Kerala elections: Faith, enterprise take centre stage as Sangh Parivar lays siege to Kerala

The Sangh Parivar is grabbing all opportunities to raid into the Left’s and Congress’s Hindu vote base.

ET Bureau | Updated: Apr 07, 2019, 03.48 PM IST

On an unusually warm morning recently, as Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan and his retinue wound through the narrow lanes of Harvey Colony slum in Thiruvananthapuram, an elderly woman rushed forward, exclaiming, “Let me have a look at your candidate.” When she reached the spot, however, Rajasekharan had turned a corner and moved on.

“Would you be voting for him?’’ ET Magazine asked her. “No way,” she replied emphatically. Why? “Because I’m a Communist,” she snapped. “But my son and daughter-in-law will vote for him. They and their friends have become staunch BJP supporters. They tried to convince me but I’ll not abandon the party until my death.”

Rajasekharan is taking on the Congress’s sitting MP Shashi Tharoor and the Communist Party of India’s legislator C Divakaran in the Kerala capital. Until now, colonies like Harvey were considered to be Communist fortresses. The Sangh Parivar has been chipping away at such bastions for years in its quest to conquer the final frontier — Kerala — the tiny rebellious state on the southern tip of India, which defies the social and political logic that informs the rest of the country. It is perhaps the only sliver of land in the world where competing religious and irreligious ideologies — Christianity, Islam, Communism and Hindutva — are well matched. And this election, more than ever before, is underpinned by overt and covert narratives about protection of faith, caste insecurities and community expansion.

While Christians, Muslims and Communists (once described by former RSS chief MS Golwalkar as the biggest threat to India) have historically shared political power through parties like the Congress, Muslim League, Kerala Congress and the CPM and CPI, the BJP, the main proponent of Hindutva, has not been able to make a dent (despite parent RSS having about 7,000 shakhas in the state). That is because, as many politicians on either side of the spectrum admit, the CPM has the largest number of Hindu supporters, especially from the sizeable Ezhava/Thiyya caste, an OBC (Other Backward Class) grouping. “More than 95% of Communists, especially women, also believe in God. The CPM should never forget that,” says a senior Hindu community leader. The Sangh Parivar is making an all-out attempt to align them with the BJP.

“The decline of rationalism since the 1980s has created space for us,” says Rajasekharan. “The BJP is winning this ideological fight. Communism will soon be wiped out of the state.” The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the BJP, had in 2017 run Redtrocity, a campaign forcing the national spotlight to turn on the northerndistrict ofKannur where it was at war with CPM. The decades-long conflict has claimed scores of young lives on both sides.

Kerala was the first state in the world to elect a Communist government in 1957. This brought it into global focus, but the backlash was also immediate. Hindus, Christians and Muslims joined hands with the Congress to start a “liberation struggle” against the Communist government led by chief minister EMS Nampoodiripad. Jawaharlal Nehru dismissed it in 1959, controversially using Article 356 of the Constitution.

John Brittas, managing director of the CPM-backed Kairali TV and media advisor to Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, calls this Lok Sabha contest a fight for relevance. To retain its national party status, CPM has to win at least 6% vote share from four states and four Lok Sabha seats or 11 seats from three different states. The BJP has won only a solitary assembly seat in the state so far. The Congress desperately needs more members in Parliament to be ameaningful national force and Kerala, once a backwater for the party’s Delhi leaders, is today a safe harbour.

Faith Revival & Caste Polarisation

On April 2, Service, the official journal of the Nair Service Society (NSS), a 104-year-old community organisation of upper caste Nairs, published an editorial that suggested it was throwing its lot behind the United Democratic Front (UDF) led by the Congress. Highly placed sources in the organisation said that even though the NSS officially maintains an equal distance fromall parties, it had supported the National Democratic Alliance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in the 2016 assembly elections. However, events turned the state topsy-turvy in the second half of 2018.

A Supreme Court order, allowing women of all ages (women of menstruating age were earlier banned from entering the temple) entry into the hill temple to the celibate deity Ayyappa in Sabarimala, turned Kerala into a battleground between social liberals and religious conservatives. Chief Minister Vijayan immediately announced full state backing for the implementation of the order. The Parivar welcomed it, too. But to everyone’s surprise, a large number of Nair women took to the streets in silent protest. Shaken by popular opposition to the court order, the BJP changed its tune. The Congress aligned with the believers but the chief minister stood his ground, invoking Kerala’s tradition of social reform and renaissance.

The Sangh Parivar grabbed the opportunity to lay siege to the Left’s and Congress’s Hindu vote base, launching an aggressive campaign that often deteriorated into skirmishes with the police and Left-liberal activists. BJP leader K Surendran was imprisoned for three weeks for trying to force his way to the temple. The party has fielded him from Pathanamthitta, the temple’s home constituency. “The state government’s stubborn attitude to the Sabarimala issue has turned popular opinion in our favour,” says Surendran when ET Magazine caught up with him on the campaign trail. “People will vote to protect their faith.”

Tharoor says: “It is the Congress Party that has stood by believers. We have filed petitions in court to protect traditions. If the BJP really cared for them, they could have brought a law. They were in power.” The NSS editorial echoed the sentiment, saying neither the state or central government did anything to protect the fundamental rights of believers.

Nairs, who are estimated to be about 14% of the population now, were arguably the most powerful community until about 70 years ago because of their heritage and stake in land, the chief source of wealth. Their power and influence waned with changes in the agrarian, barter economy of the state as cash crops such as rubber, cocoa and spices enriched the Christian community. The prosperity propelled central Kerala leaders such as KM Mani, TM Jacob, PJ Joseph, AK Antony and Oommen Chandy into positions of power. The octogenarian Mani, who is reportedly critically ill, has been a key figure in Kerala politics for more than five decades and never lost an election after he first won from the Pala assembly constituency in 1965. That year, his Christian-dominated Kerala Congress had 23 legislators in the assembly. Mani holds the record for presenting 13 state budgets.

Incidentally, the NDA’s first score in Kerala came in 2004 when PC Thomas, son of legendary politician PT Chacko, the state’s first opposition leader and member of the Constituent Assembly, won the contest in Muvattupuzha as an independent with NDA support, against Mani’s son Jose K Mani. Thomas’ then campaign manager Dijo Kappen, widely credited as the architect of that win, says three factors worked in his favour — the acceptability of AB Vajpayee, the opposition to Sonia Gandhi and the rejection of Mani’s nepotism.

The BJP has continued to woo the Christian voter. According to those involved with shaping BJP’s election strategy, the central government has been trying to help out Christian organisations, whose foreign funding was crimped by changes in the Foreign Currency Regulation Act.

The Tourism Ministry, overseen by minister Alphons Kannanthanam, gave financial support to temples (Rs 40 crore), churches (Rs 30 crore) and mosques (Rs 14 crore) in the state under a scheme called Swadesh Darshan. The highest amounts went to the St Thomas church in Malayattoor (Rs 2 crore), St Jude church in Vettinadu (Rs 1.9 crore) and the Indian Pentecostal Church, Hebron, Kumbanadu (Rs 1.63 crore). The Cheraman Masjid, the oldest mosque in the state, got Rs 1 crore while Sabari Saranashram in Pathanamthitta got Rs 1.53 crore and Ochira Para Brahma Temple, Sasthamkotta, received Rs 1.15 crore.

Uprooted and Insecure

A senior priest of the Syro-Malabar church says on the condition of anonymity that communities are becoming more insular and insecure. “Our generation was rooted in the earth. The current generation is gripped by nostalgia and insecurity which is driving them towards a faith that is more fundamentalist,” he told ET Magazine. “The Christian community today stands where the Nairs stood 70 years ago.”

Communities that are at a crossroads make political parties jittery and unsure. In June last year, a nun complained to the Kerala Police that Jalandhar Bishop Franco Mulakkal raped her 13 times over two years during visits to Kottayam. Yet, despite sustained public pressure, he was arrested only in September. The delay was seen as the government going soft on the Church.

Similarly, clashes have erupted between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions of the Malankara Church, a denomination that traces its origins to the apostle Saint Thomas, after the Supreme Court decided a century-old dispute over churches and property worth thousands of crores in favour of the Orthodox faction. The government set up a cabinet sub-committee to mediate between the two factions, which, some say, was a ploy to win over Jacobite voters who are said to be more numerous. It appears to have worked. “The government has acted justly, in a mature manner and taken a realistic position. We cannot forget that. Neither can the believers,” a senior priest of the Jacobite faction said.

Parivar & Caste
All accounts until April 2 suggested that a miffed NSS was backing BJP candidates because the Left Front was favouring Christian and Muslim groups. Upper caste Hindu support is critical in many constituencies. NSS sources, however, say they fear the BJP is promoting Ezhavas, a backward community that has gradually emerged out of the dark shadow of prolonged oppression. The reason for the suspicion is BJP putting up Ezhava candidates in key constituencies and its alliance with the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena (BDJS), a political party floated by community leaders.

The polarisation is a reflection of the fraying social fabric painfully stitched together by stalwarts such as Ayyankali from the Pulaya community, Ezhava reformer Sree Narayana Guru and NSS founder Mannath Padmanabhan.

“Communities in Kerala are becoming islands that are drifting apart,” says BDJS leader AG Thankappan, who contested the assembly elections in 2016 from the temple town of Ettumanoor but lost to CPM’s Suresh Kurup. “We found that we need political power for our community to get what is rightfully ours,” says Thankappan, justifying the founding of BDJS and its tieup with the BJP months before the assembly elections. “We have never got from any government what is due to us.”

A senior RSS source had earlier told ET Magazine that Ashok Singhal, the late leader of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, had first approached the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP), a non-political Ezhava community organisation as old as the NSS, in 2010 to enlist its support to the BJP. Since then, the RSS had been steadily working on its leadership and it finally bore fruit six years later when SNDP general secretary Vellappally Natesan launched the BDJS in March 2016 at the culmination of a 16-day Samathwa Munnetta Yatra or March of Equality. Natesan’s son Thushar Vellappally, who is the president of the party, is taking on Congress president Rahul Gandhi in Wayanad.

The NSS, its leaders privately admit, views the BJP-BDJS ties with suspicion. They also worry that the RSS is stealthily taking over the NSS at the grassroots. The president of an NSS unit in central Kerala says that about 85% of young members in his area are BJP workers. The RSS had counted on NSS support, especially in Thiruvananthapuram. The state RSS leaders had in fact clashed with the BJP national leadership over Kummanam Rajasekharan.

Even though Rajasekharan was the Mizoram governor, the RSS wanted him back to fight elections. State RSS leadership was already annoyed with BJP’s national decision-makers for appointing him governor in May last year without consulting them. They say that BJP’s work suffered after his departure and it was the which had held fort for many months.

The Changing North

A person close to the CPM leadership says the party is competing with the Congress for the votes of Muslims who are growing in power and influence. “A wave social reform is sweeping through community,” he said. Speaking to a crowd comprising largely Muslims in Erattupetta, Congress state president Mullappally Ramachandran reminded voters the 2002 Gujarat riots and urged them to vote to power his “party that always stood by Muslims”. “The incapable of fighting fascist forces,” he said.

Fazal Ghafoor, chairman of the Muslim Educational Society (MES) which runs over 150 educational institutions, including 10 professional colleges, says more than 80% of students at his institutes are girls. Despite pressure from conservatives, Ghafoor banned face-veil in MES institutions. “There is a revival of obscurantist thought due to Arabian influence. The face-veil is a sign of orthodoxy which leads to religiosity and to extremism,” says Ghafoor. He said even though there is an extremist fringe in the community, there is reform too. Young Muslims, especially girls, are acquiring education and holding jobs, including in the civil services. The Muslim community is one of the biggest beneficiaries of foreign remittances. The only Muslim majority district of Kerala, Malappuram, is also the biggest receiver of remittances from West Asian countries. A person close to CPM says the community has invested back heavily in their home state while Christians and Hindus who go abroad rarely invest in Kerala. This flow of capital has resulted in an explosion of Muslim entrepreneurship. “Look at the highways. Muslim hotels and cuisine dominate them in the entire state.” The CPM, which has pledged to develop a distinct identity for Kerala rooted in the values of renaissance, is unable to manage the faith-revivalism across communities. “The Left is scared to take on such elements and it will be hurt in the long run,” says Ghafoor. “Even in their ‘renaissance meetings’ they end up inviting reactionaries.”

Kerala State Planning Board member B Ekbal, who unsuccessfully fought the assembly elections in CPM ticket, says the party should focus on building its narrative around its public services and governance record. Over two lakh students have shifted from private to government schools and there was a 40% rise in patients visiting government hospitals, Ekbal says, indicating effective governance and services delivery. Although that may be the ideal way to contest – on the government’s track record – in an election, rarely happens. Kerala appears to be in its third phase socioeconomic transformation which began with the decline of grain farmers, mainly landed Nairs, in the middle the last century. The second phase saw the rise of entrepreneurial Christian farmers who benefited from the boom in cash crops. In the third phase, the highly entrepreneurial Muslim community is spreading its wings.


Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan says the Left is willing to go to great lengths to ensure that secularism and communal harmony are safeguarded in the state. Edited excerpts from an email interview with ET Magazine:

What is the backdrop to this election? The narrative seems to be anything but development and governance.The Left is facing this election with the sole objective of saving the Constitution and democracy. We have abundantly made it clear that we don’t want the Narendra Modi government to return to power. Bringing it back will be akin to inviting huge danger to the nation.

(Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan)

Six Left Democratic Front MLAs, two former MPs, six current MPs and two former party district secretaries are fighting the Lok Sabha elections. Is there a talent deficit?
We have taken this election very seriously. We have fielded MLAs not because of a shortage of talent. The intention is to ensure that maximum MPs are send to the Lok Sabha to represent the Left. These people are familiar with their constituencies and have immense goodwill. There is nothing wrong in using their goodwill to win the elections.

Is Kerala getting more polarised and is communal politics sharpening? Conversations with workers across parties seem to suggest so, mainly because of the Sabarimala issue.
Unfortunately, there is a trend to vitiate the social atmosphere. Kerala has a long tradition of secularism and communal harmony, which certain political parties find are obstacles to their getting a foothold in the state. The Sabarimala issue was used to create communal polarisation. The Left will not leave any stone unturned to ensure that the great traditions of Kerala are safeguarded.

You have spoken extensively about Kerala’s renaissance and the need to preserve those values. What are the three most important ones? What is the government and the CPM doing to protect them?
Kerala is what it is today due to the long and glorious reform movements. We have a distinct character. Kerala believes in harmonious coexistence, secularism and inclusive growth. We are doing everything to protect and nourish these values.

Like Marathas, Jats and Patidars in other states, Nairs in Kerala seem to have a heightened sense of socioeconomic insecurity. What is your perspective on this?
All communities have contributed to Kerala’s growth. There have been many reformers in the Nair community, like Mannath Padmanabhan, who fought for egalitarian values. I don’t think any community has ill will towards another.

The Nair Service Society has hinted in an editorial in its official journal that it favours the United Democratic Front. Your comment.
What I understood from their latest editorial is that they want to be equidistant from all political fronts.


Author: Prakash Poojary

Business Analyst

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