As Kerala heads for Assembly polls, religious and communal issues ranging from the issue of entry of women into the Sabarimala temple to the alleged nexus of political parties with religious outfits are being widely debated. But the playing up of communal issues by political parties for electoral gains is posing a threat to the secular fabric that Kerala has always boasted of.

After being on the backburner for nearly two years, the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple row has again been raked up by the political parties.

Even as the ruling CPM-led Left Democratic Front reiterates that the Sabarimala row has become a non-issue, the Pinarayi Vijayan government has deviated from its earlier progressive stand on the issue and cases registered in 2018-19 against those who had indulged in alleged unlawful actions while protesting against the Supreme Court ruling allowing entry of women into the Sabarimala temple are being are being withdrawn. This indeed indicates that the Left Front, which suffered a drubbing in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning only one of 20 seats, is still worried over the Sabarimala issue.

Read | Kerala withdraws cases related to Sabarimala, CAA stir

The Left Front triggered the present communal campaign by alleging that the Indian Union Muslim League is dictating terms in the Congress-led United Democratic Front and that the Congress was allying with outfits like Jamaat-e-Islami.

Sensing the Left Front’s attempt to distance Christian and Hindu voters from the UDF, Congress raked up the Sabarimala issue, demanding that the Vijayan government clarify whether it favoured the entry of women in Sabarimala or not. The BJP, too, joined the attack.

While the Left Front maintained that it would take further steps on the matter only through consensus among all sections after the SC rules on the pending revision petitions, Congress and BJP further cornered the ruling alliance by demanding withdrawal of cases against those who took part in the 2018-19 protests.

By succumbing to that demand, says political analyst Joseph C Mathew, the Vijayan government is seen to have betrayed thousands of people who stood by it when it
maintained its progressive stand on the Sabarimala issue. The Left Front’s debacle in the 2019 LS election, he opines, was not due to the progressive stand but due to the way the Vijayan government handled the SC order lifting the ban on entry of women in the temple.

Kerala has never witnessed the kind of communal campaign it is already seeing in the run up to the Assembly polls this time. Hindutva elements are alleged to be instigating an anti-Muslim feeling among Christian factions through campaigns like ‘love jihad’, in an attempt to distance Christians, who form around 18% of the voters in the state, from the Congress-led UDF.

However, the recent local body elections saw Christians, traditionally Congress voters, shifting to the Left Democratic Front, rather than towards the BJP. This shift is being attributed to Pinarayi Vijayan’s efforts to develop a rapport with some prominent church heads as well as to the shifting of Kerala Congress (M) faction, led by Jose K Mani, which enjoys considerable Christian support in central Kerala, to the LDF.

As a counter, Congress brought back former chief minister Oommen Chandy to the forefront by appointing him chairman of the party’s election management and strategy committee, while retaining Ramesh Chennithala as opposition leader and Mullappally Ramachandran as Kerala PCC president.

Meanwhile, BJP is also making efforts to woo the Christian community, with no less than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself holding well-publicised discussions with church heads and promising them to look into their grievances.

With leaders of all political parties making a beeline to meet the heads of various communities to seek support, the state even saw Palakkad Bishop Mar Jacob Manathodath giving a letter to CPI state secretary Kanam Rajendran recommending a local industrialist, Issac Varghese, as a candidate while the Changanassery Archbishop Mar Joseph Perumthottam cautioned Congress against finalising candidates without consulting the church.

Another religious issue in the spotlight is the power tussle over churches between the Orthodox and Jacobite factions of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church.

Despite a Supreme Court order in favour of the Orthodox faction, the Vijayan government has been soft-pedalling on the issue by delaying the taking over of the churches and, instead, initiating talks with the factions. This is even being used by the opposite camps, especially the BJP, to accuse the Left Front government of double standards on church and Sabarimala issues.

Both Christian factions are almost equally prominent. While the Orthodox faction has already expressed resentment over the government’s soft-pedalling, the Jacobite faction also feels aggrieved due to lack of support from the government for its demand for legislation favouring it.

Analysts say it is no surprise that all the major political parties are playing communal politics. The stakes are very high for all of them. For the Left and Congress, it’s their very survival in the state.

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