One of Kerala’s most keenly-watched electoral contests is taking place in Pathanamthitta, a constituency that shot into national limelight as the nerve-centre of the agitation over the entry of women of menstruating age at the Sabarimala hill-shrine. Unlike a majority of the poll battles in the state, which are bipolar in nature between the Left and the Congress, the fight in Pathanamthitta is a test of how well the BJP can consolidate the Hindu vote over Sabarimala and its attempts to make inroads into communities which have traditionally been inimical to its brand of politics.
A prestige seat for both the ruling LDF and the BJP on account of the pitched ideological battle they fought on the streets of Kerala on Sabarimala last year, the result in Pathanamthitta on May 23 has far-reaching consequences for both coalitions. A victory for the Left will vindicate chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s strident but progressive position on gender equality and at the same time confirm the Hindu community’s unwavering commitment to the ideals it espouses. On the other hand, if the BJP manages to sneak a victory here, it will be a telling example of the Sangh Parivar’s ability to penetrate deep into its core constituency and win over floating voters. If the right-wing experiment succeeds, as it believes it will, Pathanamthitta will pave the way for future religious polarisation, hitherto unseen in Kerala.
The seat and its demographics
Spread over seven Assembly segments in central Kerala, Pathanamthitta came into being in 2009 after delimitation. It is part of a region, plastered with rubber and spice plantations, that has traditionally been sympathetic to the Congress party and its allies.
While Hindus constitute nearly 57% of the population, Christians make up about 38% with the rest from the Muslim community. Among the Hindus, upper-caste Nairs hold the edge, followed by the Ezhavas, an OBC community, and then the SC community. Among Christians, the Orthodox Church is the dominant community, followed by the Catholics and the Pentecostal sect.
In the past two elections, Antony, a Catholic, enjoyed the support of the Church coupled with a large share of Nair and Muslim votes. But there are enough indications on the ground that his popularity is rapidly waning. For one, his victory margin from 2009 to 2014 crashed from 1.11 lakh votes to 56,000 votes, a large share of which is seen to have gone to the BJP candidate. Secondly, when the state unit of the Congress asked the district unit to come up with names of prospective candidates, it responded by suggesting three names, cropping Antony out. The state unit had to intervene and after close scrutiny of candidates decided to finally go with Antony keeping caste and religious factors in mind.
To wrest the seat this time at any cost, the LDF has fielded Veena George, a journalist-turned-MLA, who belongs to the Orthodox Christian community. In the 2016 Assembly elections, Veena, backed by the CPM, was a giant-slayer who defeated K Sivadasan Nair of the Congress in Aranmula by around 8000 votes. Veena’s husband is a former secretary of the Church as well, making her close to the clergy.
The BJP, which deliberated for weeks on end to finalise its candidate, went with K Surendran, the state general secretary who languished in jail for nearly three weeks after being charged with involvement in the Sabarimala agitation. Surendran, who missed out on becoming the MLA in 2016 by losing by just 89 votes in the Manjeswaram Assembly constituency, is being heralded by the party as the poster-boy of its temple agitation. While he’s certain to improve his party’s vote-share in the seat, the degree to which he and his party organisation can penetrate into the core Hindu vote will have to be seen.
‘The better BJP does, better it is for LDF’
The general impression on the ground is that the verdict in Pathanamthitta ultimately comes down to minute caste and community calculations in the region. Everyone agrees that the BJP will do far better than how it performed in 2014, on the back of a sustained agitation over Sabarimala and the active involvement of the cadres of the Sangh Parivar in door-to-door campaigning. In fact, it’s widely being reported that the RSS has taken charge of the campaign on the ground, leaving BJP leaders to fill the optics.
Sathyan, a retired government servant who works at a fruit stall in Pathanamthitta town, believes the better BJP does in this election, better it is for the LDF.
“Whatever gains the BJP will make, say an excess of 50,000 votes or more, will only come from the Congress. A large section of the Nair community will vote for the BJP. In such a scenario, a depleted Congress will make it easier for the LDF to cross the finishing line,” he said.
“In my opinion, Veena has a better chance of winning. To win here, a candidate needs to get somewhere close to 3.5 lakh votes. The BJP got 1.32 lakh votes in 2014 and in the Assembly elections in 2016, it got a cumulative vote of 1.90 lakh votes. So, without depleting it’s existing vote-base, it needs to still get around 1.5 lakh votes more which is an extremely tough bargain.”
His colleague in the fruit stall agrees. “He (Surendran) may get a maximum of 1 lakh votes. That won’t be enough.”
Sathyan, who’s an Ezhava, says his community is not likely to vote en-masse for the BJP as it has its own ideological leanings dating back decades with the Left. “Yes, there will be some erosion, but it’s not going to be massive.”
Saji, a native of Elanthur located a few kilometres outside Pathanamthitta town, echoes the same thoughts.
“It really feels bad to say this, but ultimately, people vote in these parts keeping caste in mind. Caste is at the heart of the ballot,” he said.
‘They know that Hindus will not react’
“Did you hear about them opening the fuse of the temple loudspeaker?’ a shopkeeper in Elanthur asks, referring to an incident in Kattakada in which the chief minister was visibly annoyed when a temple loudspeaker next to his election rally venue began blaring prayer chants. After the CM expressed displeasure, a couple of CPM leaders went ahead and disconnected the electricity line to the loudspeaker. The incident provoked many to question why the CPM and its leaders were intolerant of the Hindu faith.
“This is what they do. They know that Hindus will not react. Apparently, their (CPM government) next target is the Padmanabhaswamy temple, the world’s richest. They want to take over its wealth,” the shopkeeper, said declining to identify his name.
“I voted for LDF last time, but this time I will vote for BJP,” he said.
An operative part of Surendran’s campaign has been to paint a picture of the LDF government remaining a mute spectator to atrocities against Hindus. The BJP repeatedly cites the ongoing feud between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara church and how the Left declines to take a stand on the matter.
“Surendran will win 100% with over 50,000 votes. Sabarimala has been a sore point for many Hindus in Kerala,” an ecstatic BJP supporter, attending a massive roadshow of Amit Shah, said.
Pathanamthitta in many ways will demonstrate who’s stronger – the organizational heft of the Sangh Parivar or the well-oiled machinery of the CPM.
On the development pitch
If Surendran’s campaign has been carefully curated on the foundation of the Hindu anger over Sabarimala by playing parodies of popular Ayyappa hits, the LDF candidate goes deep into the development needs of the constituency.
At a public meeting in Elanthur on Saturday, Veena takes the microphone to address voters. Surrounded by dozens of young men on bikes carrying the Left flag, Veena, who’s well acquainted with the geography and politics of Aranmula – her Assembly constituency and one of the seven segments of Pathanamthitta – says, ‘Choose wisely between 10 years of no development of the UDF MP to three years of the state government’s performance. Has there even been one central government project that got implemented here? ‘
Her attack is twin-forked and aimed at both the Congress and the BJP. At her rallies, she raises all the issues the locals want to hear – effects of demonetization and GST, falling price of rubber and paucity of jobs for youth. Apart from hinting that the BJP is playing out a communal campaign, she doesn’t talk about Sabarimala much.
To the Left’s advantage, there is a general perception that the issue has lost its steam and is not likely to post dividends for the BJP as expected. They all agree: if the polls were held in October last year at the height of the agitation, the BJP would have swept the region.
‘Over time, it has got diluted. Public memory is short, ‘ Sathyan said.