The Election Bulletin: Congress’ Sabarimala plank and the politics behind it

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The Big Story: Sabarimala Back in the Limelight

Why did Congress decide to raise the Sabarimala women’s entry issue ahead of the Assembly poll? How will it benefit the party? Is Sabarimala a poll issue relevant in Kerala now?

Many such questions have been doing the rounds ever since Congress unveiled what is considered to be its election trump card in the last week of January.

The party’s senior leader Oommen Chandy fired the first salvo on January 26 when he wrote a letter to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, urging him to withdraw the affidavit the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government had submitted favouring women's entry at Sabarimala and take measures to expedite a speedy Supreme Court ruling on behalf of the devotees.

Oommen Chandy
Oommen Chandy

The very next day Chandy's trusted colleague Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan publicised the draft of an act that the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) intends to bring if it gets power.

The Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rights, Customs and Usages) Act 2021 proposes to ban entry of women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 at Sabarimala and a two-year jail term for those who violate the shrine’s customs and rituals.

Sabarimala hill shrine in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district is a major pilgrim centre in South India. Eternal celibate Lord Ayyappa is the presiding deity here. Women between the menstruating ages of 10 and 50 years were not allowed to enter the temple as it would, according to traditions, make the shrine impure. In 2018, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement, granted women of all ages the right to pray at the temple. The Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) government vowed to abide by the apex court verdict following which the state witnessed a spate of violent protests by various Sangh Parivar organisations. They had forcibly thwarted attempts by women to enter the temple. Congress and many Hindu community organisations resorted to peaceful agitations. Three months after the Supreme Court verdict, On January 2, 2019 , two women pilgrims - Bindu Ammini and Kanakadurga - trekked the hill and prayed at the shrine. Congress and Sangh Parivar accused that the LDF government had acted against the interests of devotees.

Both the parties successfully kept the issue burning till the Lok Sabha elections in 2019 hoping to gain electoral dividends. Quite unexpectedly, voters favoured Congress and its allies as they won 19 seats in the State leaving just one seat to LDF. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) drew a blank. This unprecedented result endorsed the view that the 'pro-devotees' stand won the poll for UDF.

Sabarimala protests
BJP workers hurl stones at CPI office in protest of allowing women to enter Sabarimala Temple. PTI/File

As the Assembly election is round the corner, the UDF hopes that re-igniting the Sabarimala issue will help it garner another election victory.

All major political formations in Kerala have embarked on similar communally polarised micro-level election campaigns aimed at wooing various religious groups.

The LDF has been carefully cultivating a voter base among communities that remained out of its reach for a long time. It had reserved 10 percent of seats to the economically weaker sections from the general category in education and jobs. It recently brought Nadar Christians under the ambit of OBCs hoping to win support of the traditional Congress vote bank. As if those measures were not enough, it constantly accused that Indian Union Muslim League - the second largest Congress ally - is a communal party and it controls the UDF. It tried to create an impression that the League will get key positions, including the Chief Minister’s post,  if the coalition is voted to power.

BJP , on its part, has been wooing several Church denominations for quite some time. The party recently facilitated an interaction between Cardinals and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the meeting, the Cardinals reportedly sought equitable distribution of social welfare funds for religious minorities such as Christians and Muslims, apparently hinting that Muslims take away the lion's share. Besides, some Christain groups have endorsed Sangh Parivar's claims that Love Jihad (an accusation that Muslim men lure women from other faiths and offer to marry them to convert them to Islam) to create a wedge between Muslims and Christians.

PM Modi meets bishops
Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacting with church leaders.

The UDF believes that all such 'polarising issues' will be pushed to the backburner once the women’s entry at Sabarimala gains prominence and believers from all religions will rally behind it against State’s intervention to control places of worship. That's why a senior Congress leader told Onmanorama that Sabarimala issue is "not just an election plank, but a life-saver for Congress."

...But There is More to the Story

My colleague R Ayyappan believes that reviving Sabarimala sentiment could backfire for Congress. He has listed out the reasons in this recent piece.

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.

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.

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.

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2. Jisha Surya traces the rise and fall of Pombilai Orumai, the movement led by socially and economically marginalised women plantation workers in Idukki. The outfit had promised to become a major political party but faded into oblivion.

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