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How Sabarimala Could Make Tharoor’s Battle Uphill
2019 Polls

How Sabarimala Could Make Tharoor’s Battle Uphill

Naveen Nair

Naveen Nair

At Thiruvananthapuram, Shashi Tharoor vs Kummanam Rajasekharan could be decided by the Sabarimala issue

 The battle for the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency is perhaps the most keenly watched electoral fight in Kerala.

Not only because it features the high profile and flamboyant Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, but also because it is looked at as a constituency where the BJP has a chance of opening its Lok Sabha account in Kerala. And analysts attribute this chance for the BJP to the Sabarimala issue which has kept the pot boiling.

The constituency is expected to see the BJP and the Congress going head-to-head.

Since 2009 when Tharoor first took the electoral plunge in the state’s capital, never have predictions gone against the Congress leader. Even in 2014 when Thiruvanathapuram witnessed a neck and neck race between BJP and Congress, while the BJP stood a chance in no other constituency in Kerala, Tharoor’s win even by a small margin was in tune with the poll forecasts.

But pollsters are not giving a clear verdict on a possible Tharoor victory this time. They are keenly watching the rise in popularity of Tharoor’s opponent – BJP’s Kummanam Rajasekharan, the former Mizoram Governor and the former state president of the party.

BJP’s Growing Clout In Thiruvananthapuram

 According to BJP general secretary in charge of Thiruvananthapuram, there are a lot of factors that will contribute to Kummanan Rajasekharan’s victory in Kerala.

 “In 2014 we lost it by a very close margin though we led through the major part of the counting. Since then the BJP’s organisational work at Thiruvananthapuram has been phenomenal and that will be reflected in the elections along with the existing political situation, including Sabarimala, which will favour us,’’ Ramesh told The Lede.

The BJP claims that the party’s growth in Thiruvananthapuram has been very steady compared to other places in the state.

The saffron party led in four out of seven assembly constituencies in the Thiruvananthapuram parliamentary constituency and came third in the other three in the 2014 polls. This helped Tharoor pull ahead of the BJP’s old warhorse O Rajagopal.

Rajagopal who lost to Tharoor in 2014 became the party’s first MLA in 2016 by winning at Nemom assembly constituency which is a part of the Thiruvananthapuram Lok Sabha constituency.

Interestingly, Tharoor’s present opponent Kummanam Rajasekharan had, in the 2016 assembly polls, managed to come second at Vattiyoorkavu to the hugely popular K Muraleedharan, son of former Chief Minister K Karunakaran sending CPM’s strongwoman TN Seema to the third spot.

Rajasekharan, who was little known at the time among Thiruvananthapuram voters, today stands to challenge Tharoor’s shot at a hat-trick.

“See the BJP has always had a vote base in Thiruvananthapuram which has been growing over the years. Now with issues like Sabarimala at the forefront this will only get consolidated more,” political commentator and senior journalist Roy Mathew based at Thiruvananthapuram told The Lede.

Sabarimala Continues As Core Issue

 If there is one overwhelming reason that puts Rajasekharan on a sound wicket against Tharoor, according to analysts, it certainly is the Sabarimala factor.

The Supreme Court’s verdict on entry of women of all ages at the hill shrine and the way in which the Left government handled the issue had become a talking a point across the state.

While Pathanamthitta, where Sabarimala is located, soon became the boiling pot of the whole issue, what made the state capital Thiruvananthapuram equally restive was the candidature of Rajasekharan.

The state’s Chief Electoral Officer had repeatedly issued warnings against making Sabarimala an election issue. However, with the BJP going ahead and mentioning the Sabarimala issue in its manifesto, candidates including Rajasekharan, brought up the hill shrine issue with renewed vigour.

“What happened at Sabarimala is state intervention in your religious rights. Today it is happening at temples. Tomorrow it will happen at churches and mosques. This is a threat we need to fight as one,’’ says Kummanam Rajasekharan at almost all the rallies he speaks at.

But the key here is to know whether this argument cuts ice with the minority community which makes up for a sizeable 30% of the constituency, who are usually a consolidated vote bank of the Congress party.

For the BJP this would be absolutely crucial since it is the party’s dismal performance at minority assembly constituencies like Kovalam, Parasala and Neyyantinkara that paved the way for a Congress victory in these constituencies in 2014.

Observers say Rajasekharan stands to benefit from the fact that he had been involved in the Sabarimala issue much before it became a topic of national debate.

“Kummanam (Rajasekharan) finds acceptance among the minority voters too because he is seen as a pioneer in this agitation way back to the 1990s when the issue was starting to get noticed. So at least close to 15% of Christian votes will come Kummanam’s way. That’s the calculation. Also the constituency has a huge Nair-Nadar vote base and Sabarimala has been able to consolidate this vote bank in favour of Kummanam which many feel will help him a lot,’’ Rahul Easwar, leader of the Ayyappa Dharma Sena, told The Lede.

Banking Only On The Hindu Vote Bank?

 Some analysts also say that even if Rajasekharan loses the entire minority vote bank to Tharoor, which he is likely to, he could still end up upsetting the incumbent. For this, they cite the consolidation of the urban to semi-urban Hindu vote bank in Thiruvananthapuram towards the BJP as the primary reason.

Experts also point out that the BJP’s decision to field someone like Rajasekharan, who beneath his calm demeanor, has been an advocate of hardline Hindutva politics, is also a well thought out strategy for the saffron party.

In the previous Lok Sabha elections the backward communities among the Hindus, namely the Ezhava and Nadar failed to vote for the BJP.

This time, experts say, Sabarimala has led to a consolidation among the backward community votes which means at least across the two constituencies namely Neyyatinkara and Parasala where Ezhava and Nadar communities are in high in numbers, the BJP could improve its tally.

“We have enough ground reports to believe that not just the NSS (Nair community) but the VSDP (the Nadar community) and the SNDP (Ezhava community) votes this time round will fall in the BJP’s kitty in a big way. This is because a consolidation of the Hindu vote bank is very much likely post the Sabarimala episode and it is likely to go to the BJP than the Congress,” political analyst KVS Haridas told The Lede.

Apart from this, if the votes of the Nair community in urban Thiruvananthapuram, which has been Tharoor’s lifeline, moves away from him, then he could very well stare at a defeat. Nair Service Society (NSS), the organisation of the Nairs had been sending volunteers on a quiet door to door campaign in Thiruvananthapuram seeking votes for Rajasekharan.

Congress In Damage Control Mode

 Sensing the mood on the ground, opposition leader Ramesh Chennithala has also issued a statement supporting the ban on entry of women of all ages at Sabarimala.

“If the UPA comes to power in Delhi under Rahul Gandhi, then let me assure everyone that we will take all measures to enact a legislation to preserve the customs and traditions at Sabarimala,” Chennithala told reporters on Friday.

Shashi Tharoor has also rubbished the claim that Sabarimala would bring him down this time. “I am fighting this election based on my credible record as MP and the work I have done in the constituency. If the BJP was so concerned about Sabarimala why did the Modi government not bring an ordinance for it? The people of Thiruvananthapuram are well aware of the situation,” says Tharoor.

There are others who point out that majority vote bank consolidation is only one side of the story. If the balance tilts towards Rajasekharan, according to experts, a similar consolidation could happen among the minorities in a big way.

“Such consolidations don’t happen just on one side alone. If there is a consolidation of the majority community votes in a big way for Kummanam, then let there be no doubt that the Muslim-Christian vote bank across coastal Thiruvananthapuram will get behind Tharoor. That is why the BJP is even forced to concentrate a lot on coastal areas unlike before,’’ veteran journalist Sunnykutty Abraham told The Lede.

Congress Infighting Plays Spoil Sport

 Tharoor’s Thiruvananthapuram challenge is precipitated by infighting in the Congress party, observers say.

That a week ago Tharoor himself had to say this openly, although later denied, to gather the attention of the Congress high command in Delhi speaks volumes of the bickering inside the party which is spoiling Tharoor’s campaign plans.

This infighting is seen by some as a reflection of the power struggle among local Congress leaders in Thiruvananthapuram and the grudge among at least a section of the Congress workers at Tharoor being given a ticket for the third time.

A few days ago the central leadership decided to assign a special observer to oversee the campaign in Thiruvanathapuram, something not done by the Congress anywhere else in India. “There is certainly a section that is playing against Tharoor inside the Congress party and the NSS too has a role to play in that. Now if Tharoor loses his vote base, which is the Nair vote in a big way, it could seriously derail him in this election,” a senior local Congress leader told The Lede in anonymity.

Another important factor that could hurt Tharoor is the absence of star campaigner K Muraleedharan, the sitting MLA from Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram who has been deputed to take on CPM strongman P Jayarajan at the Vadakara constituency.

TP Sreenivasan, the former Permanent Representative of India at the United Nations is a voter at Thiruvananthapuram and had been a Tharoor supporter during his first and second term. But he says the wind is now blowing in the other direction.

“As someone said the fight here is the charmer (Tharoor) versus the saint (Rajasekharan). But it seems the charmer has accumulated a lot of political baggage and that many feel that there is a need for a change. But then all will depend on the last minute shifting of loyalties. My feeling is that Tharoor is on his way out,” Sreenivasan told The Lede.