Sabarimala: Why is Cong Helping RSS’ Quest for an Ayodhya Moment?
Why is the response of the Congress to the Sabarimala verdict nearly indistinguishable from that of the RSS?
After the 1984 general elections, Rajiv Gandhi was the Golden Boy of Indian politics. He had a majority of 414 MPs, more than what even his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru could manage. However, armed with this secure mandate, he made a series of decisions riven with insecurity.
It all started with a pro-women verdict. In 1985, the Supreme Court decreed that 62-year-old Shah Bano was entitled to maintenance from her former husband. However, Gandhi chose to bow to Muslim fundamentalists and overturned the verdict.
And then, fearing a Hindu backlash, he opened the Ayodhya temple, setting off a series of events which have irreparably damaged the country’s secular fabric and are poised to influence yet another Lok Sabha election in 2019.
Thirty-three years later, another pro-women verdict by the Supreme Court, this time allowing the entry of women of all ages at the 13th century hill shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala, put a similar dilemma in front the Congress. They chose the Rajiv Gandhi way.
Why is the Congress Jittery?
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has long been looking to get a foothold in God’s Own Country. The number of shakhas in the tiny state is second only to that in Uttar Pradesh. However, the struggle has produced just a solitary MLA and their wait for an Ayodhya moment has continued.
Yet, the Congress has reason to worry about the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise. Although it was long prophesied that the saffron party will wrest votes from the CPI(M), which has a broader Hindu base, the Congress’ own privileged caste vote has been proven to have itchy feet.
The Congress has been heavily dependent on its alliance partners, the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Kerala Congress, to pull in the Muslim and Christian votes, respectively.
The party has just 22 MLAs in the current 140-member Assembly, while the IUML has 18 and the two Kerala Congress factions have 7.
Blunder or Not?
The response of the Congress has been nearly indistinguishable from that of the RSS. KPCC Working President K Sudhakaran has been particularly vocal, calling menstruation an “impurity” and daring a policeman to hit him in public. He has also called the SC judges “idiots” and has gone to the extent of stating that the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be the Congress’ “Waterloo” if they fail to stand with the devotees.
“The Congress is pitched in opposition to the CPI(M) in Kerala, unlike the BJP at the national level. This has led to them taking steps such as opposing the land reform bill and the education bill in 1959,” says KN Ganesh, Professor of History at Calicut University.
The education bill tabled by the Communist Party of India (CPI) government in 1957 had promised better wages for teachers. The Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Catholic Church, which ran numerous educational institutions, felt threatened by the bill and formed an opportunistic alliance with the Congress. This led to what is rather ironically called the ‘Vimochana Samaram’ (Struggle for Liberation), resulting in the dismissal of the first democratically elected government of Kerala by the then Prime Minister Nehru.
“This is the trap that Congress has fallen into again,” he says. But times they are a changin. While the Congress had made political hay taking reactionary positions in the past, this time they might be playing into the hands of the saffron forces. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“If you shout Hindutva’s slogans, you will soon find those shouting at the Hindutva camp too,” says author Sunil P Ilayidam.
“The debate was between the Constitution on one side and faith on the other. Now, in the name of faith, the protest has been hijacked by Hindutva forces,” he adds.
The Congress’ response has been brought to sharper relief by the unwavering stand in support of the verdict by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. “This has earned him the support of many leftist groups which were wary of many of his other policies,” says NK Bhoopesh, executive editor of Malayalam news portal The Newsrupt. “As such the CPM may not lose a lot of ground but the same cannot be said of the Congress,” he says.
A post-poll analysis by CSDS after the 2016 Assembly elections had found that 34 percent of the privileged caste Nair vote, which traditionally belonged the Congress, had gone to the BJP. The NSS has been at the forefront of the protests against the present verdict.
“Even if the party was worried about losing the Nair vote, as a secular constitutional party, it could have worked to preserve the still sizeable secular seam within the community,” says Elayidom. “Escorting them to the Hindutva camp was not the solution,” he says.
While it might be too early to predict the electoral fallout of the issue, the Sangh Parivar has, perhaps for the first time, been able to set the agenda of political debate in the state.
“The thinking of the Congress might be that the BJP shouldn’t take all credit for the Sabarimala protest. The Congress had fielded D Vijayakumar, national vice president of Akhila Bharatha Ayyappa Seva Sangham, in the recent Chengannur bypolls. The party might attempt something like that again,” says Ganesh.
“But it does not matter who wins and who loses. This game of polarisation is extremely dangerous for Kerala society,” he says.
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