Devaswom minister, and LDF's Kazhakkoottam candidate, Kadakampally Surendran seems to have made a tactical mistake.
On March 11, he expressed regret for what happened in Kerala after the Supreme Court verdict on women's entry into Sabarimala. “It should never have happened. Everyone is pained by what had happened. Whatever the verdict of the Supreme Court (larger bench), any decision would be taken only after consultations with the faithful,” Kadakampally said.
A handful of LDF leaders Onmanorama talked to said, on the condition of anonymity, that such a show of public regret was uncalled for at this stage. “The chief minister had said the same thing in February in very clear terms, and Pinarayi's words had effectively buried the issue,” a senior LDF leader, and a popular orator at LDF street-side meetings in Thiruvananthapuram, said.
Sabarimala brought back to life
Kadakampally's Sabarimala comment was the stray gunshot that broke the ceasefire.
The Congress, wanting the CPM to remain the villain of the piece, quickly asked the LDF to withdraw the affidavit given in the Supreme Court that favours the entry of women into Sabarimala.
If Congress jumped at the chance of reviving Sabarimala, the ideological gatekeepers of the CPM were taken aback. CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury was irked by Kadakampally's public remorse. “Are you sure it was for that he expressed regret,” Yechury shot back at a reporter. He said a state government was bound to implement a Supreme Court verdict.
A strategic confusion could be sensed. Before it could intensify, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stepped in and once again emphasised the party's new stand on Sabarimala, that the verdict of the larger bench will be implemented only after taking the faithful into confidence.
This seeming divergence in CPM views gave Nair Service Society (NSS), the force behind the 'namajapa' protests that rocked the LDF government in 2018, the chance to once again openly meddle in politics. “The chief minister says he will hold talks with the faithful but his general secretary's stand is contradictory to this,” NSS supremo Sukumaran Nair said.
Lord and the devil
And all this background noise, of old Sabarimala arguments coming to life, looked like a build up to Sobha Surendran's entry to Kazhakuttam.
She was the last to arrive at the scene, her candidature announced more than a week after her two major rivals began campaigning. But she knew how to rouse the passions of her cadre before a word was spoken.
Sobha's choice of a starting point was her declaration of intent. When she formally began her campaign on March 18, it was from Kariyavattom Sree Dharmasastha Temple, the most popular Ayyappa temple in Kazhakkoottam constituency.
By the time she began her first campaign speech, the crowd that had converged at the temple ground was already in a state of rapture. Standing on top of an open jeep, with the colourful sculpture of Lord Ayyappa on the temple arch hovering over her and a delirious crowd pressing around her, Sobha spoke about her “mission”.
“This is our chance to speak and act against Kadakampally who was right there in front, leading the evil deeds of this government which declared that women will be taken to Sabarimala Sannidhanam. If I have got the chance to utter some words against the Devaswom minister, loudly so that the streets of the whole of Kerala could hear them, I believe it was a duty bestowed on me by Lord Ayyappa himself,” Sobha said, her words setting off frenzied cries of “Swamiye Saranamayappa”.
Those who had not heard her speak would have found it hard to believe that Sobha was capable of such incitement. When she got on the open vehicle, she had the lost look of a child entering a stage for the first time. She looked a bit overwhelmed, confused whether to smile or just nod her head and did not know what to do with a white lotus flower given to her.
But once she started speaking, her pitch and tone felt suited to the climax speech of a heroine in some faith-based period film. Furious winds and thunder would be fitting accompaniments to her style of delivery.
Kadakampally was her main rival, it was his blood that Sobha wanted. Yet, the Congress candidate, Dr S S Lal, was also subjected to scorn for his stand on Sabarimala. It was almost towards the end of her speech, almost as an afterthought, that Dr Lal was mentioned.
“You might be wondering why I am not talking about the other candidate. There is nothing much to be said. He is a person who has occasionally written some blogs and these blogs are now hanging over his head like swords. This Dr Lal is a poor doctor who believes that progress means taking women into Sabarimala,” Sobha said, sending the crowd into shrieks of laughter.
We met Dr Lal on March 19, the day after Sobha's entry. He was visiting a mosque in Sreekaryam. There is not much fanfare surrounding the doctor, unlike his two rivals. It even took a while to realise that the candidate had arrived. There was just one car, an Innova. He came out with three associates. Like in the case of the other two candidates, there were no announcements preceding his arrival.
As he crossed the road and walked into the mosque, no one seemed to notice the doctor, a former tuberculosis and HIV specialist for the World Health Organisation. He is the least known of the three candidates but this makes it all the more important for the Congress to whip up some buzz around the candidate.
We checked with M A Vahid, who won thrice from Kazhakuttam (once as an independent and twice as a Congress candidate), to know whether the Congress machinery was fully behind Dr Lal. “Why do you doubt us. Have you heard even a murmur of dissent from Kazhakkoottam when Dr Lal was chosen as the candidate? The party said I would be fielded from Nedumangad. But I did not get a seat. Did I make any noise? I am all for generational change in the Congress,” Vahid said.
Fall of an 'RSS agent'
In 2016, Vahid was pushed to the third position, behind Kadakampally and BJP's V Muraleedharan. “These CPM people took photographs of me attending a temple ritual and distributed them in Muslim and Christian homes calling me an RSS agent. This helped Kadakampally to corner the entire anti-BJP votes,” Vahid said.
It was also the year the BJP came second in Kazhakuttam for the first time in history, its candidate V Muraleedharan (now union minister) increasing the BJP's vote share by over 25 percent.
When asked about the absence of party workers around Dr Lal, Vahid thought deeply for a moment and said: “After my loss here in 2016, the party machinery has weakened considerably. I am trying my best to revive it.”
During the 2020 local body polls, the UDF could win just one of the 16 wards that make up the Kazhakuttam constituency. The CPM had scored big, winning 10 of the 16 wards. The BJP, too, saw marginal improvement, from three seats to five. In 2015, Congress had six wards, more than the LDF and the BJP.
Dr Lal said the party was firmly behind him but seemed a bit disturbed by the revival of the Sabarimala debate. Nonetheless, he is more angry with Kadakampally than Sobha.
“This was not an issue until Kadakampally brought this up. He wanted to divert attention from lack of development to Sabarimala. If we start discussing development issues, the minister will have nothing much to say. Kazhakuttam should have been developed as a big satellite city, in which he had miserably failed. So to avoid bitter questions on development, he tried to shift the focus to Sabarimala. But he miserably failed in that, too,” Dr Lal said.
The Congress candidate felt that the apology was fake. “If his apology was genuine, he should have asked the chief minister to apologise. The CPM should have apologised, the LDF should have apologised. Now I hear Kadakampally is apologising to the CPM,” Dr Lal said.
When asked about his pro-entry stand, he split the argument into two. One, he said what the government did, using what he termed “muscle power” to take women to Sabarimala, was wrong. But on the other hand, Dr Lal said he was against the concept of impurity being imposed on women. “I am a doctor. My point is that no woman should be branded as impure based on a physiological process. People are trying to brand women impure because they menstruate. This is wrong,” he said.
He had strong words for Sobha, too. “It is shocking to see that candidate Sobha, who is a woman, is calling women impure just because they have menstruation. I am really worried about that attitude. I am proud of women's menstruation. I was born because my mother had menstruation,” Dr Lal said.
Now, after stoking a discussion on faith with a confession, it is Kadakampally alone who is silent about Sabarimala. He was unwilling to talk to Onmanorama even after we promised not to talk about Sabarimala.
“Let Sobha say whatever she wants about Sabarimala, the party has told us not to respond to a word. We will concentrate only on what we have done and what we would do,” a source close to Kadakampally said.
But away from the public, during the privacy of house visits, Kadakampally's team will speak about the things the minister had done for faith in the constituency and also Sabarimala.
“I hope people have not forgotten that the minister had earned the wrath of both the party and the feminists when he said Sabarimala was not the place for feminists to play their games,” Kadakampally's close aide said. “But if their memory requires some prodding, we will do it when we make house visits. Being Marxists, we cannot speak about the things the minister had done for faith in the open,” the source added.
But it looks like the faithful in Kazhakuttam trust Kadakampally. Take for instance the Latin Church, highly influential among the fisherfolk in the Pallithura and Thumba areas of the constituency. “Kadakampally has done a lot of things for us. It looks like he will win,” said Fr Lenin Fernandez, the vicar of St Mary Magdalene Church, Pallithura.
The faithful in the Hindu community, too, are not displeased with the minister. Radhakrishnan, the priest of the Ayyappa temple from where Sobha Surendran began her campaign on March 18, is excited that a political leader had accorded so much importance to the temple but still was not in a mind to spurn Kadakampally. “We have nothing against the minister as he was always helpful,” the priest said.