The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) move to launch the ‘Save Sabarimala Yatra’ might not exactly be a Ram Janmabhoomi moment for the party in Kerala, but it can potentially open a window of opportunity before the 2019 elections. Hindus, in many instances led by women, have launched non-violent protests against the Supreme Court judgment on September 28, 2018 that allowed females between the ages of 10 and 50 years to enter the revered Sabarimala shrine located in the Pathanamthitta district of Kerala. The entry of women in this age group was prohibited at the shrine before the court’s verdict. Most of the initial protests across Kerala were driven by ordinary people - devotees of Lord Ayyappa, members of Nair Service Society and those associated with the Devasom Board of Travancore. Of late, both the BJP and Congress have joined the fray. On Sunday, the BJP was reportedly successful in declaring a shutdown in the district where the shrine is situated. Women-driven and political party-led protests have been reported from various districts of the state like Thrissur, Thiruvananthapuram Kottayam, Ernakulam, Alappuzha and even Kannur.
“The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF), led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), is vulnerable and in a tight spot at the moment. People across Kerala associate the Left government with the court’s judgment. The Left government has also said it will follow the court’s orders without intervening in any way. The BJP is fishing in troubled waters by spearheading these protests to get a vote bank for itself in the state. This will surely swing votes in Kerala in the 2019 elections for the BJP. The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) has joined the protests in favour of denying women entry to Sabarimala only to deny this advantage to the BJP” said Prof Sajad Ibrahim, Head of the Political Science department at Kerala University.
“The belief in god steams out of fear. These protestors believe that protesting against the verdict will assuage God’s fury. I don’t see any reason for the verdict to harm the Communists in 2019. Neither do I see the BJP benefitting from these protests as the Congress too has jumped into the protests and will deny the BJP any advantage that it might be hoping to reap electorally” said Prof Krishna Ananth, head of the History department at SRM University.
The BJP’s hare-footed galvanisation of its resources, including its women’s wing (Mahila Morcha), has the potential to translate into votes, even parliamentary seats, for the party in 2019 if it succeeds in keeping the fire of protests burning in Kerala long enough. The BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat from Kerala despite its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS) having a strong organisational base in the state. In the 2014 General Elections, it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that won 12 out of the 20 seats in Kerala. However, Sabarimala is just the kind of stimulus that the BJP needed to infiltrate the anti-left space that the Congress has occupied in Communist Kerala for decades. The BJP, in more ways than one, has received enough ammunition from the Sabarimala verdict to transform into a ‘party for the believers’ in its quest for making a dent in Kerala.
Hindus made up just about 55 per cent of Kerala’s population according to the 2011 census. In the 2014 parliamentary elections, both the Communists and the Congress lost to the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) in two parliamentary constituencies where Hindus comprise less than 40 per cent of the population. In 18 out of the 20 constituencies, where Hindus make up over half the population, the Congress and the Communists have shared the spoils over the last two parliamentary elections. The BJP’s spearheading of the Sabarimala protests could give it sufficient leverage in at least nine of these constituencies where Hindus comprise over 60 per cent of the population. Seven out of these nine Hindu dominated constituencies have become the pocket boroughs of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the Congress since 2009. The Communists haven’t ceded Palakkad, Alattur and Attingal, while the Congress has latched on to Alappuzha, Mavelikara, Thiruvananthapuram and Vadakara in 2009 and 2014.
While more than 20 million people from across the country are estimated to visit the Sabarimala shrine every year, a substantial number of them come from some of the Hindu dominated districts of Kerala. The BJP’s success in these constituencies hinges on its ability to paint not just the Communists, but also the Congress as having ‘historically’ batted for disturbing the venerated status of Sabarimala and diluting the 'spiritual refinement' required to undertake the pilgrimage. In an affidavit filed in courts in November 2007, the then Communist government, led by VS Achuthanandan, had clarified that it was in favour of allowing women of all ages to Sabarimala at all times and it did not want “discrimination towards any woman or any section of the society.” Just before remitting office in 2016, the UDF government under the chief ministership of Congressman Oomen Chandy stated that it did not support the 2007 affidavit. When the present Communist-led government under the chief ministership of Pinarayi Vijayan came to power in 2016, it again reiterated support for its 2007 affidavit. During the final hearing of the case, the Kerala government’s lawyer Jaideep Gupta reiterated the stand in court that Kerala “does not conceive of any discrimination as regards the entry of women into the temple where male devotees can enter.” These oscillating stances by successive Congress and Communist led governments led even the Supreme Court to observe that the state of Kerala had “taken contrary stands at different times.”
What could further work against the Communists in this political battle over one of the holiest places of Hindu worship in Kerala is that many of the protests against the verdict are reportedly being spearheaded by women – the very constituency and people whose rights the Communists claimed to be fighting for. The only review in the Supreme Court’s judgment also came from a woman judge on the three judge bench. Justice Indu Malhotra in her dissenting judgment noted, “The Writ Petition does not deserve to be entertained for want of standing…. Constitutional morality in a secular polity would imply the harmonisation of the fundamental rights, which include the right of every individual, religious denomination, or sect, to practise their faith and belief in accordance with the tenets of their religion, irrespective of whether the practice is rational or logical.”