Amit Shah sets tone for BJP’s 2019 poll pitch in Kerala, takes on LDF govt over Sabarimala row
The stand that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national unit and the central government took with respect to the Supreme Court verdict on the entry of women of all ages in the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala has hugely embarrassed the party’s state unit.
The party’s president Amit Shah has saved the state unit from its awkward situation by throwing his weight behind the party members, who are fighting the state power along with thousands of Ayyappa devotees, and even sounding a warning to the Communist-led government.
Shah’s declaration that the party will stand solidly behind the devotees in their struggle to protect their centuries-old belief is viewed by political observers as a strong message to his party members to make use of the opportunity for a Hindu polarisation that it failed to achieve with the soft Hindutva line it followed in Kerala, which has a minority population of over 45 percent.
The party had planned to contest the 2019 Lok Sabha elections with the political violence in Kannur as the main issue. However, the number of political murders in the state has reduced in the past six months. The floods that wreaked extensive damage across the state dented the party’s image further, with people in general viewing its government’s attempt to block foreign assistance to the state as an anti-Kerala move.
The Sabarimala issue came at a time when the saffron party was finding it difficult to counter the state government and the ruling front’s charge that the obstructions mounted by the Narendra Modi government to its overseas fund mobilisation drive were a part of political vendetta towards the state, and an affront to people reeling under the calamity.
The BJP state unit was initially reluctant to launch an agitation against the Supreme Court verdict, as such a stance was at variance with the stand most parties took at the national level in favour of gender equality.
In the beginning, the party extended its support to the protesters. However, the party joined the protests after it saw thousands of devotees, especially women, coming out openly against the Supreme Court verdict. The party took charge of the protests after they spread throughout the state, evoking support from most sections of the Hindu believers.
The saffron party’s job was made easy by the LDF government, which tried to implement the verdict without consulting the stakeholders. The attempt made by the police to take a few women activists within the banned age group to the temple with heavy protection further angered the devotees.
The police action also provoked the thantri and the priests. While the high priest threatened to close the temple, his aides staged a protest in the temple precincts. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan added fuel to the protests by making allegedly derogatory remarks against the thantri, who is the supreme authority over the temple rituals, and questioning his right over the temple.
The Hindu groups viewed the overzealousness of the police in taking women from the banned age group to the temple as part of the government’s plan to implement its agenda in the hill shrine. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar outfits seized the opportunity and launched protests against the government.
The attempt by the chief minister earlier to tie the hands of the Travancore Devaswom Board (TDB), an autonomous body established by law to protect the interests of the devotees, further supported their claim. Leaders of the Sangh Parivar and devotees felt that the protests would not have snowballed if the government had allowed the TDB to file a review petition against the verdict.
The state leaders of the BJP said that the government was not allowing the TDB to discharge its responsibility as it was bent upon implementing the apex court verdict. The party leaders say that the massive police crackdown on the protesters and the declaration of roads leading to the hill shrine as high security zones was aimed at paving the way for women from the banned age group to enter the temple during the pilgrim season beginning from 17 November.
“The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the review petitions and the writ petitions against the five-judge constitution bench on 13 November. Instead of waiting to know the outcome of the hearing, the government is trying to bulldoze its way at Sabarimala,” said state BJP president PS Sreedharan Pillai.
He said that the desperate attempt being made by the government to take young women to the hill shrine is part of its attempt to implement the ruling front’s agenda of destroying the temple. Amit Shah has given the protests a political spin by accusing the LDF government of meddling with the faith of Hindus and destroying their places of worship.
“Since 26 October, around 2,000 workers of the BJP, RSS and other Hindu organisations have been thrown into jails. This is an attempt to suppress the devotees. If the government goes ahead with the move, the BJP will stand by the devotees, not just in Kerala but across the country, and even pull down government,” he added.
The chief minister has taken the warning seriously. Terming the BJP chief’s statement as a call to topple the democratically elected government, he has urged the democratic forces to come out against it. He has termed Shah’s statement as an indictment of the country’s highest court.
“The BJP president is giving a call to dislodge the government for implementing the court order and protecting the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the people. The democratically minded people will rise against this threat and give a befitting reply to the BJP,” Vijayan said, while reacting to Amit Shah’s statement.
Jacob George, a political analyst based at Thiruvananthapuram, said that the standoff at Sabarimala has made it a political hotspot. “Every party sees potential in the Supreme Court verdict to reap political capital. The parties fighting for the devotees have nothing to do with faith. Their eyes are on the votes,” he said.
“While the BJP is trying to use the issue to polarise the Hindus, the LDF is targeting the minority votes. The Congress, on the other hand, is trying to protect its base among the upper caste Hindus by expressing solidarity with the devotees and taking its pro-Hindu stand to them through public campaigns,” he added.
He said that the LDF is optimistic that whatever gains the BJP may make over Sabarimala may not affect its poll prospects, as the former’s support base among Hindus are the committed cadres belonging to the lower castes. These members of the cadre have stood by the LDF even after an organisation from the community floated a political party and joined hands with the BJP.
“This may be the reason why the chief minister has tried to create a wedge between the lower castes and upper castes over the Sabarimala verdict. This is aimed at consolidating his party’s base among the lower castes and making additional gains from the minorities and progressive sections. Curiously, some of the organisations representing the lower castes like the SNDP have been supporting the government.” Jacob said.
He feels that the offensive line adopted by the BJP and the LDF with respect to the Supreme Court verdict may turn Sabarimala into a site of conflict.