Raking Sabarimala issue again in Kerala: A miscalculation by the Congress?

Though it isn’t clear if there are any political dividends to be reaped by raising the Sabarimala issue, the Congress has set its agenda.
A stylised image of Congress leaders in Kerala Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy with Sabarimala temple in the background
A stylised image of Congress leaders in Kerala Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, Ramesh Chennithala and Oommen Chandy with Sabarimala temple in the background
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Both in and out of the Kerala chief ministerial post, K Karunakaran would frequent the Sreekrishna temple in Guruvayur in Kerala’s Thrissur. The late Congress leader’s devotion to the temple and Lord Krishna was well known, but many believed that wasn’t the only reason for Karunakaran’s religious visits. A pragmatic politician, Karunakaran was aware of the public impact that his devotion to a Hindu god could have on keeping the Hindu vote base intact for the party.

And while he openly showed his devotion, Karunakaran never did it at the expense of religious harmony in society. Karunakaran's death in December 2010 left a still-unfilled vacuum in the Kerala unit of the Congress party.

Fast forward to today and Congress leaders have taken a different approach to faith and politics, particularly at a time when the secular fabric of the country is under strain like never before. What has surfaced once again is the issue of the entry of women into Sabarimala temple.

Politics of appeasement

During the local body polls conducted in December in Kerala, Congress campaign vehicles repeatedly made announcements around Sabarimala and the Pinarayi Vijayan government’s decision to allow women of all ages to enter the shrine. Without seeing the vehicle, one may have thought the announcements were being made by the BJP- as both parties have adopted almost the same line on the issue.

While party leaders remain unperturbed by pronouncements related to faith, party sympathisers are finding it hard to differentiate between the BJP and the Congress, and their rhetoric.  

“MA John was the leader who carved out the KSU (Kerala Students’ Union) and the Congress. It was John who attracted AK Antony (one of the senior most leaders of Congress and former Defense Minister) to KSU in the late 50s when the outfit was just formed. MA John had taught his fellow KSU men that there should not be any connection with any of the communal forces, be it the Church or the NSS (Nair Service Society) and that there should be an equal distance from all communal forces. Like MA John, Antony was a kind of an atheist who didn't go to church,” Jacob George, a senior journalist and political commentator in the state told TNM.

Jacob George also covered the wedding of AK Antony. “Antony wedded Elizabeth (in 1985) at the residence of Oommen Chandy (former Chief Minister) without any traditional ceremony, in the presence of a registrar. This was unusual especially for a Catholic Christian to get married without a church and priest. Antony was against the church and traditions. Congress has now degraded. It has now become a most degressive party that argues not to allow young women to worship in Sabarimala," Jacob George said. 

Jacob added that Congress has also been attempting to appease the NSS, a dominant community organisation. 

"Karunakaran began this community appeasing. He was in fact playing with the community organisations for political gains. In the 80s, the NSS had a political outfit called National Democratic Party and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (a community organisation for the OBC Ezhava community) had Socialist Republic Party (SRP). Both outfits had a hidden agenda which Karunakaran exploited. Later, the NSS and the SNDP disowned those parties. However, the Antony Congress never went in this line. But now they aren't speaking out, neither Antony or Oommen Chandy. How would even Rahul Gandhi take a stand on it?" Jacob asked.

Left stepping back

While the Congress should be blamed for their ideological dilemma, the Left off late seems to have diluted its stand on the Sabarimala issue. The Left's front hasn't been as assertive on its earlier stand now. 

"The political parties now use the wrong issues to gain favour for whatever they think is right, and Sabarimala is among that," J Prabhash academic and political commentator told TNM. 

Both Prabhash and Jacob George said that Sabarimala is an issue of gender and of equal rights, which shouldn't be used politically. 

"Faith shouldn't have gender discrimination. Both men and women have equal rights for faith. That's a universal fact, not something applicable solely for Indian Constitution. Using that for political gain shows how undemocratic the Congress has become. It shows where a party has reached, the founder of which was Mahatma Gandhi. The issue is power, not the issue of faith," Prabhash added. 

He accused the Left of cold-shouldering the issue for not asserting its earlier stand of allowing young women. "Why has the Left stepped back despite the Supreme Court making clear that the verdict stands? This is diluting the content of democracy. Now it's like no difference between parties when it comes to political gains. And the issue is power,” he said. 

Does it give political yield?

Ever since the Supreme Court allowed the entry of women of all ages into the Lord Ayyappan temple in September 2018, the Congress has adopted different stands at different times. While both Congress and the BJP welcomed the verdict on the day it was pronounced, both also later used it to challenge the Left government in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

However, the Congress cannot seem to get out of the dilemma it's created for the party, ahead of the upcoming Assembly elections in April. Precariously taking a step forward, making faith a trump card issue in the political campaign, the Congress has even released a ‘draft law.’

While releasing the ‘draft’, Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan a former Congress minister and a senior leader of the party even said that violation of Sabarimala temple rituals can lead to up to two years imprisonment. 

While many Congress leaders like Ramesh Chennithala have used Sabarimala every now and then, other Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) leaders have not said that the issue should not be exploited. Making public comments on party decisions is very common in the Congress, and the absence of it makes it obvious that all leaders tacitly agree with raising the Sabarimala issue for election.

The Congress swept the Lok Sabha elections, winning 19 out of the 20 seats, which the party attributed to its stand on Sabarimala, failing to overlook that unlike most states, people in Kerala primarily voted for a change in power at the Centre, Congress was preferred over CPI(M) to take on Narendra Modi. This pattern is clearly established from the Left victory in the Assembly bye-elections held in October 2019 and in the local body polls held in December 2020.

"Sabarimala was not the major issue in the Lok Sabha elections, but people voted against the BJP," J Prabhash said. 

Though it isn’t clear if there are any political dividends to be reaped by raising the Sabarimala issue, and though past two elections does not suggest so, the party seems to have set its mind on consolidating the Hindu vote using Sabarimala. 

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