The Congress Party in Kerala has taken one of its stupidest decisions by launching a public agitation on the Sabarimala issue. This is going to be a classic case of blowback.
Congress Party’s motives in playing hide and seek with the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala last month are three-fold: a) take a contrarian view on any issue for pillorying the left government; b) woo upper caste Hindu voters; and c) challenge the BJP with its own version of ‘soft Hindutva’. Clearly, this is short-sighted policy. Simply because left has taken a principled position on Sabarimala, Congress doesn’t have to swing to the opposite extreme of opportunism and cynicism.
Quite obviously, the stance taken by the left government led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan cannot be improved upon: while implementing the Supreme Court decision (which it is constitutionally obliged to) the left government is neither prompting women between ages of 10 and 50 to go to Sabarimala nor discouraging them from doing so; again, it will not prevent any votaries of this upper caste agitation from filing appeals in the Supreme Court; the bottom line is, this issue should not be exploited for political purposes; the left will launch a public campaign to explain to the people the government’s stance on the issue. The left’s stance is impeccable.
The fact of the matter is that the ban on women entering the Sabarimala temple had its origin as recently as in the early 1940s (which was, interestingly, soon after the historic victory won on Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936.) Malayalis who held high positions in the government (such as the former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister T. K. A. Nair) have pointed this out recently. On the other hand, who decided on this ban on women from worshipping at Sabarimala and for what reasons remains obscure. Caste prejudices would have been in play, cloaked as the ‘will of Lord Ayyappa’.
Therefore, what is really bizarre is the Congress’ wink and nod, reportedly, to its followers to join the BJP’s street protests on Sabarimala issue. This is a suicidal move – even if it is consistent with Congress’ tactic to counter BJP’s Hindutva with its variant of ‘soft Hindutva’. Make no mistake, those traditional Nair voters of Congress who join the BJP’s Sabarimala agitation, are not going to return home. Congress might as well say ‘bye-bye’ to them. They’ll get used to the inebriating, heady Hindutva rather than revert to Congress’ insipid, ambivalent ‘soft Hindutva’.
In fact, that is also the BJP’s calculus. The BJP cannot match the left in Kerala. Its immediate objective, therefore, is to overtake Congress as the main opposition party in the next election – and in future work toward spearheading a united front of right-wing forces. Congress leaders should see that their political space is shrinking. Is it the secret intent of the party’s Nair leaders to themselves migrate to the BJP at a future date? One can never tell.
For BJP too, the current agitation poses contradictions. If it practices caste politics, it must put Hindutva in the doghouse. But if it gives primacy to Hindutva, then it must rise above caste prejudices. The present Nair-dominated BJP leadership in Kerala is opting for ‘bourgeois politics’, estimating that the state is nowhere near ripe for revolution. But the good thing for BJP is that while its state leadership pampers the vanity of Nair voters, the RSS carries on with proselytizing the Hindutva ideology.
The BJP strategy to consolidate an upper caste vote base is gaining ground. Look at the strange sight of ‘royal families’ of Travancore and Pandalam wading into the Sabarimala issue. Of course, it only betrays how obscurantist the feudal chieftains who ruled us must have been (although there is a concerted attempt today to glorify them as social workers.) Travancore’s sad history is that but for the quiet intervention of British residents, our region would have remained a lunatic asylum, as Vivekananda once said.
Rahul Gandhi should take note that Congress should not be party to turning back the clock of Kerala’s social history. Such a happening will neither be consistent with his modernist, cosmopolitan outlook (which distinguishes him within India and abroad) nor his party’s future. A progressive strategy will be to isolate the BJP agitation and watch it fizzle out eventually – like all its misadventures in Kerala so far to exploit caste divisions. Least of all, a ‘Congress-mukht’ Kerala is not even in the larger interests of the people of the state.