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Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Explained: The tussle for the Christian vote in Kerala

Traditionally considered a Congress supporter, the community is now being wooed by both the Left and the BJP.

Written by Shaju Philip | Thiruvananthapuram |
Updated: March 16, 2021 12:41:31 pm
Nirmala Sitharaman at the launch of ‘Kerala Vijaya Yatra’ in Ernakulam, one of the districts BJP is targeting. (PTI Photo)

Central Kerala with its significant Christian population has emerged as a key political theatre in the state ahead of the elections. The community, which constitutes 18.38% of the state’s population, can affect results in 33 seats across Ernakulam, Kottayam, Idukki and Pathanamthitta districts. Traditionally considered a Congress supporter, the community is now being wooed by both the Left and the BJP.

The Left’s bid

This is the first Assembly election after the formal split of the Kerala Congress (M), the largest Christian party in the state. While the KC(M) was an ally of the Congress-led UDF for the last 40 years, the official faction of the party, now led by the party’s late chairman K M Mani’s son Jose K Mani, has switched to the CPM-led LDF. The 13 seats given to the KC(M) by the LDF indicate the significance of the Christian vote for it. In fact, despite protests by party cadres, the CPM)has given the KC(M) its traditional bastions like Ranni in Pathanamthitta, won by the party for the last 25 years.

On the other hand, the rival KC(M) faction, led by veteran P J Joseph, has joined ranks with the UDF. They are likely to get 9-10 seats in Kottayam, Idukki and Pathan- amthitta districts.

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Church tussle

The April 6 polls are also the first Assembly elections in Kerala after a 2017 Supreme Court verdict which resulted in control of several Jacobite churches in the state being handed over to the rival Orthodox faction. Jacobites, who are concerned about the loss of their churches and fear a threat to their faith, can influence poll outcome in 8-10 constituencies.

In the recent local body polls, the Jacobite faction supported the LDF after the state government brought in an ordinance allowing the faithful from both factions to use the same burial ground. But the community has drifted away from the CPM-led government for failing to bring in legislation “protect their interests”.

To find a solution to the long-standing dispute, the Jacobite faction has held several rounds of talks with RSS-BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The Synod of the Church has even declared support for the BJP in the forthcoming elections if the party assures protection of their rights. Incidentally, senior Congress leader P C Chacko, who quit the party on Wednesday, belongs to the Jacobite faction.

The Orthodox faction, on the other hand, has vehemently opposed any new legislation to resolve the church dispute. Besides, since the Congress’s Oommen Chandy, a key political figure from the Orthodox community, was given charge of the Kerala elections, the Church leadership has warmed up to the UDF.

Interestingly, the Orthodox factor has also come out in support of the BJP in the Chengannur constituency, currently held by the CPM, after BJP-RSS intervention helped save a 1,000-year-old Orthodox church from demolition. The BJP had polled 16% of the votes in Chengannur in the 2016 Assembly polls.

Targeting the Hindu, Christian vote

To woo Christian voters, both the CPM and BJP have been claiming that the UDF is controlled by its ally IUML. While the CPM has alleged that the IUML is a bridge between the UDF and the right-wing outfit Jamaat-e-Islami, the BJP’s campaign has been trying to bring together the Christian and upper-caste Hindu voters in Kerala by raising the issue of Muslim extremism.

The BJP has also been raising the issue of ‘love jihad’. Its win in a few panchayats in central Kerala in the recent local body elections is seen as the result of Christian support.

Now, while the Christian votes are expected to go mainly to the LDF and UDF in the coming elections, the BJP can definitely hurt both by able to take away some.

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