Seven months later, the tussle over the Sabarimala temple has moved to the ballot paper in Pathanamthitta. Seeing a chance to make inroads in a state that it has struggled to win seats in despite a strong RSS presence, the BJP has fielded its Kerala general secretary, K Surendran, from the constituency.
Spread over five Assembly segments in Pathanamthitta district and two in Kottayam, and including the Sabarimala hill shrine, the constituency has been won by the Congress’s Anto Antony since it came into being in 2009. However, last time Antony’s victory margin had come down to 56,000 votes from 1.16 lakh after the Left had fielded a Congress rebel, Philipose Thomas.
Hindus constitute 56.93 per cent of the population while Christians make up 38.12 per cent in the constituency, with the rest mostly Muslims.
While Antony is seeking a hat-trick of wins, the CPM has fielded its sitting Aranmula MLA, Veena George. But all eyes are on Surendran, who was the face of the Sabarimala agitation. The BJP brought him here to cash in on the Hindu anger over the LDF government’s decision to comply with the Supreme Court order to allow all women entry into the temple. Surendran is expected to attract some sympathy votes for the government slapping 242 cases against him over the Sabarimala violence.
Before this, Surendran had unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 and 2014 from Kasaragod, and the Assembly polls of 2011 and 2016 from Manjeswar in Kasaragod district. He had lost in 2016 by a mere 89 votes.
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Consequently, the electoral narrative in Pathanamthitta is centred on faith, with the floods of last August that hit the area barely getting any attention. At Pathampuzha village near Poonjar, farmer Shankara Pillai, who is facing the brunt of a crisis in the rubber sector, is angrier with the CPM over CM Pinarayi Vijayan’s Sabarimala decisions. “People are hurt. Most of the temple-going Hindus in our region will vote for Surendran,” Pillai said.
At the neighbouring village of Thekkekara, Aneesha K P, who runs a small shop, says the general impression is that tradition has been violated at Sabarimala. “Though the government said entry of all women was part of empowering women, we don’t feel so,” she said.
The BJP is counting on votes of upper-caste Hindu Nairs, who have traditionally gone with the Congress. The Nair Service Society (NSS), which had locked horns with the CPM over Sabarimala, was the first to hold protests against women entry. Officially, the NSS has said it stands with “the faithful” and will maintain equidistance from all parties.
NSS sources said the organisation is confused about what stand to take. “We want to defeat the CPM, but for that we have to ensure that the votes of the faithful are not divided between the BJP and Congress,” a source said.
CPM candidate George is a former TV journalist and the wife of former secretary of Orthodox Church George Joseph. While she is eyeing the Christian votes, particularly non-Catholic, the Orthodox Church has come out against the CPM government over its failure to implement a Supreme Court order to hand over the administration of several churches now occupied by the rival Jacobite Church.
Orthodox Church priests’ trustee Fr M O John said, “We supported LDF candidate Saji Cheriyan in the by-poll in Chengannur last year and he won. But the government failed to address the ownership dispute.”
Conscious that the Pathanamthitta contest is in a way a mandate on the government’s stand on Sabarimala, George stressed that come voting day, Sabarimala would not count. “The election is not about the temple but development… The Left has always respected religious faith and no woman was forced to go to the temple,” she argued.
With Pathanamthitta one of the worst hit by the August 2018 floods, the affected, meanwhile, wait for some attention.
In Ranni, which bore the brunt of the flood, many families say they are yet to get full compensation. “My family got Rs 10,000, against losses of Rs 1.5 lakh. There are families which haven’t got that either,” said Bindu T R, a housewife. CPM legislator Raju Abraham, who represents Ranni Assembly segment, said most victims had been compensated “but in cases of houses without proper documents or in disputes, we could not help”.
Surendran said he was seeking votes not just on faith but also development. “All communities are worried about the atheist government infringing upon their faith. Plus, development in the constituency has come to a standstill after the floods.”