A new renaissance is sweeping through Kerala: people from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are contesting from general (or unreserved) seats in the local body elections. This promises to be a turning point in politics, for in a move that is unique, all political parties—the CPI(M), the Congress and the BJP included—are making the effort to push the idea.
The triggering political compulsion happens to be a threat from Vellapally Natesan, the 78-year-old general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP). After meeting BJP chief Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the leader of the large OBC Ezhava community had declared that, with the support of the BJP, a ‘Third Front’ would be launched on December 5. The provocation? “The number of Ezhava candidates standing for elections has doubled from last time,” says Natesan. “But though the Left Democratic Front (LDF) maintains we are part of the Left, we have never enjoyed any power. Now, all that is going to change.”
The T.V. Babu faction of the Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha, an organisation of the large Pulayar SC community, is supporting the BJP and the formation of the new front. Its president N.K. Neelakantan Master explains what could have primed the pump. “We were always confined to the reserved seats. But in this election, wherever we put up candidates in general category seats, other parties too have fielded SC candidates,” he says, adding that 3,000 SC candidates are in the fray. Not all KPMS factions are with the BJP though. The Punnala Sreekumar faction is supporting the Congress and the Left. Says Sreekumar, “We cannot even imagine the atrocities committed in the north against Dalits happening in Kerala. We are not going to let feudalism take over again.” Strangely, the BJP, which has been raising a ruckus over beef-eating in the north, has readily tied up with the Ezhavas and SCs of Kerala, many of who eat beef. In fact, a very small proportion of people in Kerala are vegetarian.
Natesan, a civil contractor and owner of hotel chains, became the general secretary of the SNDP in 1996 with the support of the late Swami Saswathikananda of the Sivagiri Math, near Varkala. While announcing the Third Front, he indicated he was pulling the rug from under the feet of both the UDF and the LDF, the two major political forces in the state.
However, BJP state president V. Muraleedharan says, “The SNDP has not yet formed a party. We have formed alliances with several backward communities and organisations that represent them, such as the SNDP, Kerala Pulayar Maha Sabha (T.V. Babu faction), Vaikunda Swami Dharma Pracharanasabha (representing Nadars), the fisherfolks etc. Some of them are contesting on the BJP symbol, while others are independents supported by us. Nearly 1,200 of the 18,000 candidates the BJP has put up are from the SC and other backward communities. Last time, we contested only from 7,000 wards.”
Intellectuals have questioned Natesan’s move, which has not gone down too well with many other Hindu communities as well. “The SNDP is now in the hands of businessmen who don’t understand the values that Sri Narayana Guru stood for. This would surely see the demise of one of the great movements,” says a historian on condition of anonymity. Sree Narayana Guru, an idealist born in the mid-19th century, was a socio-religious reformer who broke several casteist taboos and superstitions to uplift the oppressed Ezhava community. He stressed that all humankind was one under one God, and that education was a tranformative force for personal and social change. The SNDP has gained much of its traction over the decades through the educational and other institutions it runs.
There is growing speculation over the future of the Left parties, which have always enjoyed the support of the Ezhava community. With the CPI(M)’s back to the wall, its warring leaders have closed ranks. V.S. Achuthanandan, who is from the Ezhava community, has been busy attacking Natesan, accusing him of misappropriating funds from central banks for the microfinance scheme of the Sree Narayan Trust. And Natesan’s business and political rival Biju Ramesh, also from the Ezhava community but aligned with the Sree Narayana Dharmavedi, linked Natesan to the death of Swami Saswathikananda, who drowned in the Periyar near Aluva in 2002.
Palakkad MP M.B. Rajesh, however, believes the SNDP poses no threat to the Left. “SNDP leaders will be with BJP, but people will be with CPI(M) because they are true inheritors of the renaissance. The Left has made mistakes in the past but disunity of the leadership is an old story. There is a large section of Hindus who value the secular fabric of the state and they think it is important to strengthen the Left parties. We are gaining support from across communities. People in the SNDP itself have complained about Natesan to us.” Rajesh thinks the SNDP-BJP alliance will see the revival of Left parties in Kerala.”
Natesan himself was rattled enough to claim he had nothing to do with the BJP and demanded a CBI inquiry into the death of the swami. But the UDF government is against any reinvestigation.
P. Rajan, a political analyst, says he had advised against the formation of the new front. “I am against the formation of parties based on religion. But the perception among the majority community is that the Oommen Chandy government was appeasing the minorities. They cited the case of Malappuram district and the fifth IUML minister in the cabinet. The BJP, he pointed out, has already increased its voteshare in the state and expects to raise it to 20 per cent from 10,” he says.
P.C. Vishnunadh of the Congress denies the charge. “Had we been guilty of appeasement, we would have only won in Malappuram in the Lok Sabha election. But we won several other seats including Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha, Kottayam.... The BJP is making these communal statements to divide and win.” Scholar and historian K.N. Panikkar says that though the BJP-RSS have made some advances, and may see some electoral gains, it still would not make much of a difference. “Even if the backward castes are grouped under organisations, people make clear, informed political choices. Unlike in the north, here caste votes do not see block voting,” he says.
The Nair Service Society (NSS), an organisation of the Nair community, said to number 45 lakh, has already distanced itself from the grand Hindu alliance, pointing out that the NSS is not a political party and believes in keeping a distance from all political parties.
With the assembly elections coming up early next year, the debates go beyond local issues. They are peppered with large doses of national politics: beef, minorities, reservation. Anybody would think that Kerala is readying for the Lok Sabha polls and not the local body elections.
By Minu Ittyipe in Kottayam
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