The CPI(M) had much at stake in this election. With the party losing power to the BJP in Tripura and continuing to be in a precarious position in West Bengal, the Kerala unit had the onerous responsibility of earning enough seats to establish a respectable presence in the Lok Sabha and save its status as a national party. With the LDF in power and its government arguably enjoying a fair reputation, thanks to its successful handling of last year’s devastating floods and the hyped plans for reconstruction after the deluge, Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan made an all-out bid to win as many seats as possible.
In the choice of candidates, the party continued the tactical line it had pursued with a certain measure of success during the long period when Pinarayi Vijayan held the reins as its State Secretary. This essentially involved adoption of rich and locally influential members of the Muslim and Christian communities as candidates to make up for the party’s comparatively limited reach among the minorities. It also fielded several MLAs, placing reliance on their proven ability to win. In order to optimise the party tally, it asked the adopted candidates, who are usually classified as LDF-backed Independents, to contest on the CPI(M) symbol.
The question before all but the small section of voters who wanted Modi back was how best to stop him. That put the CPI (M) in a bind. The Congress and the CPI(M) are eternal rivals in the state’s highly fragmented polity. Other parties have found it fairly easy to walk in and out of the coalitions led by them.
Both the parties have routinely welcomed each other’s breakaway factions most of the time, but for each party the other is a perpetual enemy. Pinarayi Vijayan mounted a vigorous campaign but he could not provide a straightforward answer to the question who was Enemy No. 1—UDF or BJP?
Aware that the mood in the state was hostile to Modi and the Hindutva ideology, the BJP virtually made Sabarimala the sole campaign issue. The agitation on the issue was led by the RSS, which is reputed to have the largest number of shakhas in the state. It thought the issue could be used to change the game not only in the state but also in the neighbouring states from which Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity of Sabarimala, draws devotees in large numbers.
While the Sabarimala issue was before the Supreme Court, the Kerala government had filed five different affidavits in which it shifted its position in tune with the thinking of the Front in power at the given time. While the UDF government opposed lifting of the ban on entry of women, the LDF government favoured end of discrimination against women.
All the contenders for power hypocritically shifted their position on the Sabarimala issue on the eve of the election. The RSS was in favour of women’s entry even before the judgment. The BJP welcomed the judgment as soon as it came. But when the state leaders pointed to the possibility of electoral gains, the national leadership allowed them to go ahead. Rahul Gandhi was among the leaders who welcomed the court verdict. But, fearing the BJP will undercut its upper caste Hindu vote with its agitation, the Pradesh Congress opposed it and decided on an agitation of its own, separate from the one announced by the BJP and RSS.
Taking into account the sentiments of conservative Hindus, the CPI(M) initially allowed the statutory Devaswam Board, which is under its control, to toe an independent line and it made plans to file a revision petition against the judgment. But Pinarayi Vijayan later decided to stoutly defend the judgment and declared the government would offer protection to women devotees wanting to visit the shrine. However, it let the police follow a dual policy of escorting intending women devotees but persuading them to return without entering the shrine.
Initially, the BJP-RSS agitation attracted a large number of persons, including women who gathered at public places to participate in religious chants. Later lumpen elements took over and the agitation took a vulgar and violent turn. Women, including media persons on duty along the route to the hill shrine were attacked. In the event, the agitation became counterproductive. The voting figures show that the NDA poll share did not go much beyond the 15 per cent it touched in the Assembly election of 2016.
Ezhavas & the Yogam
Ahead of the Assembly election, the BJP got a major ally in the state in the Bharat Dharma Jana Sena, founded by the leadership of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, an organisation of the backward Ezhava community, which has been the backbone of the Left movement since its inception.
Before Independence, the Yogam had played a part in electoral politics along with the numerically smaller but socially dominant Nair community’s Nair Service Society in the princely state of Travancore. Both later withdrew from politics. In the 1970s, they re-entered politics by floating parties of their own at the instance of Congress leader K. Karunakaran. During their short life the two parties were constituents of the UDF.
The Yogam, which is now led by Vellapalli Natesan, a businessman, floated the BDJS at the instance of Modi and BJP President Amit Shah. His son and Yogam Vice-President Tushar Vellapalli is the President of BDJS.
Hindutva had set its eyes on the Ezhava community many years ago. When the Jana Sangh held a National Council meeting in Kerala for the first time at Kozhikode in the 1970’s the only portrait that adorned the dais was Sree Narayana Guru’s. The recurrent violence between the CPI(M) and BJP-RSS cadres in the Kannur area began after some members of the community switched loyalty from the former to the latter,
Widely acclaimed as the foremost leader of the social reform movements that swept the region in the early part of the last century, which are collectively referred to as the Kerala Renaissance, Sree Narayana placed before the people the vision of a model society where people lived as brothers without caste differences or religious hatred.
But the SNDP Yogam founded to propagate his ideals started degenerating into a caste organisation in his lifetime itself and he formally dissociated himself from it. Later he formed the Sree Narayana Dharma Sangham on the lines of a religious order. He was not quite happy with its working too and planned to spend his last days in Sri Lanka, where he had many followers among migrants from Kerala. However, supporters at home persuaded him to return to his ashram at Varkala.
The Guru said all mankind belonged to one caste and the essence of all regions was the same. In 1916 he declared that he had transcended the caste and religion of his birth and no longer belonged to any caste or religion.
However, Hindutva elements have been making strenuous efforts for some years to place him in the Hindu tradition. Both the Dharma Sangham and the Yogam have been receptive to the overtures made by Modi and the BJP. But neither of them appear to command sufficient influence over the community to be able to drive them into any political stable.
On the Sabarimala issue, Vellapalli Natesan merrily played a double game. He endorsed the BJP-RSS position that tradition must be respected. He also joined Pinarayi Vijayan’s attempt to rekindle the spirit of the Kerala Renaissance to counter the effects of the BJP-RSS agitation. Kerala has not become a model place of the Guru’s concept but his vision still has a wide appeal as the ultimate goal.
The minorities constitute the main base of the UDF in Kerala. The findings of a post-poll survey indicate that it was able to raise its Christian vote from 65 per cent to 70 per cent and Muslim vote from 63 per cent to 65 per cent in this election. But talk of a consolidation of minority votes against the BJP is mischievous. There was an increase also in the UDF’s Nair vote (from 30 per cent to 34 per cent) and Dalit vote (from 13 per cent to 30 per cent).
Ezhavas were the only major community which did not jump into the UDF bandwagon. There was a uniform dip of two percentage points in the community’s support to the UDF, the LDF and the NDA, suggesting a disillusionment with the entire political spectrum.
There was a significant drop in the LDF’s Nair vote and Dalit vote. Unless the CPI(M) leadership makes an honest introspection and takes remedial measures, its Kerala unit may find the sands under its feet running out, as happened in West Bengal and Tripura.
The Congress must not make the mistake of imagining that the 19-1 verdict was one in favour of the Oommen Chandy-Ramesh Chennithala duo which currently holds the strings.
The people voted, conscious of the fact that they were choosing a government and they clearly signalled they did not want Modi.
(Disclaimer: Views expressed are the author’s own)