After a high-octane election campaign for almost a month, Kerala goes to polls on April 6. Religious and faith issues were being widely discussed during this election campaign and many had raised concerns that this could affect the social fabric of the State.
News18 takes a look at some of the issues that dominated the election campaign in kerala.
Sabarimala: Women entry, which was in the backburner for some time, was brought back to the forefront. The BJP has tried to reach out to the Christian community to increase their vote share. The LDF has been trying to bring the focus back on development and social welfare initiatives. Meanwhile, the Congress-led UDF is trying to raise the various corruption allegations against the CPI(M)-led LDF government.
The LDF camp is confident about retaining power, while the UDF camps are sure that they will come back to power in Kerala. The national leaders of both the UDF and the BJP had campaigned extensively in Kerala.
The Congress hopes that the campaign by Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi will help them in the State.
At present, the BJP has only one seat in the 140-member Kerala Assembly. The BJP is now reaching out to the Christian community to garner their support. The demographics of Kerala also play a role in this outreach as the State has about 54 percent Hindus, 18 percent Christians and 26 percent Muslims. The Hindus traditionally vote for the UDF and LDF and if the BJP wants to make a headway into the State, they need at least one minority community with them.
KVS Haridas, former editor of Janmabhumi, BJP mouthpiece, said, “Now the Catholic church and the Christian community realise that the Congress is no more a political force in the country. They are not going to be in power in the near future so naturally in Kerala too they are ready for a change. The real picture is that this minority community used to stay, wanting to stay with the party in power. That might be the only reason for them keeping close alliance with the Congress. Now, they realised that the Congress is no more going to be a party that will be in power in the country. Even in Kerala, it is doubtful whether they will be back in power. So, there is no need of backing them, standing with them. It is positive thinking within the Catholic community, Christian community.”
But the BJP’s outreach to the Christian community received an unexpected setback following the alleged attack on nuns at Jhansi allegedly by Bajrang Dal activists. This has evoked strong condemnation from church leaders. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and Opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala have demanded strong action against culprits. Sensing the damage it could do to the BJP’s prospects, the Union Home Minister had assured strict action.
The church said that they don’t dictate the choices of others. But at the same time, it said issues such as religious harmony, government respecting religious freedom and farmers’ issues are all concerns that will be raised by the church. Analysts say that it may not be an easy job for the BJP to woo the Christians in Kerala. In Kerala’s history, politics developed from caste, politics overtook it but now we see that caste and religion are discussed more and society is also becoming more religious.
Jacob George, senior journalist and a political analyst, said: “There are Nairs, Ezhavas, Christians, different sections of Christian community in all parties. I will attribute one reason for the BJP’s helplessness in Kerala because of the Hindu community in Kerala. Hindus do not welcome them. BJP cannot grow from this level, they cannot get more from this society. If they have to get some more, they have to go to the Christian community. That is why they are trying to woo the Christian community. And another thing they have to create a divide between the Christian community and Muslim community, so that they can woe a good section of Christians into their segment. Which I think is a hope against hope.”
The tussle between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions have been going on for decades and ahead of the elections, the BJP has tried to reach out to both communities in an attempt to find a solution in the hope that they will help the BJP in turn. The leaders of both factions had meetings with the Prime Minister and RSS functionary Manmohan Vaidya. Though the leaders of the Jacobite faction went to Delhi the meeting with Home Minister Amit shah did not take place. Among the Christians in Kerala, around 7 percent belong to the Syro Malabar Church, about 2.8 percent are Latin Catholics , the rest of the sections are all below two percent. Though the Jacobites are only about 1.4 percent, there is a good concentration of them in Ernakulam and Kottayam districts and the BJP had hoped to get some support for that.
Cardinal Mar George Alancherry, the Major ArchBishop of the Syro Malabar Church and the President of the KCBC, said that the church is open to all the political parties, all the coalitions.
“Formerly because of bipolarity in political ideologies, we have to take favour in certain political parties more than others. Now this bipolarity or contradiction in ideology is becoming more and more softened. Now at least all the parties tolerate faith in God. In Kerala, we are now releasing a press release. Earlier it was a pastoral letter which we don’t give now, because people have become really politically conscious. A press release, one which we will say the issues that we propose, which is for the good of the people and good of the church, State and country. Issues promoting development, issues that will be respecting the religions in the country,” the Cardinal said.
Traditionally the majority of the Christian community has been pro Congress but this time through their new ally Kerala Congress (Mani) group the LDF is hoping to get more support from the Christian community especially in central Kerala. Many who were otherwise reluctant to vote for the LDF could support the Left through Kerala Congress (Mani).
Both the Udf and LDF say the BJP’s Christian outreach will not work in Kerala.
M A Baby, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member, said, “It is very strange that a new avatar of communal politics which we witnessed in the state of Kerala. In Jammu and Kashmir, they have aligned with Muslim organisations so there is nothing new in what they are doing. They have formed convenient political alliances wherever it suits them even when it is against their overall approach of isolating the minority religious groups. This is only a very opportunistic and wicked thing which they are trying to do in Kerala which they have practised in North East, Jammu and Kashmir and various other places. When the BJP is trying to divide the people on religion and when they are trying to keep one section of the people against the other, it is definitely affecting the social fabric of our country.”
V D Satheeshan, Congress MLA and a candidate said: “Now they are trying to make everything communal that is BJP’s agenda. Now the CPI(M) is also travelling on the same track. Unfortunately, almost all political parties are seeing every issue as a communal issue. Generally speaking, the majority of Keralites are progressive. All these religious organisations and political parties are trying to make it communal. There is much impact on social fabric here.”
Meanwhile, the BJP believes it’s only natural that faith issues will be discussed as religion is a part of everyday life of an individual.
V Muraleedharan, Minister of State for External Affairs, said: “For long time, we have been saying that religion should be out of public activity. Religion is something which has to be on a personal level only… nothing else should be heard, should be talked about that phase is over now. Now people feel that my religion is my pride. So issues related to religion will come. So turning a blind eye will not be the proper way instead everybody should come out clearly on those issues. What is the problem in coming out clearly? Kerala is a society which has seen all this as a taboo so naturally from that end of the pendulum the pendulum will be swinging back. We should have a balanced approach.”
It’s not just about the BJP reaching out to the Christian minority or women entry in Sabarimala, which was in the backburner for some time has been brought back into the discussion. The Congress-led UDF has announced a draft legislation that they promise to implement if voted to power. This is one of the promises in the UDF’s election manifesto and the draft legislation announced by the UDF even entails a jail-term for violating customs to enter the Sabarimala temple. The UDF is attacking both the State and central governments accusing them of not protecting the interest of the devotees. They claim that the central government could have brought in legislation but has so far not done that.
KPCC President Mulappally Ramachandran said: “In case of Sabarimala, we cannot bring in gender equality factor. We cannot just go and say since gender equality is provided in the Constitution, we want that right and to encroach upon the religious beliefs of other people. That is a dangerous situation. Right from the beginning we have made it clear that Sabarimala is not a major plank on which we are fighting elections. That is our stand, thereafter, the BJP and CPI(M) is raising that issue without rhyme or reason. So naturally we will have to tell people the stand that the Congress has taken for years together.”
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, that was held after the issues at Sabarimala, the UDF has won 19 out of the 20 seats. The BJP had hoped to gain maximum but it helped the Congress more. This time also the UDF was a step ahead of the BJP by announcing the draft legislation.
KVS Haridas, former editor of Janmabhumi said, “Everybody knows as to who stood with the Sabarimala devotees, who stood for protecting the rights of the Sabarimala Ayappa Temple. So naturally that will have an impact in the Kerala elections. It’s not true, BJP’s vote share has gone up considerably. But the UDF has won elections because of the consolidation of the minority votes in favour of the Congress that was only because Rahul Gandhi contested in Kerala.”
Responding to the criticism that the central government could have brought in a legislation Haridas said, “Matter is before the Supreme Court. Review petition was pending. SC has sent the case to the larger bench. When the case was pending what is the need of the government taking a legal measure like going for an Ordinance or legislation. Let the court decide. There is no issue in Sabarimala as of now. So let the large bench consider the issue, so if they reiterate the stand, the matter of bringing up a legislation comes only then. There is no need for legislation as of now. That is the BJP’s stand that is very clear. Amit shah has made it clear that when there is a need for a legislation for an Ordinance, we will do it. We will do it to protect the rituals and ancient traditions of Sabarimala.”
Following the debacle in the 2019 polls, the LDF has also softened the stand. The LDF ahead of the elections has also withdrawn the cases which are not of serious nature during the Sabarimala protest. Devaswom Minister Kadakampally Surendran has said that the incidents in Sabarimala had saddened everyone and it should not have happened. Earlier, the CPI(M) stand was that whatever the SC order, they would implement it but now they say implementation will be after consultation with all stakeholders.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said, “In reality, SC has taken a decision on this. The problems in Kerala were as a part of this SC decision. At a later stage, the Supreme Court changed their stand. Now we are waiting for the final verdict from the Supreme Court. What we have said is that let the verdict come, if the verdict is contrary to popular thinking, before implementing the verdict, we will discuss with all parties concerned and take a decision. This is what has to happen after the final verdict comes. Now there is no problem in Sabarimala.”
The CPI(M) claims that Sabarimala is a non-issue now as the case is pending before the larger bench of the Supreme Court.
M A Baby said, “It is absolutely untimely and unwarranted to discuss anything related to Sabarimala at this point of time. The highest court of our country has decided not only to revisit this topic but they have referred to a number of other similarly aced issues before the consideration of a larger bench of the SC.”
Baby added that initially when the SC order came none of the political parties had a different opinion than the SC order.
But how much of an impact Sabarimala can have on the 2021 State Assembly elections is something we need to wait and watch as analysts say that in Kerala normally one subject won’t be an issue in multiple elections.
Jacob George said, “The party that toiled with regard to Sabarimala was BJP. It was the BJP president who found another angle in the Sabarimala issue. He said it was a golden opportunity for us. So they toiled but the Congress took the wages. My reading is that an issue which is a burning one, an important issue in a particular election, not happen again. History cannot happen again. Sabarimala cannot be revived again as another election point. That is more or less the history of Kerala. There may be a set of issues in a given election but all these may not be an issue in the next elections, or in another election that follows.”
The CPI(M)-led left democratic front wants to steer the conversation away from faith and religion. They want to put the focus back on development initiatives by the Left Front, including social welfare measures, revamping the health, education sectors and infrastructure.
K Mani was a daily wage labourer, but his failing health did not allow him to work for the last 10 years. Mani’s wife, Vijayamma, used to take tuition lessons for school children, but Covid put an end to that source of income.
Mani, his wife and differently-abled daughter survive solely on welfare pension and ration provided by the State government. The pension used to be Rs 600, it has now been increased to Rs 1,500 a month. This initiative has helped many families emerge from the brink of poverty and the Left Front hopes it will translate into votes for them.
Vijayamma V S said, “We are living with this pension. It is a big relief that all three of us get. For him, we have to buy medicines and for daughter also. We are living with this cash, the kit that we received from the government and we get rice and wheat, sugar. Very few things we buy from outside. Only if this government comes again, it will be beneficial for us. Otherwise our pension will be delayed, we may not get it also. So our wish is that this government should come back. Now it is very useful because we are getting it monthly in the correct time. If it is delayed, there is not much use for us. Earlier, we used to get it once in three months or six months. Now, we get it within the 5th of every month.”
It’s not just Mani and his family, the welfare pension is provided for 59.5 lakh beneficiaries, 25.5 lakhs more than the previous government. In fact, in the past five years 2,171 government schools renovated, 45,000 classrooms made hi-tech, about 886 primary health centres converted to family health centres, medical colleges renovated, 11,580 km of roads, bridges have been constructed. And 2.51 lakh houses under the Life Mission have provided a roof above the heads of the homeless and the construction of another 1.5 lakh houses is in progress.
The Neyyatinkara Higher Secondary School in Thiruvanathapuram was falling apart. The tiled roof was broken, water would seep into the classrooms during the monsoon. But now there are spacious classrooms, projectors in every class, a high-tech computer lab, CCTVs for security. More than Rs 5 crore was spent by the State government to modernise the school.
Atul, a Class 12 student said, “I came here in standard 6, the school was old, it had a tiled roof and the roof was broken. If it rains, water falls inside. We are really happy and proud that this old school has been converted like this. I come from a very average family. People like me can use this kind of infrastructure and study well. That is a pride for Kerala itself. For every child in this school, it is useful. I had wished and if our school was like this. We never imagined our school could be like this.”
While seeking a second term, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is projecting these achievements of his government and asking people to vote for them in the name of development.
M A Baby said that if one looks at the schools and hospitals in this State you find a remarkable difference between how it was five years ago and how these are now.
“There were up to 18 months arrears of the welfare pensions. We cleared all the arrears for lakhs of social welfare beneficiaries and we have enhanced it to Rs 1,600 and our promise is that we will enhance it to Rs 2,000. People believed that it is a very tall claim that Rs 50,000 crore worth of infrastructure would be developed here and Rs 60,000 crore worth of infrastructure projects are in different stages of implementation through KIIFB,” Baby said.
But the Opposition claims that many of the development projects were actually carried out by the previous UDF government, and have accused the LDF of taking credit. The Opposition is also raising allegations of corruption, including the SprinkleR, gold smuggling and dollar smuggling cases. The LDF in turn has accused the BJP of using central agencies against them at the time of elections.
V D Satheeshan alleged that with the association of a public relations agency this government has been trying to make a point that they are putting a development subject. “For the last few months, they have been spending everyday Rs 25 crore for the print, visual media for circulating and communicating this point. But we don’t agree to that. The Left government claims that they have built 2.5 lakh houses under the Life Mission actually they built only 1.76 lakh houses. At the time of UDF, there were five housing projects. This government integrated all these projects. The UDF built more than 5 lakh houses in Kerala. Now, they are trying to make a point that they are the only government that builds houses for the weaker sections.”
In the past five years, Kerala had witnessed unprecedented natural calamities with two devastating floods, cyclone Okhi, the Nipah virus and the Covid-19. India’s first case of Covid infection was reported in Kerala. The LDF is projecting itself as a party that stood by the public and overcame crisis after crisis. From providing food kits and setting up community kitchens during the lockdown to ensuring that the State had the lowest Covid mortality rate across the country. And the party is crediting this to the leadership of Pinarayi Vijayan.
Kerala elections is a litmus test for all parties. For Pinarayi Vijayan and the LDF, it’s about defending the last left bastion with no hope of immediate revival in Bengal and Tripura. For Ramesh Chennithala and the Congress, it’s about staying relevant and sending a message that the Congress is still a winning party. The BJP has not tasted much success but is trying to improve their tally.