The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological fount, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are banking on the Sabarimala controversy to catapult the party to political prominence in the southern state of Kerala, just as the Ram Janamabhoomi movement lifted the party’s fortunes decades ago in the north .
The BJP has been trying to widen its political footprint in the coastal state, considered a communist bastion, where the RSS runs over 5,000 shakhas, the highest in the country.
Of the issues raised in the state by the Sangh and the party in the recent past- a demand for a ban on beef consumption and cow slaughter, so-called Love Jihad, and the more recent campaign against political violence involving clashes between the communist and the Sangh cadre – it is the Sabarimala controversy that found resonance even with those who are traditionally not supporters of the saffron ideology.
And the BJP wants to make the most of it.
The RSS opposed the September 28, 2018, Supreme Court verdict that threw open the doors of the shrine to women of all ages, overturning a decades-old ban on the entry of female devotees between the ages of 10 and 50 years, imposed on grounds that the presiding deity, Lord Ayyappa, is a celibate.
The RSS argued that the ruling “violates the customs and traditions of the temple” and are in contravention to the “deity’s own rules”
It has been campaigning in Kerala and outside for allowing the temple to continue the tradition. The state’s ruling Left Democratic Front vowed to uphold the court order.
The BJP, too ,has made its position explicit, although its relay hunger strike in the state may have failed to help it gain much political capital out of the issue. “We will go to people with the message that the court and the communist government have failed to protect Hindu sentiments. Hinduism is not anti-women, and the issue has been twisted to suit a certain political narrative,” a BJP leader from the state said on condition of anonymity.
The leader claimed that the party’s campaign was not motivated by electoral benefits, but conceded that the issue has resonance outside Kerala as well. “Ayyappa devotees are present in several states, not just Kerala. They are also disturbed by the developments and the attack on the faith and traditions of Hindus. If they support the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, it will be because the party stood for their beliefs.”
MA Baby, former state minister and Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, said people of Kerala will see through the BJP’s plan. “People of the state are well-informed and progressive.They won’t fall in the trap of saffron forces which initially welcomed the verdict but later changed their stance sniffing a political opportunity. People will see through their game plan,” he said.
Sridhar Damle , who has authored books on the RSS, however, sees the Sabarimala issue benefitting the BJP electorally. He recalled how the BJP benefited from the Sangh’s intervention in Jammu and Kashmir during the protest that broke out over the issue of land allotment for the Amarnath shrine trust in 2008. The campaign, he said, helped the BJP consolidate its position in the Jammu region.
It is, however, in Kerala where the BJP, which has governed no state in the south except Karnataka, expects to reap political dividends.
Another senior BJP leader and Rajya Sabha MP, V Murleedharan, said the BJP had raised an issue which “concerns the people” and the party does expect its campaign to have traction in terms of improvement in its vote share in Kerala, where it has only one legislator in a 140-member assembly although it more than doubled its vote share in the 2016 state election. It is now expecting more seats as well as more votes.
Meanwhile, the RSS has been stressing the social, cultural and religious connotations of the ban.
“The BJP is not looking at the issue through an election point of view. The Congress too has taken a position similar to the BJP on the issue, and the voters who are upset with the communist party over the Sabarimala stand will have the option of picking either the Congress or the BJP,” said a senior RSS functionary.
Soon after the apex court’s judgment, general secretary of the organisation Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi said that while the SC decision should be respected, the Sangh calls upon “stakeholders, including spiritual and community leaders to come together to analyse and address the issue availing judicial options also.”
“They must convey their concerns on their right to worship in a manner which best suits their faith and devotion, to the authorities in a peaceful manner,” Joshi said.
To ensure that its campaign gathers momentum, the Sangh has also drafted religious leaders with a mass following in the state to lend support to its campaign. Over the weekend, religious leaders, including Mata Amritanandamayi, Swami Prakashananda of Kerala’s Sivagiri Mutt, and Swami Golokananda of Bengal’s Ramakrishna Math spoke of the need to preserve the traditions of the Sabarimala temple.