The State Election Commission’s directive to not politicise the Supreme Court’s Sabarimala verdict levels the playing field for the Left front which till now had its back to the wall.
The Kerala State Election Commission’s warning to political parties on invoking the Sabarimala verdict for political propaganda has created a flutter ahead of the general election. State Election Commissioner Teeka Ram Meena has thrown a spanner in the works of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s hopes of cashing in on the Supreme Court verdict allowing the entry of menstruating women at the famous hill shrine.
Kummanam Rajasekharan, who resigned as the Mizoram Governor nine months into his term to contest elections in the state, has declared the BJP's intention to approach the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in Delhi for redress. The explicit directive could take the wind out of BJP's concerted campaign against the Left Democratic Front (LDF) government led by Pinarayi Vijayan on the Sabarimala issue. Curiously, even the Congress has joined issue with the state Election Commission's (EC) directive.
The EC’s directive comes in the wake of the agitations and law and order issues witnessed in the aftermath of the SC verdict. Although BJP leaders have panned Meena for his directive and questioned its constitutionality, legal experts weighing in on the issue have backed the EC's position. In fact, Rule 3 of the model code of conduct explicitly states that ‘There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, Churches, Temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.’
The BJP, which has struggled to find a toehold in the state over the years have been desperately trying to polarise the Hindu vote-bank in Kerala on the issue of Sabarimala with the resolve to defend Hindu customs and traditions. A leaked video of state BJP President PS Sreedharan Pillai stating how the Sabarimala issue is a "golden opportunity" to exploit had given away the party's strategy to make political capital out of it.
As for the Congress, their tactical position on Sabarimala has been to profess their solidarity with ‘devotees’ while claiming to respect the SC verdict. The Congress has been highlighting the state government's failure to prevent law and order issues and the lack of consensus-building in the aftermath of the verdict.
Although the EC's directive will deter explicit campaigning on this issue, it is not beyond the politicians used to speaking in forked tongues to exploit the issue. Still, it levels the playing field for the LDF which had its back to the wall in the run up to the election. Multiple surveys have predicted a Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) resurgence and near sweep in Kerala. The BJP, though they are tipped to make incremental gains, is unlikely to convert a 2-3% gain in vote share into a seat.
The BJP's best bet is in Thiruvananthapuram where Rajasekharan is likely to be named the candidate but incumbent Shashi Tharoor is expected to retain the seat in a triangular contest with Communist Party of India's (CPI’s) C Divakaran. The BJP also senses an opportunity in the Pathanamthitta constituency which houses the Sabarimala hill shrine with both the LDF and UDF fielding Christian candidates. Pillai and BJP general secretary K Surendran are both vying for the seat with the caste factor expected to tip the scales in Pillai's favour unless he backs out of contesting.
The LDF has gained an early advantage by naming the candidates before others and have put up strong candidates in all constituencies. UDF heavyweights KC Venugopal, PCC Chief Mullapally Ramachandran and former Chief Minister Oommen Chandy seem reluctant to contest for varying reasons although they have no dearth of formidable candidates in all seats.
The Chief Electoral Officer met with the representatives of political parties on March 13 to clarify the contours of his directive but stood firm on his decision. The BJP, which hoped to mount their campaign around the Sabarimala issue, might have to content with the EC's punitive measures if they are to go ahead with their plan. Although the EC directive may not have too much of an impact on the final outcome, it will definitely facilitate a cleaner and less vicious political campaign on concrete issues of policy and governance.
Anand Kochukudy is a Delhi-based academic and political commentator. Views are personal.For more Opinion pieces, click here.