Thrissur: In a leafy enclosure in the corner of a Kerala temple, a tall elephant, lovingly called Raman, stood gazing at his many “fans". A thin rope kept the gathered crowd from getting too close as they snapped photos in adulation, as they would of a movie star.

These photos would now proceed to gather hundreds of likes and shares in the Raman-fans universe on Facebook and Instagram, with very few making the connection between the giant’s fandom and the elephant in the room in Kerala politics, the slow yet inexplicable rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the only large state where it has never won a parliamentary seat.

Raman, whose ‘full name’ is Thechikkottukavu Ramachandran, is a magnificent tusker—the tallest in India and a regular in the famous Thrissur Pooram festival—but he’s also killed about a dozen people and three other elephants.

The Kerala government banned Raman from public events in early May, but his fans would have none of it. And the controversy soon spiraled into a narrative centered on how Hindu customs and traditions are under serious threat from a Communist government. Once again.

Coming soon after the protests over the Supreme Court order allowing entry of women of all ages into the Sabarimala temple, the strikes and protests demanding Raman’s inclusion in temple processions were one that the BJP found easy to ride on as it tries to carve out an electoral space for itself in Kerala.

Kerala is a bit of a contradiction—it is a deeply religious state where extraordinarily progressive, reformist movements took root in the late-19th and early 20th century. And it is this contradiction between two foundational and deeply-held ideas, both of which are true in varying measure, that lay at the heart of the clash between the Left and the Right along the Malabar coast in the southern-most corner of India. The ongoing culture wars in the name of temple and elephant, among other such fault lines, are Kerala’s version of the West Bengal playbook, a state where the religious expression, “Jai Shri Ram", has acquired deep political resonance (The BJP won a stunning 18 of West Bengal’s 42 Lok Sabha seats in the 2019 polls).

Kerala has always alternated between electing the CPM-led LDF and the Congress-led UDF but that era is perhaps over. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s vote share rose to a respectable 15.2% from 10.85% in 2014, though it could not bag a single seat, once again. One post-poll hypothesis which has gained some credence is that BJP sympathizers shifted their votes to the Congress in several pockets so as to crush the confidence of the CPM, and ended up granting the Congress a rare windfall (19 of the state’s 20 seats).

Things are shifting even in the state capital of Thiruvananthapuram, right under the nose of Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan’s official headquarters. The poll fight has morphed into a direct contest between the Congress and BJP, with the Left playing spoiler at best. BJP candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan was widely expected to win, but Congress’ Shashi Tharoor managed to prevail, drawing on his support for the Sabarimala movement as well as his performance as the sitting MP. The BJP has arguably become the dominant force in one assembly seat in the district and the second preferred party in at least three of the seven seats.

Over the years, the BJP has cultivated living-room respectability in Kerala, taking up issues centered on religious pride and the image of Modi as a development messiah, which appeals to the upper and middle class. Party leaders admit that the Sabarimala agitation and the occasional arrests which followed gave them months of coverage, etching their faces and words on to the minds of news-hungry Keralites.

Going by the results of the Lok Sabha polls, Sabarimala could potentially turn into a Nandigram moment for the CPM—the farm unrest that marked the end of CPM rule in West Bengal. For the Left in India, Kerala is the last red state as they have lost power in West Bengal and Tripura. For the Right, Kerala is the last major state that has never elected a BJP parliamentarian, despite its current, country-wide winning streak under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The elephant ban

In early May, days after voting for the Lok Sabha polls got over in Kerala (on 23 April), a new district collector, T.V. Anupama, took the call to ban the elephant.. Hearing about Raman’s violent past, including an incident in which he’d killed two people in February, she banned the elephant from Thrissur Pooram, which was to begin on 13 May.

Thrissur Pooram is Kerala’s biggest temple festival, drawing devotees and tourists from across the world with its splendid processions and artistic performances. Raman was at its centre for years. The Pooram formally begins only when he walks out of the door of the town’s biggest temple, Vadakkunnathan.

Widespread protests over the decision cornered the Left government. Its initial response did not calm nerves. “The government gives priority to safety more than flashy festivals. Those who spread false rumors and want such dangerous animals to parade are only interested in making money," forest minister K. Raju wrote on Facebook.

The Sangh Parivar and the BJP grabbed the opportunity, claiming that the communist party and chief minister Vijayan were trying to destroy temple traditions, just like they did at Sabarimala. They led large protests and public sentiment seemed to favour them.

The Elephants Owners’ Federation, the sole federation of private elephant owners, called for a strike, saying no elephants would be sent for Thrissur Pooram, which usually needs a hundred elephants. “One Pulsar bike may get involved in an accident, so will we ban all Pulsar bikes?" federation president P. Sasikumar, who is also a former Jan Sangh member, said at a press meet.

Vijayan sent his cabinet colleague and Thrissur MLA V. S. Sunil Kumar to defuse the situation, a person close to the chief minister told Mint. Kumar held talks with all stakeholders simultaneously. In the end, the government lifted the ban partially. On the day of Pooram, the elephant arrived near Vadakkunnathan temple in a mini lorry decorated with gold caparisons. When the temple door opened, thousands stood outside the gates and chanted “Raman, Raman".

Reasons for the fandom

The elephant named Motti Prasad, hailing from Bihar, came to Thrissur’s Thechikottukavu temple and got renamed as ‘Thechikottukavu Ramachandran’, or simply Raman, back on the day when Indira Gandhi was assassinated, 31 October, 1984. The village which houses the temple, a half-an-hour drive away from Thrissur town, was a much different society then, recalls the temple’s current president, Chandran.

“This temple grew because of the elephant. This village grew because of this elephant. That’s why the villagers love him," he said.

“Earlier, this was a temple run by nine families. It was later taken over by a private trust, comprising several families who lived in the temple’s vicinity. With the elephant’s height, the stature of the temple also grew," he said. Raman stands at 10.5m and is also the second tallest elephant in Asia.

The elephant brings the temple more than 50 lakh as revenue every year as he is rented out for public and private events, Chandran said. With this cash, the temple has built a larger structure and purchased more land, most of which is a playground for kids. Two years ago, the temple started a college in the neighbourhood. The other educational institution in the village is a school run by the Sangh, Chandran said.

But the villagers are aware time is running out. The average age of an elephant’s life is about 60. They are now planning for his retirement. It costs 36 lakh a year to care for Raman. So, 3,500 families in two panchayats are thinking of launching a campaign to raise 2 crore for a fixed deposit for the elephant, Chandran said. That kind of money is more than anyone in the village has saved as a post-retirement cushion for themselves, and reflects the intense love for the elephant.

And it is this web of emotions, where reason finds little place, that is at the heart of Kerala’s culture wars. The essential question, which has acquired political overtones, is a timeless one: what aspects of culture and tradition are worth holding on to and what could be let go.

Temples and traditions

Not all temples in Kerala had elephants, as they are expensive to maintain. Elephants were limited to the biggest temples and many of them were looked after by royal families. Guruvayur temple, one of Kerala’s richest and most famous temples, has more than 50 elephants.

Chandran agrees that small temples didn’t have elephants before. “Not just elephants, even the temple workers were poor before. Small temples barely had the cash to manage themselves, let alone elephants. But everything has changed," he said. There is a resurgence of belief among temple-going Hindus and they are rebuilding small temples, he said.

“All the small temples I know have had an uptick in revenue from the 1990s, perhaps due to remittance money (from the Middle-East). " he asked.

The rise of temple-centric issues in Kerala is hardly surprising, says Nirmala VU, an author who has been tracking the rising influence of the Right in Kerala’s temples as part of her PhD thesis at Center for Political Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “RSS, more than the BJP, has increased its clout steadily. Most of BJP’s strong faces are from RSS. When they were not politically strong, they turned to the courts to initiate religion-centric discussions. For years, they have been fighting cases in courts to decide who should be on the (management) boards of temples: believers or non-Hindus and communists," she says.

The RSS has, over the years, initiated Christian missionary-like institutions— schools, colleges, ambulance services and other social services, scholarships, religious centers, and women self-help groups like the ‘Mathru Samithi’. In a way, their work is similar to the early strategy of the communist movement. Communism did not spread in Kerala solely on the back of ideological treatises but through the formation of social cooperatives.

“The RSS is the one which actually equated Hindu to Ambalam (temples) in Kerala. Earlier, it was not like this. The communist parties put a lot of thrust on differentiating a temple-going person from a Hindu religious person," Nirmala says.

“Nowadays, even kids in Kerala are asking: Ambalakaaran aano Pallikkaran aano (temple-goer or church-goer)? This is a result of the Sangh Parivar’s growth since the 80s. They formed temple committees and started attracting women with temple tours. They got kids to come for Gita classes, a sort of imitation of the Sunday schools in churches," she adds.

On the ground, such larger political currents are taking over individuals lives. In 2017, the state hogged global headlines with the case of Hadiya, a Hindu woman who converted to the Muslim faith and subsequently married a Muslim man which kicked up allegations of ‘Love Jihad’.

The rise of such agitations coincides with a huge proliferation in temple-centered activities. The Sabarimala agitations were perhaps the most visible manifestation of this cultural transformation.

The changes have not skipped the eyes of communist leaders. They admit that religion, which Marx described as the “opium of the masses", may have its uses. After coming to power, they have introduced a 10% reservation for economically backward upper-caste Hindus on the boards of five public-run bodies or Devaswom boards, which together administer about 3,000 Hindu temples.

The party is also encouraging active engagement with religious beliefs and customs within the rank and file, having held massive public rallies on Janmashtami, a Hindu festival. For the last few years, the party has been holding rallies with tableaux of Hindu gods—borrowing a leaf from saffron organizations, but mixing it with European communist icons Karl Marx.

“We have decided to do a lot of things around religion. We have noticed that the BJP and the RSS have increasingly occupied themselves on the religious and cultural front, while we refused to engage with these spaces for some years in the past because of ideological reasons," a senior CPM leader and a minister in Kerala said, requesting not to be named.

In conclusion

Anyone visiting Chandran’s house for a chat about elephants would not be able to miss the copy of the Deshabhimani newspaper, CPM party’s mouthpiece, lying prominently on a table. He is a daily subscriber. Chandran openly admits to being sympathetic to the CPM. In his calculation, despite all the anti-Left agitations over the elephant, nearly 60% of the voting population in the neighbourhood of Thechikottukavu are communist sympathizers.

While the BJP has just built a swanky, new headquarters in the capital city, with an ambitious room left for a future BJP CM in Kerala, the CPM can pin its hope on people like Chandran, a devout believer. Party loyalties, after all, are a type of tradition too. But with agitations like Sabarimala, Chandran’s mind is also filled with questions.

“I don’t support the BJP’s agitations in Sabarimala. On some issues, shouldn’t we handle it with more care?" he asks. And immediately follows it up with: “But couldn’t the Left have prevented the entry of women (in the first place)?"

Chandran’s love for both captive elephants and the communist party is a curious mix that does not immediately square off. But under the cultural wars led by the BJP, it totally encompasses how many like him feel about the party in Kerala—conflicted.

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