The BJP’s Sabarimala plan seems to have collapsed in the 2021 Kerala assembly elections. The proof of this failed exercise lies in Pathanamthitta district - where the Lord Ayyappa temple is located. When the results were announced on May 2, Pathanamthita turned red with the LDF sweeping all five assembly constituencies of the district.
Since 2018, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been attempting to keep the Sabarimala controversy burning in Kerala. When the Supreme Court in 2018, allowed women to enter the hill shrine, BJP’s Kerala unit had initially welcomed the decision, but later took a U-turn upon sensing an opportunity to attract Hindu votes. K Surendran, who is now the BJP State President in Kerala, had led most of the protests at the Sabarimala base camp back then. Even after the protests ended, Surendran never failed to bring up the Sabarimala issue during elections held later in the state.
The Congress in Kerala went one step further. If voted to power, the UDF promised a special legislation to protect the rights of Sabarimala devotees. The UDF had even released an objectionable and misogynistic video which targeted women who wore high heels and lipstick. They later withdrew the ad, after it sparked a row. The party along with the BJP had also held massive protests by women against the Supreme Court verdict back in 2018.
But come 2021, neither front’s efforts paid off. Not only was the BJP's account closed in Kerala with zero seats, in Pathanamthitta district, the NDA candidates didn't even become runner-ups.
The LDF, on the other hand, increased its margins in Pathanamthitta, compared to its performance in 2016. It retained Adoor, Aranmula, Ranni and Thiruvalla - all four seats that it had won in 2016, and also managed to swing the Konni assembly constituency - which has historically voted for the UDF, since 1996. LDF’s KU Jenish Kumar defeated the Congress’s Robin Peter by over 8508 votes, while BJP’s K Surendran came a distant third after polling 32,811 votes (21.91% vote share).
Surendran also lost Manjeshwar in Kasargod - the second seat he contested from this election.
BJP’s vote erosion
Sabarimala was very much a part of the poll discussions both in the political circles as well as the media. Opinion surveys before the 2021 polls had also predicted that the issue was likely to play a small factor.
Even on the day of polling, the Sabarimala row dominated the political discussions in the state, with Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan stating that ‘Lord Ayyappa and all the other gods are with the LDF government,” in response to Nair Service Society Chief G Sukumaran Nair’s statement that “believers need a change.”
But on the ground, these poll issues played out differently. Not only did the Left win all the seats, the BJP and Congress vote share visibly eroded in certain seats of Pathanamthitta.
Sample Thiruvalla, an Assembly constituency where BJP had polled 31430 votes back in 2016. In 2021, the party polled a total of just 22,674 votes.
In Ranni, Bharath Jana Dharma Sena or BDJS (an NDA ally) candidate K Padmakumar had polled 28,201 votes in 2016, but ended up with just 19587 votes in 2021.
In Konni, the Congress’s vote share reduced by a whopping 18,990 votes, leading to the UDF losing this seat.
An expired issue
Speaking TNM, political analyst J Prabhash says that the Sabarimala issue is an expired one and the parties made a mistake by focusing on it.
“Every poll issue has an expiry date. The protests over women entering Sabarimala happened in 2018 and the BJP and Congress took them up seriously. From the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it was clear that the issue worked in the UDF’s favour. The alliance ended up sweeping all 20 seats in Kerala. But by the 2020 Local Body polls, there were ample signs rhat milking the issue was futile,” Prabhash adds.
Prabhash also says that the ‘Sabarimala card’ worked pre-pandemic. “People move forward in life and have other concerns. With COVID-19, Sabarimala is no longer part of the electorate’s imagination - there are other pressing concerns like health, welfare, ration supplies, tackling of COVID-19 etc, where this government performed well,” he says.