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Sangh’s U-Turn on Sabarimala May Help BJP Gatecrash Left's 2019 Party in Kerala

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s decision to implement the SC order – or rather his perceived haste in implementing the order – actually came as a surprise lifeline for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.

Anu Narayanan |

Updated:October 17, 2018, 9:32 AM IST
Sangh’s U-Turn on Sabarimala May Help BJP Gatecrash Left's 2019 Party in Kerala
File photo of Lord Ayyappa devotees taking part in a protest against the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa Temple. (AP Photo)

In the beginning of summer 2006, Arun Jaitley, then BJP general secretary, was having a chat with journalists in the congested media hall of the party headquarters at 8, Asoka Road in New Delhi. A journalist from Kerala asked him about the party’s prospects in the state’s Assembly elections due in May that year. Jaitley pointed out that the main political party in the state, the CPI (M), in spite of its Communist ideology, was “basically a Hindu party”, and that the BJP’s task was to overcome that image.

Twelve years on, the Sabarimala agitation provides the BJP with an opportunity to become the representative of the “apolitical” Hindu sentiment in the state. The verdict by the Supreme Court’s Constitution Bench to allow women of all ages to enter the Lord Ayyappa temple has thousands of devotees up in arms in India’s most literate state. Women in large numbers have hit the streets with chants of ‘Saranam Ayyappa’ demanding that women of all ages shouldn’t enter the temple.

The original statement from the RSS HQ that welcomed the verdict had put the BJP in a tough spot. The Congress high command held the same view citing gender equality, but the local unit led by state Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala threw in their lot with the agitating segment of devotees, and it even lashed out at the apex court judgment, all the while maintaining there was no mismatch between what is said in New Delhi and what is being done in Kerala.

In damage control mode, the BJP quickly issued a statement in support of the devotees, while its cadre joined the protest on ground. Protesting against the CPM-led government’s decision to implement the apex court order with immediate effect, the BJP launched a massive yatra from Pandalam, the erstwhile ‘kingdom of Ayyappa’. Covering 97 km, the yatra reached Thiruvananthapuram on Monday.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s decision to implement the SC order – or rather his perceived haste in implementing the order – actually came as a surprise lifeline for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. The RSS wasted no time and convened an urgent meeting of its Prantiya Karyakari Mandal or state committee to discuss the matter on October 7. The next day, it called a meeting of all Sangh Parivar outfits and like-minded Hindu organisations.

Cleverly distancing itself from the SC verdict, the Sangh declared its support to the agitation against the government. It now said that any change in Sabarimala customs should be made after deliberations with the stakeholders.

A large chunk of the Hindu population in Kerala is with the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana (SNDP), two mighty caste organisations in the state. Both are part of the agitation against the SC order as well as the government.

SNDP general secretary Vellappally Natesan, however, cast his lot with the Pinarayi Vijayan government and alleged that protests were politically motivated against the CPM. Ironically, SNDP’s political arm, the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), is a BJP ally and headed by Natesan’s son Thushar Vellappally. With his son in the NDA fold, the BJP didn’t pay much heed to Natesan’s rumblings.

The state is now on the verge of a political shift, one that could be advantageous to the BJP. According to veteran journalist P Rajan, the BJP has a good chance of increasing its vote percentage in Kerala and may win two seats from the state in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

“At least 5% of the traditional Hindu votes bagged by the CPM usually may be lost this time, benefitting the BJP,” says Rajan. But the ultimate beneficiary, he says, will be the Congress with a strong position in 14 seats. “In the last Assembly election, there was an evident shift in Muslim votes towards the CPM.

Given the implementation of the Sabarimala verdict, the fear of Uniform Civil Code being brought in may force Muslims to rethink their support to the Left, and they may eventually return to the Congress,” he surmises.

Rajan further says that the perceived disparity in the treatment of Hindu-centric issues and other religions may play on voters’ minds.

“This disparity brought women to the forefront of this (Sabarimala). The best example is the difference between the CM’s outburst against the removal of a cross from an encroached government land in Idukki and his haste in implementing the SC order on Sabarimala temple,” says Rajan.

P Narayanan, former organising secretary of the Jana Sangh, concurs that the BJP “has the best political chance in its history” and the party leadership must now display the political wisdom needed to tap into this sentiment.

An RSS functionary, who did not wish to be named, said the BJP was slow to act and must constantly engage with the Hindu communities in Kerala. “The BJP should have done much more to bring the non-Nair Hindu community into the Sabarimala agitation. Now opponents are projecting it as an upper-class struggle.”

At least one-third of those protesting against the Sabarimala verdict are Sangh Parivar members or sympathisers. Their influence in the agitation is growing by the day. Though the agitation has not become violent yet, there have been reports of two women being forcibly evicted from a state transport bus to Pamba.

A large number of women devotees have gathered at Nilakkal, which became the new base camp for the pilgrimage following the floods, to ensure that no woman between the ages of 10 and 50 is allowed entry into the shrine. Some women journalists, too, have been stopped from proceeding to Pamba. With the shrine set to reopen for monthly prayers on Wednesday evening, CM Pinarayi Vijayan has warned protesters that his government intends to follow the SC order.

Though a good 6-7 months away, the Lok Sabha battle in Kerala may well end up revolving around a single election issue — Sabarimala.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Kochi. Views are personal)

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