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Sensing Emotions, BJP Heads Back To Sabarimala Campaign Pitch
2019 Polls

Sensing Emotions, BJP Heads Back To Sabarimala Campaign Pitch

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

PM Modi flanked by the state leaders of the NDA at the election rally at Kozhikode beach on Friday. 

Cocking a snook at the Election Commission, the Kerala BJP is all set to rake up the Sabarimala issue, even as the ECI stands firm

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Kozhikode election rally on Friday has set the ball rolling for the issue of women’s entry into Sabarimala temple to take centrestage yet again as BJP’s campaign pitch for the April 23 polls.

The way the Kerala government handled the Supreme Court order allowing women of all ages to enter the hill shrine and the subsequent violence that erupted in the months of December 2018 and January 2019 had already become a talking a point in the run-up to the upcoming polls.

Inspite of a strict order from the State’s Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) that invoking Sabarimala during political campaigns will be considered a violation of model code of conduct, the BJP on Saturday has made it very clear that not only would Sabarimala be made a talking point but all NDA candidates across the twenty Lok Sabha constituencies in the state have been given directions to seek votes in the name of Sabarimala, even if that amounts to defying the strictures put in place by the CEO on the basis of the model code of conduct.

If top sources of the BJP in the state are to be believed, the decision to this effect had been taken after the Prime Minister had given a go-ahead on Friday when he visited Kozhikode.

At Friday’s rally on Kozhikode beach, Narendra Modi said – “Let me assure the people of Kerala that the BJP is with the people of the state on this issue. The BJP will go to any length to protect the beliefs and the rituals that the people of Kerala had been following for centuries.”

Though the Prime Minister stopped short of taking the name of Sabarimala, which many say was a wise tactic so as to not antagonise the Election Commission, the message before the state’s electorate as well as the state leadership of the party was clear – in Kerala, Sabarimala is the central issue for the BJP in these polls.

Analysts say, the fact that Sabarimala found its place in the BJP’s election manifesto showed that the party believed its electoral fortunes are tied to the issue.

“Sabarimala is the central issue that the BJP will now take forward in this election. There is no doubt that all our efforts across the 20 constituencies will be to highlight the atrocities the left government unleashed on the devotees at Sabarimala under the guise of implementing the SC order. We cannot agree to everything that the Election Commission says. If the Commission finds a violation, it is free to take action. We are not going to get cowed down by such threats,” BJP State president PS Sreedharan Pillai told presspersons.

Sabarimala Still A Rallying Point

More than three months have passed since the Sabarimala issue had fallen off the radar for most media houses in Kerala. While the general perception is that the Sabarimala issue is dying down, the BJP seems to be reading responses from the ground in the last few days differently, experts say.

Top BJP sources claimed that in every campaign rally, the moment the BJP candidate mentioned ‘Sabarimala’ there had been an immediate response from the crowd. In many places voters themselves had even been urging the candidates to talk about Sabarimala issue, a BJP source said.

“See a classic example is that of a constituency like Pathanamthitta where the BJP does not enjoy a natural vote base. Here the main issue on which the BJP should seek votes is Sabarimala because not only the temple being located here puts the constituency at the centre of the issue, but the party’s candidate there had gone to jail over the issue too. So it is a highly emotive one. The model code of conduct may put you down from doing it initially but once it becomes a matter of discussion among the voters, then no party will shy away from discussing it,’’ noted political commentator and BJP ideologue KVS Haridas told The Lede.

Ground reports suggest that the Sabarimala issue could have an impact on two to four constituencies in the state.

Apart from Pathanamthitta, where K Surendran is the NDA’s candidate, Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur could have some direct impact in so far as deciding even the outcome of the election.

The reasons are the combination of a few factors. For example in Thiruvananthapuram consolidation of the Hindu vote bank backed by Nair Service Society could be offset by how the Christian fisherfolk in the constituency cast their vote. That way Thiruvananthapuram is looking balanced and if local opinion polls are to be believed Congress’ high profile candidate Shashi Tharoor could be in for a tough fight with the BJP.

Sabarimala could only make it worse for Tharoor, because BJP’s candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan, the former Governor of Mizoram, is also known to voters for his original hard-line stand on entry of women of all ages to Sabarimala.

At Thrissur, BJP has a star campaigner as the candidate. Actor turned Rajya Sabha MP Suresh Gopi has already started wooing voters in the name of Sabarimala. He would though, face stiff opposition from seasoned Congressman TN Prathapan and Rajaji Thomas, the Left candidate.

MS Kumar, the BJP state spokesperson and in-charge of Pathanamthitta constituency claims that there is a huge undercurrent among voters on the issue of Sabarimala and that it will favour the BJP like never before.

“I was speaking at an election meeting the other day and I was focusing on the development agenda. But people who were gathered there were asking me to talk about Sabrimala. There is an undercurrent which perhaps many have ignored and let me tell you it is not just happening at Thiruvanathapuram or Pathanamthitta alone. It is seen at many constituencies in Kerala which could spring a surprise on May 23,’’ Kumar told The Lede.

Whether the surprise would make the BJP glad or not will be known in a little over a month.

Non-Political Organisations Enter The Campaign

But there is another sub-plot to the emerging story which is the role played by non-political organisations which had been at the forefront of the Sabarimala agitation.

With hardly ten days to go for polling, these organisations have suddenly started campaigns across the state. On Saturday the Sabarimala Karma Sammithi took out a march to the government secretariat, hardly 48 hours after Sabairmala opened for the ‘Pooja festival’.

“The intention is very clear. The Sangh Parivar wants to keep the Sabarimala issue alive till the election date. Whether it will have an impact on voters will be judged with a combination of other issues. But when such organisations take up the work, it means they are doing a parallel campaign that could be effective. Now even the Election Commission is unable to do much because these are not political entities who are raising the issue,’’ says CR Neelakandan, convenor of Aam Admi Party in Kerala.

Organisations like the Achara Samrakshana Sammithi have been at the forefront of a parallel campaign from door to door reminding people of the alleged atrocities including police lathi charge, illegal detention and arrests committed by the Pinarayi Vijayan government on devotees in the months of December 2018 and January 2019.

“There is tremendous anger among the common devotees all across the state at the way in which their beliefs were trampled upon, how they were denied darshan at Sabarimala, how they were beaten up and many even thrown behind bars with dubious cases charged. People are not going to forget it and those who might have forgotten it, we are there to remind them. There is only one way they can pay back and that is through the ballot box and am sure people are looking forward to it,’’ Prithvipal, state convener, Achara Samrakshana Samiti, told The Lede.

EC Sticks To Its Stand

The Chief Electoral Officer in Kerala has meanwhile stuck to his guns. This despite the BJP alleging that the CEO was acting at the behest of the state government on the Sabarimala issue.

“There is a lakshman-rekha as far as the model code of conduct is concerned. All political parties will have to stay within that line. If you cross that line action will be taken. Look at the PM’s speech at Kozhikode. He spoke of the issue but never uttered the word Sabarimala even once. All political parties should take lessons from that,’’ Teeka Ram Meena, CEO, Kerala told mediapersons on Saturday.