Reviving Sabarimala sentiment could backfire for Congress. Here is why

Sabarimala women entry issue
Pinarayi Vijayan (L), Ramesh Chennithala (R). Photo: Manorama

On February 6, when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan dedicated 111 hi-tech schools to the state in a high profile online event, the Congress party, too, had a major offering to place before the Kerala electorate: The draft of Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rights, Customs and Usages) Act, 2021.

The draft bans the Sabarimala entry of women between the age of 10 and 50, and proposes a two-year jail term for the violation of Sabarimala's customs and rituals.

Since the unveiling of the Sabarimala draft bill came after the opening of the hi-tech schools on the day, it looked as though the Congress believed that a promise to prevent menstruating women from entering the hill shrine would easily make up for the goodwill that will go the LDF way for constructing state-of-the-art schools for the ordinary people's children.

It also looks as if the Congress hopes its perceived advantage in the Sabarimala issue could outshine not just the hi-tech schools but also all the triumphs the LDF could claim from all its welfare and development gains put together.

This could either be a bold electoral gamble or the muddled thinking of a party out of ideas.

Rusted weapons of attack

With the multiple probes into the gold smuggling scandal leading nowhere, the UDF hopes of dragging the chief minister through a spate of corruption charges have, at least for now, been dashed.

The attempts to first ridicule Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB) as a mere fantasy and later as a vehicle that would saddle Kerala with mighty debts had lost their persuasive power when KIIFB projects – schools, hospitals, flyovers and highways – started coming up one by one.

Sabarimala temple
Devotees at the Lord Ayyappa Temple at Sabarimala. File photo: Manorama

The Comptroller and Auditor General's finding that KIIFB was unconstitutional could have been damning but finance minister T M Thomas Isaac had preempted any such eventuality by turning the tables on the CAG (he said the CAG's comments were made without hearing the government's side) even before the report was tabled in the Assembly.

Congress has not been able to come up with an alternative to KIIFB either. Finance minister T M Thomas Isaac has been constantly taunting the UDF leaders to come up with a better plan if they were unhappy with the KIIFB. They have not. 'Just wait for our election manifesto,” is all they would say. Yet, long before the manifesto is ready, they have a Draft Act ready for Sabarimala.

Congress leaders are not even referring to Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) or the basic income scheme to counter LDF's claims of the highest ever welfare pension for the greatest number ever and the near universal distribution of free ration kits.

Gains of irritating an old wound

The Congress's entire hope, it now seems, rests on Sabarimala. The party is banking on an old grudge against Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, for his allegedly arrogant handling of the Sabarimala Supreme Court verdict, to take it to power in the coming Assembly elections.

On the face of it, the strategy looks smart. It already has a normally unshakable chief minister squirming. Last time he met the media, on February 5, Vijayan tried his best to sound normal when he said his government would hold discussions with all sections of society once the larger bench of the Supreme Court pronounces its verdict.

When he was asked why he did not initiate such discussions when the original verdict was delivered, he gave an unrelated answer. He refused to be drawn into the question.

The plan can also work as a recap of sorts. If at all people had been deluded by the seeming invincibility of Pinarayi Vijayan after the local body polls, the Congress hopes it would update the electorate on what Pinarayi had done before the deluge and the COVID-19 had hit Kerala, and possibly induce a forgotten anger.

The strategy is worth a go as this is exactly what the LDF Government did with the Solar Case. It referred the case to the CBI hoping it would provoke recollections of the sordid Solar Scam days, which brought the downfall of the Oommen Chandy government.

Sabarimala protest
When the protest following the entry of two women at the Sabarimala Temple turned violent. Photo taken in January, 2019. File photo: Manorama

BJP's frail cousin

The flip side is, a Congress banking on old notions of faith and purity could be seen as a pale version of the BJP. Nothing could be more self-destructive for Congress than to make it seem that the coming Assembly election is a choice is between the 'progressive' LDF and two faith-based parties; the BJP, too, has now officially declared that Sabarimala would be its main election issue.

More dangerously, the grand old party could find itself on the primitive side of the gender debate. Highly regressive taboos surrounding menstruation, which the younger and assertive generation of women in Kerala scoff at, are embedded within the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala. So to press the Sabarimala point hard is to push the blow-up button.

Renaissance land

By taking Sabarimala and faith too seriously, Congress is also making the mistake of presuming that Kerala has stopped thinking progressively.

The party should not lose sight of the truth that the 2019 Lok Sabha results showed Kerala at its progressive best. Of course, there was disappointment in the way Pinarayi handled the Supreme Court verdict but the Lok Sabha results were more the reflection of Kerala's collective rebellion against the narrow, sectarian faith-based politics of the BJP.

If the state had voted overwhelmingly in favour of the UDF it was only because there was no other choice. A handful of LDF MPs from Kerala, voters knew, cannot be expected to stop the Modi-Shah juggernaut. It also helped that the Congress was sensible enough not to take the Sabarimala issue to the streets the way the BJP did.

(In other parts of the country, Rahul Gandhi's temple visit spree made the Congress seem an emaciated version of a powerful Hindu force like the BJP, and therefore no choice at all.)

And now for the Congress in Kerala to think of the 2019 Lok Sabha results as anti-Pinarayi and blindly unleash a faith-based campaign would be to miss the point completely. It could be suicidal.

Dialectical spiritualism

Moreover, the chief minister had subtly made amends. When he said he would be careful next time when the Supreme Court verdict comes, Vijayan was in his own way apologising.

After he introduced 10 percent reservation for the economically weak among the forward castes, Pinarayi is no more disagreeable to the upper caste Hindus who were in the forefront of the Sabarimala agitation.

The CPM, too, is making an extra effort to woo the faithful. The overtures made to the Christian community is a case in point. Top party leaders like central committee member M V Govindan has openly admitted to the limits of 'dialectical materialism', and has argued for carrying the faithful along.

No wonder the CPM candidates won big in Konni, a constituency where the faithful were said to be highly agitated, and also in Vattiyoorkavu, a constituency where both the RSS and the Nair Service Society (NSS) are said to be highly influential.  

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