Law vs custom: Political parties affirm their faith in votes

After the heartwarming unity in times of the devastating flood, Kerala is fighting itself on streets and social media in the name of Sabarimala.

After the heartwarming unity in times of the devastating flood, Kerala is fighting itself on streets and social media in the name of Sabarimala. The rift is reflected in all political parties. The coalitions of parties are worried about the impact of the Supreme Court order allowing all women to go to the hilly shrine. The Sangh Parivar has seen the opportunity to fish in muddy waters.

The CPM and the wider Left Democratic Front have rallied behind Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. True to his nature, Pinarayi is firm on implementing the court order.

At the same time, he has accepted the suggestions of the party leaderships at the state and the centre, going by his softening of stand since his barbed speech against the hereditary tantris of Sabarimala and the erstwhile royals of Pandalam.

The chief minister singled out Travancore Devaswom Board president A Padmakumar in his first press meet to touch upon Sabarimala. Efforts at forging a compromise formula were affected by Padmakumar's comments that irked Pinarayi. The chief minister did not want to be seen submitting to the conservatives by letting the devaswom board file a review petition before the Supreme Court.

Pinarayi's speeches are crowd pullers yet women form only up to 15 per cent of the listeners. Meanwhile, the protests organised by a section of devotees are full of women, even from families who traditionally vote for the LDF.

The CPM leadership was shocked to see the Nair Service Society taking a hostile stand for the first time since the government came to power. Though the chief minister has toughened his stance, his cabinet colleagues and party leaders have not burned the bridge.

The unwavering stand has found support from a different section of people who had distanced themselves from the CPM or even the left bloc. The chief minister has appealed to the progressive people who had always rued that the party had sacrificed its ideals for power.

The BJP's advances would have a greater impact on the Congress but the CPM cannot breathe easy until the air is cleared of the controversy.

Congress dilemma

Congress president Rahul Gandhi's support of women's entry into Sabarimala could not have come as a surprise to Mullappally Ramachandran, the party chief in Kerala.

Even Ramachandran welcomed the judgement initially, probably because he knew how the party high command viewed the matter.

He changed his stand after going into a huddle with opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala and former chief minister Oommen Chandy. The leaders decided that it was best to stand by the affidavit the previous government had submitted before the court, effectively opposing women's entry on the hill.

The Congress-led United Democratic Front is at pains to project it as the only political entity to stand by the devotees from day one. UDF leaders allege that the government's new affidavit reflected the stand of the RSS, the ideological backbone of the BJP. The UDF game plan is appeal to all religions by transforming the Sabarimala protest into a general agitation for the protection of faith.

Gandhi's candid support to the women's entry has not gone down well in Kerala. Congress ally Muslim League is particularly unhappy about the support. The UDF cannot afford to take another stand because a large proportion of its voters are religious. All eyes are on the general election in 2019.

The Congress and allies do not want to cede ground to the BJP. They are sure to stand with the protesting devotees no matter what Gandhi says.

BJP's U-turn

Asked point-blank whether the BJP viewed the Sabarimala controversy as an opportunity to get a foothold in Kerala, the party's state president did not bother to deny it.

Though the RSS initially welcomed the Supreme Court order, BJP leaders prevailed on it to change the stance. They convinced the RSS that the CPM and the chief minister were targeting the Sangh Parivar in Kerala.

In fact, the BJP state unit did not have the backing of the national leadership in the first stages of the agitation. They did not bother to consult the national leadership because they were almost sure not to get a green signal.

International Hindu Parishad leaders Praveen Togadia and Pratheesh Viswanath sidelined the BJP in the initial stage of the protest. The scenario was effectively sold by the BJP to the national leadership. The entire spectrum of Sangh Parivar outfits eventually took a stand against women's temple entry.

The BJP has ordered the cadre to keep the issue burning until the Lok Sabha poll next year. Party chief Amit Shah promised all help in men and material during his visit to the state.

The BJP, however, is finding it difficult to explain why the central government refuses to go for an ordinance to bypass the Supreme Court order. The leaders have been evading the question so far.

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