” he said.