How Sabarimala Could Influence Congress' Fortunes in the 2019 Polls in Kerala

The Congress ploy seems to be primarily aimed at bringing the Nair constituency back into its fold by professing to stand with the devotees.

At an interaction with journalists in Indore, Congress president Rahul Gandhi was asked about his views on the Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of all ages to the Lord Ayyappa Temple in Sabarimala. Rahul’s response brought to the fore the dichotomous positions of the Congress president and his party’s state leadership in Kerala on the issue.

“My party’s view on Sabarimala is that it is an extremely emotional issue for men and women in Kerala, and women in Kerala are supporting this idea. So we have a difference of opinion between me and my party. But as my party represents the people of Kerala in Kerala, I submit to their wishes,” Gandhi said, a tad Nehruvian in his articulation.

The Congress party in Kerala has been reiterating that it “stands with the devotees”. With the state unit remaining steadfast despite mounting criticism, it increasingly looks like there is some method in the madness. One needs to revisit Kerala’s political history to make sense of this.

Congress politics over the years

Congress has historically shared space with the Left to rule Kerala by turn. While the right-wing forces grew from strength to strength in the rest of the country, Kerala held the BJP off to deny them representation until they finally opened their account with a solitary seat in the 140-member Kerala assembly in 2016. This trend has persisted even without the presence of a strong regional party in the state, and it becomes all the more remarkable in that context.

The ‘Vimochana Samaram’ (Liberation Struggle) that succeeded in the overthrowing of the first government of Kerala led by E.M.S Namboothirippad was driven by the Catholic Church, the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Indian Union Mulsim League (IUML) with tacit backing from the Congress. A democratically elected government was pulled down by reactionary forces from across the spectrum. Since then, Congress has carried along these socio-religious outfits in the state and sought to meet their aspirations.

The split in the Congress following P.T. Chacko’s death in 1964 led to the formation of ‘Kerala Congress’, seriously jeopardising the party’s electoral prospects in the ensuing years. In 1967, Congress was down to nine seats and the previously unheralded K. Karunakaran emerged as its ‘Leader’.

Also read: For the BJP, Sabarimala Is Not a Place of Worship But a Battleground

The split at the national level in 1969 brought a band of young men led by AK Antony to prominence in Kerala. This was perhaps the only period when the Congress did not play ball with reactionary forces in the state and saw the party taking a pronounced Left turn.

In 1972, when the C. Achuthamenon government (backed by Congress) brought about fee parity between public and private colleges, it once again pitted the Church and the NSS in direct conflict with the government. Unlike in 1959, when the Congress stoked the fire to bring the E.M.S government to its knees, the trio of A.K. Antony, Oommen Chandy and V.M. Sudheeran (president of the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, Youth Congress and Kerala Students Union respectively at the time) along with Vayalar Ravi put up a stiff resistance on the government’s behalf to quell the protests.

Indira Gandhi split the party again in 1978, and Karunakaran and Antony found themselves in different camps. Antony’s idealism and socialist leanings saw him gravitating towards the Left. With the CPI (M), the CPI, Antony’s faction of the Congress, and the Kerala Congress (Mani) coming together to win the 1980 assembly election, Karunakaran had to revert to social engineering to keep the Congress in contention.

Karunakaran accommodated the National Democratic Party, propped up by the NSS, and the Socialist Republican Party, backed by the Sree Narayana Dharama Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), in the United Democratic Front (UDF) to tap into the Nair and Ezhava vote base. The Antony faction was back in the UDF following their short stay in the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in 1981 and Congress was back in power.

Hindu consolidation behind the Left in 1987

Following the Shah Bano verdict in 1985, the All India Muslim League left the LDF to unite with the Indian Union Muslim League in the UDF. Several CPI (M) leaders were getting restless with the prolonged spell out of power but for the short-lived E.K. Nayanar government (1980-81). M.V. Raghavan, the party’s rising star in Kannur, presented a ‘badal rekha’ (alternate document) at the CPI (M) State Committee in November 1985 calling on the party to co-opt the Muslim League and Kerala Congress into the LDF to put themselves back in recognition.

E.M.S had other ideas though. He repeatedly lashed out at the Islamic Sharia and embarked on a soft-Hindutva campaign ahead of the assembly elections in 1987. If the Left can ever be accused of playing the communal card to win polls in Kerala, it was in the run-up to 1987. Curiously, apart from the Shah Bano verdict, the Nilackal movement of 1983 at Sabarimala and its aftermath gave a fillip to the Left and saw the BJP-led Hindu Munnani’s vote share growing from 2.5% to 7.5% as the majority community ditched Karunakaran for once.

Also read: Sabarimala: ‘Deity’s Will’ Cannot Trump the Constitution on Right to Equality

As long as Karunakaran was around, the Nair community stood rock-solid behind the Congress. Karunakaran also managed to carry the minorities along. When A.K. Antony, and later, Oommen Chandy succeeded Karunakaran as Congress chief ministers, they followed a similar template. Except for that jolt in 1987, Congress largely succeeded in taking care of the ‘sentiments’ of the reactionary forces in every community to appease them proportionately – thus holding the BJP off.

Karunakaran’s exit in the 2000s saw the gradual erosion of Nair votes from the UDF to the BJP. This was particularly reflected in the 2016 assembly elections, when the NSS and the SNDP accused the Oommen Chandy-led government of minority appeasement.

Congress strategy on Sabarimala

The Congress ploy seems to be primarily aimed at bringing the Nair constituency back into its fold by professing to stand with the devotees. Even before the BJP volte-faced to lend support to the Sabarimala agitation, Congress took cue from the NSS stand on the issue. It was the NSS that mobilised people for ‘namajapa yatras’ or prayer processions across the state.

But their strategy is not limited to the Nairs. When the Sabarimala verdict came, CPI (M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was asked about the entry of women in Sunni mosques in Kerala. Balakrishnan clarified that the CPI (M)’s commitment to gender equality was not limited to Hindus and they would definitely back women’s entry in Sunni mosques. The party secretary’s comment was construed as an attempt to meddle in the affairs of minorities. This, in turn, prompted the Mulsim League to back the Sabarimala agitation.

A senior Congress leader put it bluntly: “If we do not stand with the Hindu community on Sabarimala, we will be dubbed minority appeasers at some point in the future. We cannot stand against the interests of the Muslim League either.” This explains the Congress’s stand, or “compulsions”, as another leader put it.

The strategy is expected to pay off for the Congress in the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. At least three surveys have shown the UDF surging ahead of the LDF in October, following the Sabarimala verdict. BJP’s communal pitch might yield them incremental gains, but it may not be enough to win seats in a three-cornered contest, leaving the UDF to benefit the erosion in the LDF’s base in the short term.

Anand Kochukudy is a political journalist and lapsed academic.