Kerala polls: Caste and community leaders could hold the key this time

In Kerala, a state whose political narrative is defined by its bipolar contests between the CPM-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF, the role played by community leaders — of Muslims, Christians, Ezhavas and Nairs — provides for an interesting subtext.

Written by Liz Mathew | Updated: May 15, 2016 10:40:45 am
kerala, kerala elections, kerala polls, kerala assembly elections, 2016 kerala polls, kerala religious communities, kerala polls Ezhavas community, kerala nairs, kerala polls muslims, kerala christians, kerala news, india news, latest news (From left) Cardinal Baselios Cleemis, Panakkad Syed Hyderali Shihab Thangal, G Sukumaran Nair,Vellappally Natesan. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

ON April 19, the Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC), the apex body of the state’s Catholic Church, issued a four-page statement urging the faithful to reject political forces that “indulge in communal polarisation”. The statement also cautioned the laity against “divisive forces” who try to “impose any particular culture” and against those who have “dictatorial tendencies”. Until now, church leaders, through their pastoral letters read out during Sunday Mass, would urge people not to vote for those “who do not believe in God” (read Communists).

In Kerala, a state whose political narrative is defined by its bipolar contests between the CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), the role played by community leaders — of Muslims, Christians, Ezhavas and Nairs — provides for an interesting subtext. These community leaders, most of them outside active politics, could end up influencing the way Kerala votes on May 16.

While none of these leaders can claim to swing the votes of an entire community, it’s also true there will not be many among the 1,203 candidates who would not have reached out to these leaders and sought their “blessings” ahead of the election.

With its 34.8 million population, Kerala has a unique demographic pattern. It is the only state where two minority communities — Muslims and Christians — are as powerful and influential, if not more, than the Hindus.

The Church, with its different denominations, has the longest history of influencing Kerala’s politics. It played a crucial role in bringing down the first Communist government (led by E M S Namboothiripad). With its dominance in education and health, the Catholic Church in Kerala is almost a semi-government enterprise: it educates millions, provides jobs to thousands, takes care of the health of a large section of society and has its own legal system to settle community and matrimonial cases.

Unlike the Church, which has an indirect influence on the state’s politics, members of the Thangal family, considered to be spiritual leaders of Muslims in the state, have always had a significant say in the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the party formed in 1948 which is also the second largest party within the ruling UDF.

The influence of these two communities on Kerala’s society has been cited by both the RSS and the BJP to highlight the need to “consolidate” the Hindu community. The Ezhavas, the OBC caste that is most dominant among the Hindus, have had powerful social groups but the community has never formed itself into a political party. The reason for that, say experts, lies in the emergence of the Communist movement. When Sree Narayana Guru came up as a social reformer advocating scientific temper and rational outlook, it fitted in well with the doctrine of the Communists, who then got the Ezhavas and a section of Hindus under their banner.

Analysts also point out that as Christians and Muslims focused on educating their communities, it contributed to the rising influence of their leaders. In Kerala, both Christians and Muslims have set up a number of professional colleges for minorities, apart from schools and colleges.

Paul Zachariah, writer and political analyst, points out that Hindus benefited as much from these minority institutions. “So this feeling among the Hindus of being left out is not a genuine one, but a politically generated one. There have been attempts to brainwash people and polarise voters,” he says.

The increasing influence of caste and religious leaders among voters is an “alarming” trend, says Thiruvananthapuram-based social scientist M A Oommen. “Kerala has evolved as a society that debates on the basis of public reasoning. That was also the basis of the Sree Narayana movement, which was a rational movement. But communities are being led by parochial and narrow-minded people,” he says, adding, “Kerala, which once showed the way in political movements, student movements and social movements, is in reverse gear as far as the democratic process is concerned.”

Christians

18.38%
Stronghold: Central Kerala (Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Ernakulam, Idukki, Thrissur), pockets in Wayanad

Cardinal Baselios Cleemis

A few months after Narendra Modi took over as Prime Minister, he met Cardinal Cleemis, the Major Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Church, which is one of the three rites of Kerala’s powerful Catholic community. The meeting, held at the peak of reports of attacks on churches, earned Cleemis the ire of some Christian leaders. However, the cardinal, also the head of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), the apex decision-making body of the Catholic Church, was unapologetic and said it was important to meet the PM in the interest of the community. In fact, the warmth that Modi extended to the saffron-robed, rudraksh-wearing cardinal did not stop Cleemis from expressing his objections to the Centre’s “saffronisation of education”.

Kerala’s Christians, particularly the Catholic Church, have traditionally backed the Congress-led UDF. In a recent interview with The Indian Express, Joseph Powathil, Archbishop Emeritus of Chenganacherry archdiocese, admitted that the UDF has always been “favourable to Christians”. There have been several instances though of the Church shaking up the Congress leadership, the latest on the Kasturirangan Committee recommendations on the Western Ghats (the Church had opposed the Centre’s directive to ban environment-damaging activities in areas identified by the Kasturirangan report).

There have been accusations that church leaders even influence ticket distribution to benefit people from the community. The 57-year-old cardinal Cleemis, however, thinks a little persuasion to “accommodate the community” is not the same as “influencing”. “The distribution of posts in political parties should always reflect the proportion of the voters. The leadership should know how to accommodate communities,” the cardinal said.

Muslims

26.56%
Stronghold: Northern Kerala (Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kasargod, pockets in Kannur)

Panakkad Syed Hyderali Shihab Thangal

Thangal is president of the IUML, but has also inherited the spiritual leadership of the community from his father P M S Pookoya Thangal, said to be the 39th descendant of Prophet Muhammad. Everyday, hundreds visit the family’s ancestral home, Kodappanakkal Tharavad in Panakkad, Malappuram, seeking Thangal’s blessings and political intervention.

Thangal took over the leadership after his elder brother Mohammedali’s death in 2009. He may not be as charismatic as his predecessor, yet the Thangals are considered to be the most powerful Muslim leaders in the state.

The IUML has always remained a key player and the most influential party in the Congress-led UDF coalition, mainly because of its political clout in Malabar region.

Thangals and the IUML can be credited for the middle-path Kerala Muslims have adopted so far, especially in the Malabar region, where the community dominates. Even when Muslims in other parts of the country were suspicious about the Congress’s sincerity in “protecting secularism”, the IUML stood by the party. The IUML has had a significant role in keeping the politics of the state bipolar and thus preventing the BJP from making electoral inroads in the region.

If remittances from the Gulf have empowered Muslims in the region, the IUML’s attempts at participatory politics have given them a sense of political empowerment.

However, the rise of fundamentalist forces such as Abdul Nasir Maudany’s People’s Democratic Party, the Indian National League in the 1990s and 2000s and the Welfare Party and Social Democratic Party of India in the last decade pose a challenge to the Thangals in retaining youth support.

The challenge, analysts say, is even stronger now with the BJP rising in the state as a political force. Malayalam writer and activist M N Karassery says, “The IUML has been a democratic party and has not indulged in religious or community politics. But with beef politics taking centrestage, some fundamentalists have been trying to tell Muslims that they will not be protected by parties such as the IUML and so, there is a tendency among the youth to move towards fundamentalist outfits.”

Thangal disagrees. “The youth continue to be with us. By being part of the UDF government, we could do a lot — provide jobs to the youth and bring development to the region,” he says.

He is confident the BJP will not make inroads in the Malabar region, because “unlike the BJP and its Prime Minister who appear to be taking policy decisions for a particular community, the IUML has been working for people irrespective of their religion”.

Nairs

14.5%
Stronghold: South and Central Kerala (Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kottayam, Palakkad)

G Sukumaran Nair

Last month, on his way from Thiruvananthapuram to his constituency Puthuppally in Kottayam district, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy dropped in at the sprawling headquarters of the Nair Service Society (NSS) in Perunna, Changanassery. It was a planned meeting, but despite that, Chandy had to wait for more than 10 minutes for NSS general secretary G Sukumaran Nair to walk into the room to meet the Chief Minister.

The NSS has always been criticised by the community for not extracting its pound of flesh from the political class despite enjoying a strong presence in many pockets of the state.

It was in 1914 that Mannathu Padmanabhan founded the NSS as an organisation to work for the social welfare of the Nairs, a socially forward group that makes up 14.5 per cent of the state’s population. The NSS, however, has not been able to grow as a political force.

In fact, the outfit has always maintained that it does not want to align with any political party or front, though it has been seen as close to the UDF government.

“The Nair community does not want to be aligned with any party. Its people are large-hearted,” claims Sukumaran Nair. “We have always maintained an equidistant policy and it will continue this election too. We can neither work to consolidate Hindu votes nor can we support anyone who is trying to do that.”

During the Aruvikkara by-election last June, Nair had snubbed film actor Suresh Gopi, a Nair who has recently been nominated by the BJP to the Rajya Sabha, by asking him to leave the budget meeting of the NSS. Nair accused the actor of “creating an impression on polling day” that the NSS was with the BJP.

“He (Gopi) came to offend the NSS. The venue of the organisation cannot be used for a political agenda. He should not have come on this day,’’ Nair later said.

The organisation has had its experiments with politics too though. It floated a political party, National Democratic Party (NDP), in the 1980s and had some MLAs too. One of its leaders, K P Ramachandran Nair, was a minister in the K Karunakaran-led UDF government from 1982-85. But the NSS disbanded the party in 1994, saying the community had not benefited from it.

Ezhavas

23%
Presence across Kerala

Vellappally Natesan

This assembly election is a test of Vellappally Natesan’s claim that he commands a significant portion of the Ezhava community vote. As general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a community organisation in the name of the social reformer, Natesan has immense control over patronage dispensed through the many institutions the Yogam runs. These include schools, colleges and, now, micro-finance units.

He floated the Bharat Dharma Jena Sena (BDJS) — he doesn’t hold any official position while his son, Tushar, is the president — in a bid to convert the community muscle into a political force. With the BJP on the lookout for allies, Natesan hitched the BDJS to the NDA.

“Muslims have the Muslim League and there are about eight or nine Kerala Congress factions which are supported by Christians. So why is there so much worry when Hindus float a political party?” says Natesan. The BDJS is not pitched as an Ezhava outfit, but a broad alliance of different Hindu communities — “Namboothiri to Nayadi”, in Natesan’s own words. The 37 candidates it has fielded include a Brahmin priest, Akkeeramon Kalidasa Bhattathiripad in Thiruvalla, numerous SNDP activists and so on.

But can Natesan claim the mantle of the community’s leadership? The Ezhavas are no monolithic community. The Thiyyas in central and northern Kerala and the Ezhavas in the Travancore-Kochi region have never been part of a common political platform ever. Narayana Guru’s teachings radicalised this backward community, which found its political expression in mainstream parties, including the Congress and the Communist Party. Post-Independence, the Ezhava community became the mainstay of the CPI and, after the 1964 split, the CPM.

CPM leaders claim Natesan’s initiative will attract only the elite among the Ezhava community. Political analysts admit the BDJS may log in a few thousand votes in many constituencies and boost the NDA vote share. Winning seats could be tough, but Natesan’s gambit may influence the outcome in many seats that are usually won by narrow margins.

— Amrith Lal

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