Can an election campaign that has high stakes for three parties completely exclude a contentious topic like Sabarimala that has dominated the political narrative of the state for months?
Kerala Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) Teeka Ram Meena’s directive to political parties imposing restrictions while using the Sabairmala issue during election campaign could become complex, as it would require thorough monitoring by the Election Commission (EC).
The CEO says there is no complete bar on speaking about the issue, but the gag order is on using it on religious lines. This then leads to the question of what constitutes a remark that will not irk or instigate a particular section of society.
The CEO convened a meeting of representatives of the three major political fronts in the state- the UDF, the LDF and the NDA in this regard on Wednesday.
The BJP, a party that has used the Sabarimala debate to drum up support against the Supreme Court and the Kerala government said that they were happy there was no blanket ban by the Election Commission on broaching the subject.
“We are happy that we have the right to discuss issues related to Sabarimala like police action, the stand of the government. Though we have been asked not to use Sabarimala to instigate religious sentiments, it can be discussed just as we talk about Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, the assassination of Gandhi or triple talaq. But we don’t have the right to seek votes using the name of Lord Ayyappa. This is part of code of conduct. Sabarimala can’t be used to distort peace. We definitely have the right to say that the faith and customs of Sabarimala were breached and the government had supported that,” BJP state President PS Sreedharan Pillai told media persons after the meeting.
Sreedharan Pillai also questioned why Sabarimala cannot be spoken about when leaders of all parties speak of contentious issues like Babri Masjid demolition.
"Asking us to not speak about Sabarimala is a violation of our democratic and fundamental rights. The Kerala CM had said yesterday that Babri Masjid was destroyed by people with evil intentions, he can say that, so why is there a differentiation when it comes to Sabarimala? Ayodhya, Muthalaq, Church Act… all these are related to faith. We know our limits while speaking about these issues and won't violate laws,” he said.
CPI (M) leader Anathalavattom Anandan who represented the LDF in the meeting said that the party had never intended to face the elections using Sabarimala as the main plank. “The Election Commission has not given permission to seek votes in the name of God or places of worship. Our focus is the failure of the Modi government in these five years. It is the BJP and the Congress that bring in Sabarimala. The government is with the devotees, it is the non-believers who blocked the devotees and did propaganda to reduce the revenue of the temple,” he said.
Congress leader Thampanoor Ravi represented the Congress. He said that the UDF will discuss all current issues in the elections. “UDF is a secular and democratic front, we will discuss all issues concerning people. Sabarimala will be one of the issues,” he said.
Calling the election a secular process, the CEC quoted the Supreme Court judgment in Abhiram Singh case of 2017 to the parties. "No one should use religion or caste to invoke sentiments and those who try to disturb the process will be in violation of the model code of conduct,” the CEO said while briefing media after the meeting.
He added, “Sabarimala can’t be used for soliciting votes. Sabarimala is also a temple, if somebody uses the name of a temple or mosque it is clear violation. I have made it clear to political parties and they are very clear about it. The responsibility lies on them now."
When asked if a picture or video of police action in Sabarimala in election campaign would amount to violation, he said, "Let us see.”