Between 1951 and 1979, a film studio at Nemom, a suburb of Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram, became a symbol of resurgent Hinduism. During this 28-year period, the studio named Merryland had produced a series of box-office hits with religious overtones – ‘Bhakta Kuchela’, ‘Sreerama Pattabhishekam’, ‘Kumara Sambhavam’, ‘Sree Guruvayurappan’, ‘Swami Ayyappan’, ‘Amba Ambika Ambalika’, and ‘Sree Murugan’.
Intertwined with the history of Merryland that was owned by producer-director P Subramaniam, is the story of the temple of the celibate god Ayyappa of Sabarimala.
Film, Road and Hindutva
On 17 August 1975, Subramaniam released his all-time multi-lingual hit ‘Swamy Ayyappan’ that was shot at Merryland. Besides its mass appeal, the film also won state awards for best cinematography, best lyricist and best child actor. Buoyed by the film’s success, Subramaniam donated the proceeds of Swamy Ayyappan to lay a motorable road between Pampa, the base camp of Sabarimala and Sannidhanam, the main temple, considered to be the abode of Ayyappa.
The new road and the film’s broad reach in the neighbouring states of Kerala – Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu – catapulted Sabarimala, which was till then a small forest shrine, into a mass pilgrim spot.
Now, Nemom with its Merryland Studio and link to Sabarimala, has turned into “an epicentre of militant Hindutva revivalism in the state”, observes J Devika, a feminist, social critic and academician who resides in Nemom Assembly constituency. In the constituency a three-way fight is on among the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
For the BJP, Nemom is “an iron fort”. BJP state president K Surendran said that the party is confident about winning the constituency. For other parties that claim to be progressive and secular, Nemom is a stumbling block.
The constituency with 1.9 lakh voters had made national headlines during the 2016 Assembly elections when veteran BJP leader O Rajagopal wrested it from CPI(M)’s sitting MLA V Sivankutty. Rajagopal won by a margin of 8,671 votes. The Congress was pushed to a distant third in that election.
This year, the BJP has replaced an ailing Rajagopal with Kummanam Rajasekharan, former governor of Mizoram and one of the faces of aggressive Hindutva politics in Kerala. While LDF has deputed its old guard V Sivankutty to win back the constituency, The United Democratic Front’s (UDF) decision to field Congress heavyweight K Muraleedharan to take on Kummanam has given a new dimension to the contest in Nemom.
Son of former Chief Minister and Congress politician K Karunakaran, Muraleedharan is a sitting Lok Sabha member from Vadakara in North Kerala. One among the very few politicians in Kerala who retains a personal mass base in the state, Muraleedharan had contested from Vattiyoorkavu, a constituency bordering Nemom before leaving for Vadakara.
“Muraleedharan is indeed a strong candidate. He is a fighter with mass appeal and his entry has changed the electoral scene in Nemom. Our party has to struggle,” O Rajagopal admits. “When I contested last time, I received many non-political votes even from those who ideologically opposed BJP. There is little chance of that repeating,” he adds.
Muraleedhran says, “Nemom is not Kerala’s Gujarat as claimed by the Sangh Parivar.” The Congress candidate goes on to explain that Rajagopal won the constituency the last time only because he had continuously contested elections there. He was a familiar face.
“No such sympathy wave exists in favour of Kummanam. Here, the fight is between UDF and LDF. There is no place for BJP’s hate politics in Kerala and I am bound to end BJP’s presence in the state Assembly.”K Muraleedharan
While on his campaign trail, Sivankutty sounded confident about recapturing Nemom from BJP without giving it to Muraleedharan. “I am always present in the constituency. People will respond to LDF’s stunning performance in development, welfare, and infrastructure-related areas. Nemom, too, will stand with the prevailing mood of allowing another term for LDF,” he says. The Left Democratic Front has been in power in Kerala during the last five years.
Still a Saffron Bastion?
Many Congress and CPI(M) workers, however, agree that BJP is a force to reckon with in Nemom. The BJP has steadily expanded its base in the constituency over the last decade. Till 2016, the constituency was occupied alternatively by the UDF and the LDF.
In the constituency, Hindus constitute 67.1 percent of the electorate. Among them, 35.1 percent are the dominant caste, Nairs. This group is clearly the deciding factor electorally.
All the three fronts have chosen Nair candidates this election to consolidate their fortunes. As a morale booster to Muraleedharan, Kerala’s mighty Nair Service Society (NSS) has criticised both BJP and CPI(M).
Ezhavas, an OBC segment that constitutes 15 per cent of the electorate, is another key factor.
“There are chances of secular votes getting divided between Muraleedharan and Sivankutty. This could help Kummanam win. In the 2010 local body polls, BJP was able to win only one seat,” AS Shyba, a resident of the constituency points out.
In the 2015 local body polls in Nemom, the BJP won ten seats. The party also won the Assembly seat in 2016. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Nemom was the only Assembly constituency where Congress candidate Shashi Tharoor trailed behind Kummanam. In the local body elections held in December 2020, BJP won 14 out of 24 wards, which constitute the Nemom Assembly constituency.
Apart from Nemom, the BJP is concentrating on the adjacent Kazhakootam constituency where firebrand leader Sobha Surendran will fight Kerala’s Temple Affairs Minister Kadakampally Surendran and Congress leader Dr SS Lal. BJP also has high hopes in Palakkad from where ‘Metroman’ E Sreedharan is contesting, and from Manjeshwar in Kasaragod where the Kannada-speaking population is usually the deciding factor.
“If we lose this time, the BJP will have to wait for a long time to make any political impact in the state,” a regional BJP leader rues.
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