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Sabarimala, Rahul Gandhi: Why a lot at stake for Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala

Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad further queers the pitch for the Left. As the lead campaigner for the ruling LDF, it may be up to him to counter any Rahul effect.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: April 1, 2019 6:41:44 am
Sabarimala, Rahul Gandhi: Why a lot at stake for Pinarayi Vijayan in Kerala Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

Though firmly in the saddle as Kerala Chief Minister, with the government as well as the party machinery in his tight grip, this Lok Sabha election in Kerala will be a referendum of sorts on Pinarayi Vijayan’s handling of the Sabarimala temple controversy and his push for various infrastructure projects.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s decision to contest from Wayanad further queers the pitch for the Left. As the lead campaigner for the ruling LDF, it may be up to him to counter any Rahul effect. Click here for more election news.

With the BJP deciding to spin its election campaign around Sabarimala — the government had, in the face of protests across the state, gone ahead with implementing the Supreme Court order of September 28, allowing women of all ages entry into the hill shrine — a crucial element this poll season would be whether the Hindu faithful, some of whom had protested against the government’s move, would drift away from the Left and move towards the BJP or the Congress.

In the Lok Sabha elections of 2009, the CPM-led LDF had won only four seats, with the Congress-led UDF getting 16 out of the 20 seats in the state. That electoral setback had been blamed on Vijayan’s decision to join hands with the People’s Democratic Party of terror-accused Abdul Nasser Madani. Vijayan had done so with an eye on the fringe Muslim vote bank, disregarding the objection of the CPI, besides a section within his own party led by then chief minister V S Achuthanandan.

READ | Rural crisis, man-animal conflict, landless tribals await Rahul Gandhi in new battleground of Wayanad

The experiment with the PDP had backfired, with Hindu voters abandoning the Left. The CPM’s internal review after the 2009 elections had observed that, “We should be careful to ensure that our secular identity does not get diluted by any such manoeuvres”.

In the 2014 elections, the LDF had improved its tally to eight seats. The CPM’s review found that the party had lost a section of Hindu votes to the BJP in the face of the Modi wave.

Now in the 2019 elections, the key question before the CPM is whether Vijayan’s tough stand on Sabarimala would cost the party any more Hindu votes. Ever since the Sabarimala issue emerged, Vijayan has been leading the Left’s stand, talking about Kerala’s renaissance movement and its progressive traditions. He had brought together various Hindu organisations to rally behind the government on Sabarimala.

To stress that the Sabarimala controversy wouldn’t harm its prospects, the party points to the LDF’s performance in the by-elections in February to various local bodies, where the LDF won 16 of 30 seats. The Opposition, however, notes that the state has 21,865 seats in local bodies and the bypoll results in 30 are no indicator.

However, in the event that the Left fares poorly and the BJP gets a foot in the door — the party has never won a Lok Sabha seat in the state — Vijayan could end up in the dock.

To offset any potential depletion of Hindu votes, the CPM is trying hard to bring together secular and progressive votes into its fold. The party has been projecting the Left as the only political front that can “protect the secular fabric of the country” while accusing the Congress of having a nexus with the BJP.

Read | Rahul Gandhi’s second seat Wayanad: BJP calls it panic, Left says Cong has lost the plot

CPM Politburo member M A Baby is hopeful of the party benefiting from the present situation. “In the Sabarimala issue, progressive people will stand with the Left,” says Baby.

Besides Sabarimala, Vijayan has pushed for various infrastructure projects over the last three years, often in the face of stiff resistance from various parties, including his own. The GAIL pipeline from Kochi to Bengaluru and Mangaluru, which passes through seven Kerala districts, is nearing completion. The project, which was conceived in 2007, had seen several protests, many of these led by the CPM. Similarly, Vijayan went ahead with the Kudankulam-Kochi 400kv power transmission line despite protests over land acquisition.

In all the elections over the past two decades, the CPM has been hamstrung by factionalism, with party veteran Achuthanandan playing the perpetual rebel. With the Achuthanandan factor now defunct, Vijayan cannot fall back on the alibi of factionalism.

Read | Lok Sabha polls: Wayanad will be Rahul Gandhi’s Waterloo, says LDF candidate PP Suneer

Congress state general secretary Joseph Vazhakkan said this election would be “very critical” for Vijayan. “The results should determine his future in the party.”

BJP spokesman M S Kumar agreed. “Vijayan controls the party as well as the government. We have never had such a situation in the CPM. If the CPM fails to do well, there will be protests (against him),’’ said Kumar.

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