In Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan Faces His Biggest Test Yet

It was advantage LDF all the way after the Kerala floods, but the Sabarimala verdict and its aftermath has put the incumbent government on the back foot.

“Those who chant the hymns of lord Ayyappa are being baton-charged or framed in fake cases. Each and every one, including the children, should come forward to take revenge against these injustices and guard customs and tradition.”

These words were spoken in Thiruvananthapuram not by a local politician, but by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a recent rally. The words made the saffron party’s prime polling agenda for Kerala clear: to keep the Sabarimala controversy going.

Also read: Pinarayi Vijayan’s Social Reform Has Defeated the Sabarimala Protests

Despite prohibitory orders issued by the Election Commission to not use religion during campaigning votes, Kerala BJP leaders have been using the name of Lord Ayyappa all through the second phase of the election campaign.

BJP national president Amit Shah even declared K.Surendran, the general secretary of the party’s Kerala unit who is contesting from Pathanamthitta constituency, as Ayyappa’s candidate.

Surendran was at the fore of the violent agitations last November ‘to defend’ Lord Ayyappa. For his role, he had been remanded in judicial custody for three weeks, something the party believes has given him a heroic air.

“When you cast your vote for me, you are supporting Lord Ayyappa. Let us teach chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan a lesson for what he has done to the devotees.”

Across his constituency, where the Sabarimala temple is situation, crowds have been chanting hymns as Surendran makes a bid for their votes by making his emotionally-charged speeches.

Even Suresh Gopi, an actor-turned-politician and BJP MP from Thrissur, has also been attracting big crowds to his rallies by raking up Sabarimala in his theatrical speeches. Gopi has also been served a notice by the EC for using Lord Ayyappa’s name to campaign.

Police on duty at Sabarimala temple. Credit: PTI

The 2019 election has already become distinct from past elections: for possibly the first time ever, religious campaigning has become the centre of a general election.

“It is unfortunate that such an untruthful and concocted campaign has been unleashed by the prime minister. Such charges, which had no connection with the truth, is unbecoming of his position,” Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan said in an article after the prime minister’s scathing attack on his government.

The cases registered in the state in connection with the Sabarimala agitation were not for chanting hymns, but for incidents of violence, said the chief minister. He also said that the prohibitory orders imposed in Sabarimala was as directed by the Union government.

The United Democratic Front (UDF), on the other hand, is also banking heavily on the Sabarimala issue by blaming both the Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the NDA for the escalation of tensions around the shrine. Congress’ Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition, does not miss a chance to rake up the issue of Sabarimala whenever he get a chance.

“I categorically state that if the Rahul Gandhi-led UPA government comes to power at the Centre, we will enact a legislation to preserve the customs and traditions of the temple. For the BJP, it was a golden opportunity for electoral gains. The CPM stood for the entry of women of all age not because of progressive thinking but for weakening democratic forces,” Chennithala said.

Also read: Sabarimala Row: Pinarayi Vijayan-Led LDF Has Become Secularism’s Sole Defender in Kerala

A major section of the media also believes that the Sabarimala issue will play a crucial role in this election, which in turn is likely to adversely affect the prospects of the LDF.

Electoral breakdown

This opinion seems to be clouding the judgment of many political observers too. Five major election surveys had been conducted ahead of the polling date in Kerala and almost all predicted a landslide victory for the Congress-led UDF. More so, they not only have predicted a near rout of the LDF but have also given a boost to the BJP-led NDA by marking two candidates as possible winners.

The Manorama–Karvy survey, which was the first to come out, predicted 15 seats for the UDF, four for the LDF and one for the NDA – Thiruvananthapuram, where former Mizoram governor Kummanam Rajasekharan is pitted against sitting Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and former state minister C. Divakaran of the CPI.

According to the survey conducted by Matrubhumi-Nielson, UDF is slated to win 14 seats with LDF settling for five and Thiruvananthapuram going to the NDA. Asianet News, in partnership with AZ research partners, predicts that UDF will win 14-15 seats, whereas LDF will be restricted to 3-5 and the NDA will bag one seat. The latest of all surveys, conducted by the 24 news, foresees a more even scenario: its prediction leaves the UDF with 10-12 seats and LDF with 8-10 and the NDA 0-2.

All these surveys have done constituency-wise predictions which do not match each other. If we cut across all the surveys, it is seen that the UDF could win 16 seats at the maximum and the LDF 13. Interestingly, in most of these surveys, the direct question of whether Sabarimala is going to affect the prospects of the ruling front bore no clear-cut answer, but the end result went very south for the LDF.

More so, the difference of the vote share between the LDF and the UDF has become wider – indicating an erosion of votes from the LDF. The substantial increase in the NDA votes also has been projected as an indicator of the decline of vote base of the LDF. News anchors and television analysts were seen authenticating this with statistics, and the sole reasoning behind it is the Sabarimala controversy and its aftermath. It is widely believed that the Sabarimala issue is going to cause a major ideological polarisation in the Kerala polity.

Also read: What If Sabarimala Was in a BJP-Ruled State?

“The surveys indicate no big wave across the state in favour of any formation. But there is an undercurrent. We all know that the upper caste Hindu organisations are not with the LDF, particularly post-Sabarimala. The many Muslim organisations also have pledged support to the UDF. This could make a difference for sure,” a senior journalist from the state who did not wish to be named said.

A lost advantage

It was advantage LDF all the way after the Kerala floods where Pinarayi Vijayan showed tremendous leadership quality in guiding the state while it weathered a catastrophic flood.

In fact, the opposition didn’t figure in the picture at all till the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala.

The period since then has been the most testing time for the government. How it fared will be known on May 23.

“The LDF is losing the advantage they had when they sternly stood for the gender rights when the Sabarimala verdict came out. Now they seem to be afraid of a backlash and are keeping silent over the issue. They should have furthered it and that could have gotten them the full-fledged support of women, Dalits and minority communities,” said scholar-activist Sunny M. Kapikkad.

Apart from Sabarimala, the brutal killing of two Youth Congress workers in Kasaragod has also pushed the LDF on the backfoot. Even though the party disowned the local workers who were arrested in connection with the murder, it has already become a big election issue – particularly in the northern region.

With CPI(M)’s popular leader P. Jayarajan, who has been accused of masterminding political murders in Kannur district, in the fray from Vatakara constituency, the UDF and the NDA are raking up this issue in tandem.

Also read: As Rahul Gandhi Chooses Wayanad, is the South Still a Safe Haven for Congress?

The LDF alleges that a secret pact has been made between the UDF and the BJP to defeat P. Jayarajan at the expense of Sashi Tharoor in Thiruvananthapuram. K. Muraleedharan, a former KPCC president and the sitting MLA of Vattiyoorkkavu of Thiruvananthapuram is taking on Jayarajan in Vatakara.

Even after LDF had announced its candidates and cruised along in the first round of campaign, the UDF and the NDA were trailing far behind. The UDF gained momentum on the field only after Rahul Gandhi announced his decision to contest from Wayanad.

With the presence of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi in northern Kerala, the UDF will likely be expecting to see the minority community rally behind it.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi waves at his supporters during an event in Thrissur, March 14, 2019. Credit: PTI

This again spells trouble for the LDF, as the support of the Muslim community is crucial for the Left alliance. If the expected consolidation of Muslim votes happens in favour of the UDF, the survey results may stand vindicated.

“They were evidently unsettled over the immense support the LDF has garnered across the state. Such surveys are futile efforts to conceal the ground reality and project a fictitious scenario as part of a ploy to provide a new lease of life for rival candidates who stare at imminent losses,” said Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, the CPI(M) state secretary, after the surveys largely predicted the Left front’s rout.

“The Kerala polity is so complex that it won’t be reflected in the surveys,” said a researcher who had the chance to oversee the data analysis of a pre-election study. “It is not possible for any surveyor to analyse which way the Sabarimala issue would go. Of course there are movements on the surface which could be read as anti-Left, but we should not forget that this entire episode was based on the issue of gender justice,” he said.

Also read: Last Minute Uncertainty Dents Poll Prospects for Congress, BJP in Kerala

“It is interesting to see that Pinarayi Vijayan enjoys a fair amount of support of young woman in Kerala. If this could transform into votes, it will be a more than enough buffer to counter the back lash from the upper caste Hindu community. But unfortunately we did not have that kind of an approach for surveys,” the researcher added.

But for Pinarayi Vijayan, this is the test of a lifetime – one on which the future of an entire party and the Left block depends.