The port at Kovalam and the demand for declaring Ayya Vazhi as an independent religion might play a deciding factor in tilting the scales.

Ground report In Kanyakumari religious politics determines the winner
news Lok Sabha 2019 Tuesday, April 16, 2019 - 17:30

As we walk down the southernmost point in the country, the land quite literally slides towards the ocean. This is Cape Comorin aka Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu’s second smallest district, after Chennai.

Kanyakumari Lok Sabha constituency has always been a unique turf in Tamil Nadu, with almost an equal number of Hindu and Christian population – Christians and Muslims together make up 51%. This is also the lone constituency from where BJP’s sitting MP and Union Minister of State, Pon Radhakrishnan won in during the 2014 elections.

This election, the two national parties –  BJP and Congress – will clash head-on; the contest is between BJP’s Pon Radhakrishnan, fondly referred to as Ponnar, and Congress’s H Vasanthakumar. Of the five landscapes that feature in Tamil Sangam literature – Kurinji (mountains), Mullai (forests), Marudham (agricultural plains), Neithal (seashore) and Palai (desert) – Kanyakumari has four of them (all but the desert). One can, therefore, understand that people’s concerns here too vary based on the region.

To understand the support BJP had in this constituency, one just has to look at the numbers that helped them win last elections. Of the 9 lakh voter turnout (around 65% of its total voter strength), BJP had an easy win with over 3.7 lakh votes while Congress came second with 2.4 lakh votes.

Ponnar also enjoys good support from the people here, with many immediately recalling his developmental programs that were initiated and some accomplished in these past few years in Kanyakumari.

51-year-old Sundaralingam, a resident of Leepuram, sells tender coconut and palmyra fruits from a pushcart parked near the Triveni Sangamam. Sundaralingam’s support goes to Ponnar.

“He has laid roads, made transport easier for people like us. The 4-way bypass to Kanyakumari was done during Vajpayee’s rule. BJP has done a lot of development for us. Ponnar built the bridge at Narikulam while the Congress has done no such thing,” he says while slicing open a coconut.

The Parvathipuram and Marthandam bridges were built by Ponnar during his rule. While it is true that Pon Radhakrishnan has utilised the full amount of his Members of Parliament Local Area Development (MPLADS) Scheme funds (close to Rs 25 crore) during his five-year rule, not everyone is happy. 

“The BJP convoy cannot enter any of the coastal villages. They have not come here to campaign either. They know we are angry,” says Sesunayagam, a resident and a fisherman from Manakudi, few kilometres from Kanyakumari town.

The reason for his anger is the BJP Government’s proposal to build a harbour at Kolavam, Kanyakumari.

“If the harbour comes here, we will have to move out from our villages. They don’t have to send us, we will move out on our own accord. The construction for a harbour will destroy our fishing areas,” he adds.

When BJP assumed power in 2014, they promised a commercial port at Kolachal but soon after, it was shifted to Enayam as an International Container Transhipment Terminal instead of the promised commercial port. When the fishermen of the area protested against the idea, the project site was shifted to Kovalam. This port, proposed as part of Union Government’s Sagarmala Project, has drawn severe criticism from the local population.

“Who needs a port? We were already forced to shift by a few meters after the tsunami. Now if the port comes, we will have to move out from here entirely. How will the fish travel if they are going to build a port? This will affect our catch. They may have built roads but most of these roads have no electricity. We walk at 1.00 am or 2.00 am on these roads to the shore without being able to see what lies ahead on our path. Their development has been of no help to us,” he laments.

While the Kovalam port might have been a blow for BJP, their strength in numbers based on religion might not work as expected this time either. Kanyakumari’s biggest community is the Nadar Community with an almost equal number of Hindu and Christian Nadars.

A major faction of the Hindu Nadars follows Ayya Vazhi, a Hindu sect that is based on the teachings of Ayya Vaikuntar who fought against the oppression of the Travancore kings and brought about reforms over two centuries ago. With the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department taking over Ayya Vazhi temple at Swamithope, Balaprajabathi Adigalar, Ayya Vazhi’s present head has asked for religious autonomy. While this sect is largely unorganised, going against their wishes would mean a severe dent in BJP’s vote bank.

Suresh, an auto driver in Kanyakumari town, is sure that with people’s anger towards the centre with respect to GST and demonetisation, it will be difficult to see them come back to power. “Even though they may not be angry with Ponnar, they are angry with BJP, with GST and demonetisation. People want a change,” he says.

But Sumathi, a mother of two, who runs a small snack shop outside Ayya Vazhi temple in Swamithope, tells us that her vote would be for the government that bans TASMAC shops. “Parties have their own developmental plans but what about liquor shops? How many families are ruined as a result of it?” she asks.

Kanyakumari also has a good number of rubber and cashew plantations on its western border and plantation workers too, face problems with respect to wages and lack of facilities.

Yet, Kanyakumari constituency’s unique predicament comes not with caste-based politics but with religion-based politics. Time and again, political parties have tried to make use of religion to polarise the masses. Yet the sentiment is one that the people are all too familiar with. “We are Christians but we live in harmony with our Hindu brothers. The Ayya Vazhi temple is just a few kilometres from here. They offer sweets to us during their festivals; we do the same during ours. For years, politics in Kanyakumari has thrived based on a religious divide and this plays up only during elections,” says Sesunayagam.

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