On the afternoon of September 28, shortly after India’s apex court handed down what many consider a historic verdict ending age-related restrictions on the entry of women at the hilltop shrine at Sabarimala, Ramesh Chennithala, the Congress’ Leader of Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, appeared before the press with a brief, somewhat unprepared statement.
He affirmed that the Congress ‘welcomed’ the Supreme Court ruling and that every Indian must abide by it, no matter what. The statement was seen as neither here, nor there, somehow indicating there was more to come. If rights activists expected a full-throated endorsement of the verdict by a leader of a party, conceived as liberal and progressive, it never came.
But it did far away in New Delhi where the party’s high command called the verdict “progressive and far-reaching”. In the same vein, it added that state units of the party are never ‘suffocated’ or their expression of opinion ‘subjugated’.
In the days following the verdict, spontaneous protests and prayer marches broke out first in the town of Pandalam, home to the erstwhile royal family of which Ayyappan, the deity at Sabarimala, is considered a member and subsequently in all major cities and towns of the state.
The agitations, with the chanting of ‘swamiye saranam ayyappa (Ayyappa, I surrender to you), began as mostly non-political and served in great fashion to warn the state’s chief political parties that vocal sections of the Hindu community are indeed angry and outraged at the top court ruling.
During the same period, the core committee of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) met to chalk out its strategy on the raging issue and concluded that it would risk alienating its social base if it did not stand firmly with believers. The wheel had turned a full circle with Chennithala, who had earlier sworn to follow and implement the SC ruling, now advocating a position to bypass the same court.
It is widely understood among Kerala’s social and political circles that the Sabarimala row would leave profound repercussions on the general elections scheduled in the summer of 2019. On January 22, the top court will hear the review petitions in an open court, with the final decision likely to go either way.
But one thing’s clear: the controversy will weigh heavy on the mind of voters, especially the majority Hindu community when they go to cast their ballots. A polarisation of the Hindu vote on religious lines, unheard of and unseen in previous Assembly or Parliamentary polls in Kerala, is likely but who the beneficiary of such votes would be is still unclear.
On one side are the Left parties which have stuck to the demand that police will ensure security to any woman wanting to enter the shrine. On the other side stands the BJP-RSS which has unleashed a string of demonstrations and forced arrests in a bid to suspend the court order. Somewhere, in this mishmash of ideological positions, stands the Congress party.
Dr J Prabhash, former pro-vice chancellor of Kerala University and a political science professor, believes the Congress leadership in the state is confused over its position on the entire controversy. A party that took progressive views on atrocities against women like triple talaq has betrayed it’s stated liberal ideals, he argues.
“They (Congress) could have said the procedures (of implementing the verdict) could be debated, not the issue itself. They could have said, ‘We need a second thought. We need to educate the people.’ In my opinion, they have misread the entire issue, they couldn’t even understand it,” said Prabhash, over phone from Thiruvananthapuram.
“You see, the Congress’s social base in Kerala is not ideologically committed, it is politically committed. Today, it’s social base is eroding…political debate is polarised between the CPM and the BJP right now and Congress is nowhere in the debate. If it continues like this, it will end up being a non-entity in the state’s politics,” he added.
In Kerala, dominated by the see-saw politics between the CPM-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF over decades, the inroads that the BJP has been slowly but silently making has caused a deep churn among both coalitions. The saffron party doesn’t have an arithmetic heft in the Assembly — it has one MLA in the 140-member House — but it’s graph over the years has shown a steady rise.
At this juncture comes the Sabarimala row which, the BJP calculates, gives it enough fodder for potential political gains in 2019. It’s eyes are on the social base of the Congress, composed of conservative sections among Brahmin, Nair and Ezhava communities of Hindus.
“Congress-inu vere vazhi illa (There’s no other option for the Congress),” says Sunnykutty Abraham, a journalist-writer who worked for five years as the Chief Editor of Jaihind TV, the television mouthpiece of the Congress party. “If the Congress had taken a stand (against believers), they would have faced massive losses. Their base has always included a section of religious Hindus. So politically they cannot afford to be neutral. Now, I don’t personally think there will be big losses,” added Abraham.
In fact, this position not to abandon its conservative Hindu base was expressed in no uncertain terms by K Sudhakaran, the party’s working-president and former MP from Kannur. Addressing party workers in Kasaragod district, Sudhakaran warned, “If the Congress party fails to get believers alongside it, the party’s roots will get ripped apart. Kerala will abandon us.” He asked party workers to get the organisation’s message out to the people that it will stand solidly in support of religious traditions and rituals.
“We should not create opportunities for the BJP (to exploit the situation). Else, the next election will be a Waterloo for the Congress,” Sudhakaran said.
A source close to the party even indicated that the KPCC, in order to quell dissensions within and moreover harden its conservative stand, even issued directions to its MLAs and MPs who harbour a liberal point of view, not to express such opinions in public.
For the dissenters, however, the way out was clear. G Raman Nair, who was a member of the KPCC executive committee and has demonstrated his understanding of Sabarimala during his term as the president of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB) between 2004-07, joined the BJP and was promptly made the party’s vice-president. He told IndianExpress.com over phone, “I am no longer with the Congress, but it was under Oommen Chandy that Sabarimala benefited the most. During my term as TDB president, a master plan was created…but today, there is no ‘vyakthatha’ (clarity) within the Congress. A lot of MLAs are still in favour of the SC verdict. The party has not been able to create channels with communities like Nair Service Society (NSS) which have backed the party in the past. Today, NSS is making its presence felt through protests, in conjunction with BJP.”
Kodikunnil Suresh, the party’s Mavelikkara MP and a newly-appointed working-president of the KPCC, explained why the party cannot replicate the BJP-RSS methods of protests. “We are with believers, but we cannot protest like the Sangh Parivar. RSS propagates extreme Hindutva positions out of which the BJP takes advantages. We will protest in our own way,” Suresh said, on phone.
Asked what position the party will take if the Supreme Court were to trash the review petitions on January 22, Suresh replied, “We will ask for legal measures such as bringing an ordinance in Parliament. If the BJP is not interested in bringing an ordinance, it means they are not committed to Hindu interests or the beliefs at Sabarimala. We will expose them.”