In the movie Elippathayam, ace director Adoor Gopalakrishnan gave us a character called Unni. Late actor Karamana Janardhanan Nair played the role of Unni, a Nair man, who is perhaps one of the least flexible human beings to be characterised on screen. Unni fears change, and prefers to live in his comfort zone. His unmarried sisters are always at his beck and call, and he doesn’t allow them to live as they like. Elippathayam was made in 1981 – but the character Unni resembles many present-day men – specifically, from the Nair community. This dominant caste in Kerala still retains some of the hangover the bye-gone feudal era, with many individuals holding on strongly to the belief that their caste gives them a birthright to privilege.
Sukumaran Nair, General Secretary of the Nair Service Society, too, loves certain privileges – among them, meeting top politicians in Kerala at the NSS headquarters in Kottayam’s Perunna, who pull up in state-owned cars. His predecessors, like Kidangur Gopalakrishnan and PK Narayana Panicker, too might have enjoyed certain privileges. However unlike them, Sukumaran recently even made the Nair community a topic of discussion ahead of the bye-elections held for five Assembly constituencies in Kerala.
Not that caste has been absent in previous elections in the state – it has always been there. Political parties have always chosen candidates based on their acceptance among certain communities in certain regions. But for perhaps the first time, there was a blatant and open discussion surrounding a particular caste during the just-concluded bye-elections, thanks to Sukumaran Nair. The leader, in the run up to the polls, had declared that the NSS was shifting it’s strategy regarding politics from ‘equidistance’ to ‘right distance’ – sheri dooram.
While the ‘equidistance’ strategy was one of not favouring a particular political front, ‘right distance’ in effect became supportive of the Congress and UDF. While declaring the strategy, Sukumaran Nair chided both the CPI(M) and the BJP for not standing for protection of faith. He was referring to the implementation of the Supreme Court order which allowed women of all ages to worship at Sabarimala temple. He called out the BJP for not taking any move to bye-pass the court order. This in effect boosted the Congress.
Making no impact
The two constituencies where the ‘right distance’ strategy could have made any impact in the bye-polls were Vattiyoorkavu in Thiruvananthapuram and Konni in Pathanamthitta. But in both places, the NSS has had no impact, and the Congress lost.
In Vattiyoorkavu around 42% of voters belong to the Nair community. But Thiruvananthapuram mayor VK Prasanth captured the seat, which was held by the Congress, by an impressive margin of 14,465 votes. Prasanth of the CPI(M) belongs to the Ezhava community. In the 2016 Assembly elections, the CPI(M) had been pushed to the third position. Prasanth defeated former MLA K Mohankumar of the Congress – a Nair.
Karayogams (local units of the NSS) under the Thiruvananthapuram Taluk Union of the NSS even reportedly conducted door to door campaigns for the Congress candidate against which the CPI(M) had filed a complaint with the Chief Election Commissioner. Mohankumar, post the counting on Thursday, even slammed the ‘right distance’ strategy saying it had proved as a setback for him.
Mohanraj, Congress candidate from the Konni constituency, also belongs to the Nair community. But KU Janeeshkumar of the CPI(M) captured the traditional seat of the Congress by a margin of 9,953 votes. Adoor Prakash of the Congress, who held the seat between 1996 and 2016, had to vacate it after he got elected to the Lok Sabha. While Adoor Prakash suggested that Robin Peter, a Christian, should be selected to contest from Konni, it was the NSS’s ‘right distance’ strategy that prompted the party to choose Mohanraj.
In Konni the Christian, Nair and Ezhava communities constitute more than 30% of the population each.
This is not to say that the NSS has distanced itself from politics earlier. Kidangur Gopalakrishnan even founded a political outfit, National Democratic Party, in 1974, which was dissolved later. And the UDF has always taken an appeasing stand towards the community.
“But it was Sukumaran Nair who blatantly brought caste into the context. Vellappally Natean, his counterpart of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, during elections would say that a particular candidate would win that would indirectly ascertain his stand, but he won’t seek votes for a particular candidate. Sukumara Nair’s predecessors, including the powerful Kidangur Gopalakrishnan, never went to that extent,” a political observer tells TNM.
Sukumaran also appears to be one who loves to be appeased as well. He called Congress leader Shashi Tharoor, who shifted to state politics, a Delhi Nair. Sukumaran had also earlier asked actor-turned-politician Suresh Gopi MP, another person belonging to the Nair community to leave a meeting of the NSS in 2015.
And as his strategy failed, trolls has now started slamming Sukumaran for his ‘casteist political ideology.’