Congress has a problem with Modi using religion for polls, yet will raise Sabarimala in Kerala

Kerala calling.
Kerala calling.
Image: Reuters/Str
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The southern Indian state of Kerala is still recovering from the multiple convulsions of last year.

Barely had it recouped from the once-in-a-century floods of August 2018, when the western coastal state was roiled by a supreme court judgment in a deeply emotive case.

And now, the state of 35 million people is going to the polls to elect their 20 parliamentarians. Not surprisingly, the past year’s turmoil is likely to influence the outcome.

While Kerala has traditionally been dominated by the Indian National Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the communist-led Left Democratic Front, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of prime minister Narendra Modi has come to occupy considerable mindspace in the state in the past few years.

The Sabarimala controversy, sparked by the apex court’s order last year allowing the entry of women of menstruating age into the ancient temple in south-central Kerala, has been a rallying point for the BJP. While the Congress and its allies have not been as vociferous, they too oppose the ruling and demand a restoration of the practice of barring such women from the temple of the Hindu god Ayyappa. The LDF government of Kerala, on the other hand, has supported the judgment.

Amidst the state’s own issues, parties are also grappling with national subjects like religious frisson, security, and a shrill political discourse. These include the BJP’s attempts to gain mileage out of recent terrorist attacks on

Ramesh Chennithala.
Ramesh Chennithala.
Image: Kannan Shanmugham/Wikimedia Commons

Indian soil and India’s muscular response that followed.

Ramesh Chennithala, a senior Congress leader and the leader of the opposition in the Kerala legislative assembly, said that despite an election commission warning against weaponising the deeply divisive issue, his party will campaign on the Sabarimala plank as it matters to the people of the state.

“It is one of the main issue that has happened, so how can we not discuss it. In fact, it is being widely discussed,” Chennithala told Quartz during an exclusive interview amidst the heat of campaigning.

Yet, almost in the same breath, he slammed the Indian prime minister for politically using the Indian military’s tactical achievements—an unprecedented gambit in the country’s history—to woo voters.

Edited excerpts:

What are the main focus areas for the Congress in Kerala in this election?

We are focusing on the five year misuse of the Narendra Modi government, the communal passion rising up due to Modi and Amit Shah. Then, the misrule of the state government is another key area. The state government had completely failed in tackling the floods in the state. The Sabarimala issue is also an important poll point for us.

You are fighting against the alleged communal stand of the BJP, but are also raising the Sabarimala issue. How does that add up?

Sabarimala is not a communal issue, it matters to the people of Kerala. In 2016, when our government was in power, we had filed an affidavit in the court saying there should be control on women entering the temple.

What has changed since the last election in 2014 for the Congress?

This time, it (Kerala) is a total Rahul Gandhi state. The people of Kerala want him to be the leader. This time we are going to defeat the Left. Also this year, Modi is trying to cash in on the Pulwama issue and that is a big problem. Lives were lost and our soldiers were martyred and it should not be made a political issue but, unfortunately that is happening.

There has been some concern about the party’s plan to introduce a minimum income guarantee scheme…

See, when MGNERGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme was launched, the same issue was raised, but it did help a lot of people. Similarly, even this scheme will help the poorest of the poor.

Many Congress members have recently shifted loyalties to the BJP. Why?

They are not real congressmen, they are just fortune seekers. Nothing will happen, even one vote will not shift to the BJP because of them. They went probably because they were promised something, but these things will not be accepted by the people of Kerala.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.