Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Sabarimala lends a third dimension to Kerala polls

BJP-led NDA is snapping at the heels of the traditional zero-sum gamers, the LDF and UDF

On election day in Kerala, when the sun rose from beyond the eastern mountains, it cast the long shadow of a small hill and a temple on top of it, Sabarimala, over its political landscape. A state whose subjects are neatly wired in binaries — in films, it is Mohanlal and Mammootty, for the soccer-crazy, it still is, Brazil and Argentina, in politics, the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), and so on— Sabarimala is probably set to bring in an unsettling third dimension to its reiterative electoral politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance is snapping at the heels of the traditional zero-sum gamers, the LDF and the UDF.

Initial reactions to the Supreme Court verdict allowing women of reproductive age to enter Sabarimala temple were muted and politically correct head nods. Protests against it erupted suddenly. The person responsible for it was the head of the upper-caste Nair organization, the NSS, G. Sukumaran Nair, whose forays into newspaper headlines in the past were limited to seeking key positions for people from his caste in the cabinet. Nair and his organization made the chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan-led LDF government’s moves to implement the Supreme Court verdict look like an attack on faith and customs. Highly visible and frenzied protests followed.

BJP state president P.S. Sreedharan Pillai saw it as a “golden opportunity" to make his party’s presence felt in Kerala politics. With equal vehemence, the Congress followed suit. Vijayan’s response to this was to invoke Kerala’s Renaissance, an omnibus term for the late 19th century to the early 20th century reformist movements among different castes, especially low castes. The LDF also put up an impressive 600-km-long women’s wall to counter the anti-verdict protests.

Back in 1950, a major fire destroyed much of the shrine; allegations of arson flew around almost immediately. The ensuing protests cost Paravur T.K. Narayana Pillai, the chief ministership of the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin state. It was later established that the fire was caused by Christian evangelists.

The results of the 2019 elections will unlock many vaults. Does a large majority believe in customs over gender equality and Constitutional morality based on equality? In terms of number, will BJP open its account? Even one seat would mean a lot, for in time, it can gather critical mass in terms of vote share. In the 1952 election, there was only a solitary winner from the Communist Party in the Travancore-Cochin assembly, and next time around, they came to power. Or will Kerala stick to its usual LDF-UDF binary?

Has the aggression during Sabarimala agitation, whose faces were mostly upper-caste and priestly class, generated an equally strong undercurrent of subaltern resentment, similar to UP-Bihar forward-backward politics? In this election, there was perceptible massing up of minorities against the BJP; there again, who are they supporting, the LDF or the UDF? Answers to a whole lot of questions are encrypted within EVMs. The jury is still out on Kerala.

N.S. Madhavan is a writer, a former civil servant and political commentator.