Ground report: In Cong-BJP fight in Kanniyakumari, religion trumps other issues

Kanniyakumari is the one of the only two constituencies in the Dravidian fortress of Tamil Nadu, where the two prominent national parties are taking each other head-on in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Kanniyakumari Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth (left) and BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan
Kanniyakumari Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth (left) and BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan
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As we stroll through the Vavathurai and Kovalam coasts of Kanniyakumari, speaking to the fisherfolk as they prepare to set out to the sea, an anti-BJP sentiment seems palpable. “The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shouldn’t come to power again,” an elderly fisherman named Mariasusai tells us. “Many of us in this area are Christians, and for us to survive, the BJP shouldn’t be re-elected. Look at what happened in Manipur.” 

Political analysts contend that the electoral battles in Kanniyakumari — which has a unique religious constitution of about 48.65% Hindus, 46.85% Christians, and 4.2% Muslims as per the 2011 census — often boils down to religion. “This time we have no qualms admitting that it is about religion because it is a matter of life and death for us,” says Mariasusai. The fisherman, who is in his late 60s, is seated on a boat at the Vavathurai fishing port with four of his friends, carefully inspecting a fishing net for damages. He and his compatriots are all voting for Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth, he says, and the others nod along. 

Vijay Vasanth, who is the incumbent Member of Parliament (MP) in Kanniyakumari, had defeated BJP candidate and former Union Minister Pon Radhakrishnan in the 2021 bye-election, by a margin of more than 1,37,000 votes. Kanniyakumari, in fact, is one of the only two constituencies in the Dravidian fortress of Tamil Nadu, where the two prominent national parties are taking each other head-on in the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. The other such constituency is Tirunelveli.

The Congress has joined hands with the state’s ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in a grand alliance called INDIA, formed by a total of 41 political parties to prevent the BJP from winning a third term to form the Union government. “All 39 constituencies in Tamil Nadu will elect the DMK alliance,” Mariasusai says with conviction. “Like Kerala, we too will not yield any seat to the BJP this time.”

The Christian coastal community’s current support for Congress, however, is not about what the party “has done or is expected to do for us,” admits a younger fisherman, Jayasheelan. Seated on a plastic stool as he helps clean and devein the shrimp they caught a few hours ago, he says, “It’s because the BJP keeps making everything about religion, and we can’t afford to overlook it.”

Jayasheelan (left) deveins prawns with his coworkers at the Vavathurai coast
Jayasheelan (left) deveins prawns with his coworkers at the Vavathurai coastLakshmi Priya

A little farther away, as we approach Kanniyakumari’s famed Triveni Sangamam, we meet Lingeshwaram, who sells spiced guavas and raw mangoes from a pushcart. He is from Tirunelveli, says the 39-year-old, and states he will definitely be voting for BJP’s Nainar Nagenthran. “The BJP candidate will win there, and the same will happen here in Kanniyakumari as well. People here keep criticising the BJP for no reason. Why can’t they look at all the good things the party is doing? They have brought a lot of development to the country.”

But if the people in Kanniyakumari indeed have concerns about the BJP, won’t that affect the party’s electoral prospects? “That doesn’t matter,” Lingeshwaram says. “The coastal people’s votes are going to be split between the Congress and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) anyway. So BJP will emerge victorious in the end.”

Lingeshwaram with his pushcart near the Triveni Sangamam
Lingeshwaram with his pushcart near the Triveni SangamamLakshmi Priya

Lingeshwaram is repeating an electoral possibility that has been widely discussed ever since the AIADMK announced its candidate Nazerath Pasilian, who hails from the Catholic fishing community of Nagercoil. The AIADMK’s decision seemingly comes in the hopes of luring fisher votes by capitalising on a long-sought demand by the coastal belt, for representation in the Lok Sabha. The Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) has also similarly fielded Maria Jennifer Clara Michael, who hails from a coastal community in Kanniyakumari, and the BJP camp hopes that the fisher votes would see a three-way split between the Congress, AIADMK, and NTK (to a relatively smaller degree) due to this reason. Nazerath Pasilian and Maria Jennifer belong to the Mukkuvar and Paravar castes respectively, which are the primary fishing community castes in the Kanniyakumari region. They are scheduled under Other Backward Classes (OBC) in Tamil Nadu.

AIADMK candidate Nazerath Pasilian and NTK's Maria Jennifer
AIADMK candidate Nazerath Pasilian and NTK's Maria JenniferX

Nazerath Pasilian was a DMK man who jumped ship to AIADMK just a few months ago, allegedly because DMK repeatedly failed to give him a ticket despite his years of experience. “It is true that DMK didn’t give him his due for very long. He only went to AIADMK after the Kanniyakumari MLA promised to give him a ticket if he joined the party,” says Mariasusai. 

But that doesn’t mean the fisher community would vote for him just because he is from the community, the fisherman adds. Many in the coastal region believe that Nazerath Pasilian joined the AIADMK following provocation by “religious vested interests,” he says, without specifically naming the BJP. “This is a matter of shame for the Christian religion. We know he is a fisherman, but who will vote for him given the scenario?”

Though the AIADMK parted ways with the BJP in September 2023, a section of the minorities have remained untrusting of the Dravidian party, with speculations rife that the two parties are still in a kalla koottani (secret alliance). During the 2021 bye-election, which was necessitated after the demise of Vijay Vasanth’s father and then MP, H Vasanthakumar, there were reports of churches and mosques in Nagercoil asking AIADMK campaigners to leave the premises over its alliance with the BJP.

AIADMK leaders, however, have vehemently refuted the allegation, stating that they have now left the alliance for good. A local AIADMK worker in Colachel tells us that his party had never focused on caste or religion. “AIADMK’s politics has always been clear, and our former alliance with the BJP hasn’t changed that. Our candidate was fielded because he is an excellent leader who works for the welfare of the people, not just because he is from a coastal community. Besides, the fisherfolk have a deep sense of community, and they will stand by him on the polling day. The few who are criticising him are just the outliers,” he says.

The Nadar factor

The fishing communities, however, form only the second-largest community vote base of Kanniyakumari. The constituency’s single largest caste group is the Nadars, with the region comprising an almost equal number of Hindu and Christian Nadars. Categorised as OBC in Tamil Nadu, the Nadars are a numerically and financially dominant caste group in several southern districts in addition to Kanniyakumari, including Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Virudhunagar. Brahmins, Nairs, and Vellalas form a lesser share of the Hindu population.

When the BJP first found its footing in the Kanniyakumari district in 1996, winning an Assembly seat on its own in Padmanabhapuram, it was following extensive grassroots efforts by its parent organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since the 1980s. Ever since, the Nadar community is said to have been its largest supporter besides its typically ‘upper’ caste voter base.

Pon Radhakrishnan, who is contesting for BJP from Kanniyakumari for the 10th consecutive time now, had won as MP from the region only once before in 1999, during the BJP’s brief alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Until then, the erstwhile Nagercoil constituency — which became Kanniyakumari after the 2008 delimitation — had mostly remained faithful to the Congress.

Kanniyakumari Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth (left) and BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan
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Kamaraj, president of the Nadar Samajam in Nagercoil, tells us that the community’s support will be with the BJP this time as well. “We haven’t released any official statement, but we stand by the BJP. They are winning across India for a reason, and they should come to power here as well. Only then would the district see any development,” he says. 

Notably, both the BJP and Congress candidates in this election hail from the Hindu Nadar community, which the Congress hopes would work in their favour. “Despite what community organisations say, the more secular Hindu Nadars will also be voting for the Congress,” a local party leader tells us.

SP Udhayakumar, writer and anti-nuclear activist, says the caste location of the BJP and Congress candidates is no coincidence, as Kanniyakumari is yet to have it another way. “Almost every candidate any party has fielded in the Kanniyakumari constituency so far has been from the Nadar caste, whether they be Hindu or Christian. That is the only way to secure the majority votes, and the parties generally wouldn’t risk fielding someone from another caste group,” he says.

Speaking to us on the premises of the Suchindram temple in Nagercoil, Udhayakumar admits that Kanniyakumari is a communally sensitive district, especially after the Mandaikadu Hindu-Christian riots of 1982. “BJP’s strategy has always been to take advantage of this communal tension. Pon Radhakrishnan himself has blatantly aided and abetted this narrative in his many controversial speeches, warning of imminent riots and creating a fear surrounding Hindu conversions to Christianity,” he says.

A signboard in Colachel marks the way to the Mandaikadu temple, where the 1982 riots took place
A signboard in Colachel marks the way to the Mandaikadu temple, where the 1982 riots took placeLakshmi Priya

The Kanniyakumari region had been a Congress bastion for the longest time, says Hussain Ahmed, a local leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], as we meet him at the party office in Krishnancoil near the Nagercoil town. “The region’s social and political fabric largely aligned with neighbouring Kerala. Until BJP emerged as a contender, the Congress and the Communists were the strongest parties in Kanniyakumari,” he says. He adds that the BJP had first mobilised the ‘upper’ castes before gaining the support of the Nadars.

Hindu-Christian equations

Hussain says Kanniyakumari has a peculiar religious trait. “It isn’t uncommon here to see a single family with both Christian and Hindu members. For example, even as an elder brother raises a Hindu family, the younger brother might marry a Christian woman and raise their children as Christians. This is most prevalent among the Nadar community, and it isn’t frowned upon. Caste, after all, is the single most unifying factor in India,” he says. Udhayakumar, for instance, says several members of his own family are Christians, but that far from affects their daily social relations.

CPI(M) leaders Hussain Ahmed (right) and Manohar Justice at the party office in Krishnencoil
CPI(M) leaders Hussain Ahmed (right) and Manohar Justice at the party office in KrishnencoilLakshmi Priya

The RSS and BJP, however, have campaigned persistently against this family structure, says Hussain. “As part of their propaganda machine, the BJP and RSS wove a narrative that such family units would lead to Hindus becoming a minority in Kanniyakumari. They milked the idea to a point of saturation, and have been successful to an extent in driving a wedge between Hindu and Christian Nadars. That is how they won the 2014 elections because while they unitedly stood behind this divisive narrative, the secular forces were all divided,” he says.

Udhayakumar adds that despite the region’s communally fragile nature, there have never been any notable instances of tension between Hindu and Muslim groups in Kanniyakumari. “It is the systemic manipulations and calculations of the Sangh Parivar that has brought the region to this point,” he says.

Kaliyappan, state joint secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), meanwhile says the opposition parties are deliberately reducing the election to religion, to “hide the fact” that Vijay Vasanth hasn’t been able to bring any development to the constituency as an MP. “Minorities have no problems with us. In a Christian-majority area in Colachel, for instance, a group of Christians voluntarily built a campaign tent and canvassed votes for us. We are not denying that some minority communities may have concerns, but that is largely owing to the propaganda peddled against BJP by vested interests,” he alleges.

Opposition unity

Hussain points out that after Pon Radhakrishnan (BJP-DMK alliance) defeated Congress’ N Dennis in 1999, the constituency has not elected the same party twice in a row — except during the 2021 bye-election when Vijay Vasanth was elected after his father’s demise. “The Nagercoil Lok Sabha constituency had remained a Congress bastion for the longest time, with Dennis alone winning up to six consecutive elections since 1980. Later in 2004, CPI(M)’s AV Bellarmin won the constituency with a significant majority, with the support of both the Congress and the DMK. But this alliance later broke up, and the victory in the 2009 election went to DMK’s Helen Davidson for the first time. Then, of course, BJP won in 2014 and the Congress in 2019 and 2021,” he details.

History indicates that to defeat BJP, unity of the secular forces is crucial, says Hussain. “We have achieved that this time and the voters in Kanniyakumari have already recognised the dent that BJP has made in our secular fabric,” he adds.

A campaign car of the INDIA bloc carrying flags of the Congress, DMK, and CPI(M), parked near the Anna Statue in Colachel
A campaign car of the INDIA bloc carrying flags of the Congress, DMK, and CPI(M), parked near the Anna Statue in ColachelLakshmi Priya

Udhayakumar echoes Hussain’s words, pointing out that when Pon Radhakrishnan won in 2014, all the major parties in Kanniyakumari including the DMK, AIADMK, Congress, and the CPI(M) were contesting separately. Udhayakumar himself had contested that election, as a candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “The candidates of all six of these prominent parties were Nadar, including me, and the equation made it easy for the BJP to win. But now that the Congress, DMK, and the Communist parties have come together, it will make a significant difference. One of BJP’s primary strategies to counter this is to split the coastal votes. But that is also unlikely to happen because the fisherfolk are well aware of their political realities now,” he says.

Inputs from Sindhu Nepolean

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