Kalavathi was scared when she was asked to join a group of relatives and friends to go to Sabarimala in Pathanamthitta district of Kerala for Vishukani darshan at the Lord Ayyappa temple on 15 April. The 32-year-old woman from Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu found her fears misplaced when she found none to block her at the Nilakkal base camp on the eve of the Vishu, the Malayalam New Year day.
This was not the case six months ago, when workers of right-wing outfits forced the women who between 10 and 50 years of age to return. The protesters had also taken position at other entry points and the entire hillock to ensure that no menstruating women entered the temple.
The protests following the 28 September Supreme Court verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the temple turned violent most when the temple was opened for the monthly puja and during the main pilgrim season. Hundreds of people, including police and media personnel, had come under attack from the self-styled guardians of the customs and traditions of the temple.
Kalavathi was afraid to visit Sabarimala as she had read reports about the violence. However, she was relieved when she did not find any protesters in the vicinity of Sabarimala when they arrived as Nilakkal. Police personnel posted at the base camp said that protesters belonging to all political hues had disappeared from the hill shrine following the announcement of the election.
"They seem to have abandoned Ayyappa for the sake of votes. It is now clear that all the drama that Sabarimala witnessed after the Supreme Court passed the order was political," said an officer who did not want to be identified.
Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary K Surendran, who was at the forefront of the protests, is now the BJP candidate in the Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency. When asked why they have dropped the vigil at Sabarimala, he said they did not feel the need for the same as the Left Front government itself had abandoned their decision to take women of the forbidden age to Sabarimala.
"We had entered the scene after Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan appeared adamant in implementing the apex court verdict. He has realised the folly of his decision and has refrained from taking young women to the hill shrine. Therefore, there is no need for us to guard the temple now," he said.
Surendran said that the protests they organised had also created awareness among the devotees about the evil designs of the government. "They themselves are coming forward to protect the customs and traditions of the temple without anybody prompting them," he added.
However, Surendran and his party are not ready to leave Sabarimala in the election, despite a bar on invoking the names of Lord Ayyappa in the election by the Election Commission. Women's entry into the temple is the single largest issue of Surendran at Pathanamthitta, which is a Congress bastion. Without mentioning the name of the deity, Surendran has been seeking votes for Ayyappan.
"I know you have gathered here braving the scorching summer heat not because of your love for me. I don't need to tell you who has brought you here. Please vote for him and teach the Left a lesson," Surendran told a moderate crowd of men and women who had gathered near Konni, 40 kms from Nilakkal, to greet him.
Before he reached the spot, the local leaders described him as a 'martyr'. They pointed out that 242 cases slapped by the Kerala police against him in connection with the Sabarimala issue was part of the government's attempt to silence those fighting for the rights of the faithful.
If the faithful consider the personal struggle waged by him in defending the customs and traditions of the Sabarimala temple genuine, K Surendran should win the election hands down. However, it is no cake walk for the BJP candidate.
Many of the faithful have started realising that the aggressive stand that Surendran and his party had taken against the LDF government's attempt to implement the apex court verdict was not borne out of genuine concern for faith but aimed at political capital.
The Nair Service Society (NSS), a community organisation of the upper caste Nairs that appreciated the support given by the Sangh Parivar in opposing the entry of young women in the temple, has chosen not to reciprocate the support in the political arena. The organisation that holds sway over the 14 percent Nair population in the district has decided to continue with its policy of maintaining equi-distance from both the Left and the Right.
Sabarimala Karma Samithi patron Swami Chidanandapuri's call to the Ayyappa devotees to vote for the Congress-led United Democratic Front's candidates in constituencies where the NDA is weak has also come as a setback to the BJP's efforts to use the issue to strengthen the party base in the state.
Though the opinion on social media was intended to ensure the defeat of the LDF, senior BJP leaders fear that the confusion it creates will affect the party's prospects in marginal seats.
BJP was counting on the support of NSS for the victory of Surendran at Pathanamthitta. Sources in the organisation said that the NSS leadership was not happy with the way Surendran, in particular, and the saffron party in general dragged the issue into the streets. NSS' official journal Service accused all political parties of trying to use Sabarimala for their electoral gains.
The NSS journal also doubts the sincerity of the BJP in finding a legal solution to the issue. In its editorial, Service said that the party had tried to prevent women on the streets instead of paying attention to the legal matters. The NSS leadership is also not impressed by the promise given by the BJP in its election manifesto to secure constitutional protection on issues related to faith and belief since it did nothing to fulfil its promise regarding the Ram temple at Ayodhya during its term. He said that the BJP cannot fool the people in Kerala with such empty words.
BJP can win the seat only if it is able to pool the votes of the entire majority community, which accounts for about 57 percent of the population in the district. None expects the entire Hindu votes to fall in the BJP kitty since a substantial chunk of them have been traditional supporters of UDF and LDF and it won't be easy for them to change political affiliations based on one issue.
"I know what the government has done at Sabarimala was not right. I am also hurt by the haste with which the government tried to implement the SC verdict. However, I cannot think of changing my political affiliation as I and my family have been supporting the Communist Party of India from my childhood. I will vote for the party candidate this time too," said Govinga Pillai, a 75-year-old trader near Konni.
However, his wife Lalitha said she would not vote for the CPM this time. But she has not been able to decide whether to vote for BJP or Congress. She said many of her friends in the area were also confused like her. "We will take a decision after seeing the campaign," said Lalitha.
Congress has been winning the seat ever since the constituency was carved out in 2009 with the support of a section of the Nair community and the minorities, who account for 43 percent of the population. However, party candidate Anto Antony's victory margin saw a drop from 1,11,206 votes in 2009 to 56,191 votes in 2014.
This was mainly due to an improved showing by the BJP, which increased its vote share from 7.08 percent to 15.98 percent votes during the period. A swing in minority votes in the 2016 Assembly election saw the LDF winning four Assembly segments.
However, the Congress camp expects that the moderate sections of the majority community will support the UDF, making Anto's victory easy. The LDF camp is pinning their hope on the progressive sections of the society. A tour across the constituency, comprising four Assembly segments in Pathanamthitta district and two in Kottayam district, show their number too short for a victory for Veena George, the LDF candidate.
The fight in Pathanamthitta is between BJP and the Congress. It is too early to predict who will have the last laugh in this extremely close fight.