The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had abandoned its hard Hindutva politics in Kerala after it failed to click in the southern state with a population of nearly 45 percent minorities. However, the Supreme Court verdict of 28 September allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple has made the saffron party to revert to the hard Hindutva line in constituencies where the Hindus form a majority.
The party has chosen Pathanamthitta where the temple is situated to experiment the aggressive Hindutva politics that helped it to come to power at the Centre in 2014. The party has converted Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency as a laboratory for testing the hard line by equating the Sabarimala temple issue with the volatile Ram temple issue in Ayodhya.
Pathanamthitta is ideal for experimenting the Hindutva politics since Hindus constitute majority in the constituency. While Muslims account for only a miniscule 4.7 percent, majority of the 38.6 percent Christians is in a state of flux. Hindus account for about 57 percent of the population in the district. The saffron party has, therefore, placed Pathanamthitta high among four seats it can win in the state.
Fancying an easy victory, top BJP leaders have been vying for the seat even delaying finalisation of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidates for the 20 Lok Sabha seats in the state. K Surendran, who spent 25 days in jail over the Sabarimala issue, was the front runner for the seat initially. However, the process hit a roadblock after state chief P S Sreedharan Pillai, Union Minister Alphonse Kannanthanam, general secretary M T Ramesh and the party's firebrand woman leader Shobha Surendran staked claim for the seat.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had initially toyed with the idea of fielding a leader of the Sabarimala Karma Samithi (SKS) which spearheaded the protests against the Left Front government's decision to implement the Supreme Court verdict. The RSS leadership had suggested Sasikumara Verma, leader of SKS and a member of the Pandalam royal family, for the seat, but the move was vetoed by the BJP central leadership, which felt that the party should not surrender a winnable seat to outsiders.
Surendran has staked claim for Pathanamthitta as he has already done a lot of groundwork consolidating the Hindus. The supporters of Surendran claim that he has touched a chord with the Hindu believers by playing a lead role against the entry of women in the hill shrine. They say that the aggressive stand he took on the issue has brought the Nair community, which earlier maintained a distance from the Sangh Parivar, close to the party besides cementing the party's relationship with the Ezhava community.
However, the rival camp has countered the claim saying that the party cannot win the seat with the support of the Hindus alone. They don't expect Surendran to get the votes of the Christians, as he is seen as a hardline Hindutva leader. They claim that Sreedharan Pillai is best suited to get the support of the Christians as he is considered as a moderate leader who has been maintaining close ties with all the communities.
The Pillai camp considers the current division in the Orthodox Christian community, which has a decisive presence in the constituency, over the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict on the dispute with the rival Jacobite faction over churches and its properties will be an added advantage to the state BJP president.
The Orthodox Church, which had supported the LDF in the 2016 Assembly elections and later in the Chengannur assembly by-election, has moved away from the LDF following its failure to take any steps to implement the apex court verdict. The Church, which traditionally backed the Congress-led United Democratic Front, had rallied behind the LDF after it promised to resolve the issue in its favour during the Assembly election.
The BJP think-tank believes that the party can get the support of the Orthodox Church as they are disenchanted with both the LDF and the UDF. Moreover, the church bishop in Ahmedabad has been close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi ever since he came to power in Gujarat.
Political analysts like Sunnykutty Abraham does not expect the minorities and even a large segment of Hindu believers to support Pillai since he had taken the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala as a golden opportunity for the party to make electoral mileage. He wonders how the party that failed to file even a review petition against the Supreme Court verdict claim to be saviours of faith.
"The Hindus would have rallied behind BJP if the state unit of the party had forced the government at the Centre to bring out an ordinance against the implementation of the Supreme Court verdict. No one will now take their claim to protect the Hindus seriously," he added.
Sunnykutty believes that the beneficiaries of Sabarimala issue would be the Congress since it had not only stood by the position it took against the entry of young women in Sabarimala in the court but also made a party leader to file a review petition.
Pathanamthitta is considered a bastion of the Congress, which had won the Lok Sabha seat in both the elections held after it became a separate constituency in 2008. Anto Antony who won the seat in 2009 by a margin of 1,11,206 votes and in 2014 by 56,191 votes has entered the fray for the third time. The LDF candidate is Veena George, a sitting MLA from Aranmula assembly segment in the constituency.
The vote share of the BJP has been showing a steady increase in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections in the district. The party which polled 56,294 votes in the 2009 Lok Sabha election increased its votes to 1,38,594 in 2014. The votes in the seven assembly segments of the constituency rose to 191576 in the 2016 Assembly elections.
The BJP hopes that it can bridge the gap if the anti-LDF votes fall into its kitty over the Sabarimala issue. However, the Election Commission's directive not to invoke the name of Lord Ayyappa or any other God for soliciting votes may affect its plan to make full use of the Sabarimala issue.
However, observers feel that the issue has already sunk deep into the Malayali psyche and nothing can be done to prevent it from influencing the voting pattern. They say that even if the poll panel succeeds to quarantine the issue from the campaign, there is no way voters can be immunised against it.
Party positions on the issue are also well-established and there is no need to mount a new campaign in support of their respective stands. The voters may have already made up their mind even before the elections were notified. Whoever the candidate, Sabarimala will be the key issue for the BJP in Pathanamthitta.