During the 2021 assembly election in Kerala, one of the billboards of the Left Democratic Front (LDF) that attracted voters was that of a woman wearing a headscarf standing at a polling booth to cast her vote. The poster had these wordings: “They will come with Citizen (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) again; we need a strong Chief Minister to stop them”. LDF, particularly the leading party CPI(M), has never presented someone as Chief Minister before the election. Yet the message was clear.
Kerala was one of the first few States that took the obstinate position against CAA. In December 2019, the Kerala Assembly passed a resolution against the Act. The LDF Government, led by Pinarayi Vijayan, went a step further by filing a case in the Supreme Court. Chief Minister Vijayan unequivocally stated that Kerala would not assist the Centre to implement the Act in the state.
Despite having been caught up in the massive storm over the Sabarimala temple, LDF achieved an emphatic victory in 2021 election and came back to power. The unapologetic position taken against CAA was a major factor that propelled this victory. “It is interesting to see that the non-BJP parties in India could boldly defy the Hindutva framework of the BJP and RSS. But this does not mean that all the parties could do the same in all occasions. AAP did not take a stand against CAA. The Congress in Kerala fell into the Sabarimala trap set by the Sangh Parivar,” says Sunil P. Ilayidam, author, political commentator and professor at Kalady University, Kerala.
Soon after the Sabarimala protest erupted in Kerala—organised by the Parivar groups against women entering the Shrine—a ‘leaked video’ of P. S. Sridharan Pillai, the then state chief of BJP went viral. In the video, which was shot at a private gathering of the party workers, he appeared to be saying that ‘Sabarimala was a golden opportunity for BJP’. BJP did its best to reap the seeds of the fervour created over the Supreme Court judgment allowing the entry of women in the shrine and the Left Government’s commitment to comply with the same. Giant hoardings of BJP leaders with captions such as “not to forget Sabarimala when you go to the polling booth” were put up across Kerala. In its manifesto, the BJP offered to enact laws to protect the sanctity of Sabarimala; to stop love jihad; and, forced religious conversions.
On the other side, the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) went a step further. They not only promised the enactment of a law to protect Sabarimala in the manifesto, but also released a ‘draft bill’ to penalise women entering Sabarimala against the custom if they were voted to power. According to this bill, women in menstruating age entering Sabarimala would be a punishable offence, and would attract imprisonment for a period of not more than two years. The Congress fell into the trap set up by the Sangh Parivar, which proved fatal for the party. The party could not even convincingly explain the contradiction between the positions taken by Rahul Gandhi and that of the Kerala unit with regard to the entry of women in Sabarimala. Rahul Gandhi openly welcomed the Supreme Court judgment that allowed the entry of women in the temple. In February 2021, UDF launched a North to South Yatra (Iswarya Kerala Yatra) which was flagged off at Kasargodu, in which the former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy promised the people to take “all measures to protect the sanctity of Sabarimala temple”.
This docility to the Hindutva agenda did not save Congress. But the different strategy adopted by the Left that invited people to look into the history of the emancipation of the Dalits and backward castes in the state, successfully struck a chord. The CPI(M) carefully eschewed falling into the binary debate on women’s entry in the temple. Instead, it organised a ‘renaissance debate’ all across the state. The Left mobilised public programmes reminding the people about the epic renaissance movements happened during the leadership of social reformers such as Sree Narayana Guru and Ayyankali. Deliberate or not, this strategy of the Left worked.
On one hand, the government did not encourage the women who attempted to enter the temple till the end of December 2018, which caused the wrath of the liberals. The feminists said this was hypocrisy. Every other woman who made an attempt to go to the temple was blocked by the police. The government didn’t want to escalate the chaos created by the right wing as this would have further alienated the already estranged upper caste—particularly the Nair community. Finally on the New Year’s eve of 2019, two women, Bindu Ammini and Kanaka Durga entered the shrine in the wee hours successfully.
On the other, the Left raised a platform with Dalit and OBC organisations and created a ‘women’s wall’ (Vanitha Mathil), a human chain from Kasargodu to Thiruvananthapuram on January 1, 2019. The 620 km-long human chain formed by lakhs of women—who took the oath to uphold gender equality—was a defining moment in the political history of the state. According to Sunil P. Ilayidam, a prominent speaker in the renaissance debates organised by CPI(M), the Left in Kerala could effectively put up a battle against Hindutva from within. The renaissance debates organised by CPI(M) were entirely focused on the contributions of Hindu social reformers who had played a pivotal role in liberating the backward and Dalit communities from the upper caste hegemony.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan travelled across the state and his public speeches about Kerala’s rich history of social movements against caste hierarchy and the emancipation of the backward castes won the electorate. The LDF emerged victorious: 99 seats with a vote share of 45.2 per cent and the UDF, which played into the trap set up by BJP, was confined to 41 seats with a vote share of 39.4 per cent. The BJP, which tried its best with polarisation tactics, suffered a loss of three per cent votes.
The welfare measures and development projects adopted by the previous LDF government also yielded good results. The modernisation of government hospitals, schools and Primary Health Care Centres, the widening of the National Highway and the construction of new roads and bridges, expansion of the coverage of social security pension and the housing schemes for the poor were some of the factors that enabled the LDF government to get a second term.
The exemplary performance of the government in handling two deadly back-to-back epidemics—Nipah and Covid—also helped. The daily briefing of Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, which began with the outbreak of Nipah; continued during the deadly floods of 2018; and, later during the Covid pandemic, generated enormous appeal to him and his government. The CM’s style of minimal words with facts and data with no emotional gimmicks provided the people an assurance of transparency which helped in building trust. The opposition could not effectively challenge the data though they raised the allegation that the actual number of Covid cases was higher. Neither the Hindutva scheme of the BJP nor the corruption allegations raised by Congress could shake this trust.
The 2021 Kerala election strategy has set an example that other parties can emulate. However, it remains to be seen whether parties can liberate themselves from the Hindutva rhetoric and deliver an alternative strategy.
(This appeared in the print as 'Of Rites And Wrongs')
Shahina K K in Thiruvananthapuram