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Kerala’s election campaign sets a bad trend

The campaign for the 2021 Kerala assembly election was a wind vane showing how future election campaigns will be fought --- where religion will increasingly be on top of every political party’s agenda 

April 08, 2021 / 02:21 PM IST
Image credit: Suneesh K

Image credit: Suneesh K

Mahatma Gandhi said “…those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

While it was his devotion to truth that led Gandhi to politics, I’m not sure if the same can be said about many of our current politicians. Nevertheless, at the drop of a gamcha our leaders love to talk about Gandhi’s ideals and Gandhi’s India.

If you had followed the election campaign in Kerala for the just-concluded assembly elections, you couldn’t be criticised for thinking that politicians were reflecting Gandhi’s views — for just about every politician, religion was the campaign issue.

Now religion is not a proscribed topic, and some would even argue that it needs to be discussed in public forums — and since political parties claim to represent the people and voice their concerns, they also assume that it is kosher to debate and defend faith and belief systems.

The tragedy is that (just like any other state) Kerala has a plethora of issues that need to be discussed and should dominate election campaign issues. Sadly, religion and religious sentiments occupied prime time pushing behind unemployment, law and order, environmental concerns, women’s issues, etc. No political party was immune to this trend.

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The Sabarimala issue, or the entry of women into the hilltop temple, dominated the charts. The Congress took the lead by promising in its manifesto a draft Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rights, Customs and Usages) Act, 2021. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been vocal about its views and ever since the controversy broke out has projected it as an election issue. In addition to state BJP leaders, even national leaders who campaigned in Kerala did not forget to highlight the Sabarimala issue.

Perhaps to please its Christian voter base, on March 28 Kerala Congress (M) leader Jose K Mani resurrected ‘Love Jihad’ and said that concerns raised about it need to be addressed. Mani instantly got the support of the Kerala Catholic Bishops’ Council, but put the Left Democratic Front (LDF) in a tight spot — because the Left parties have always maintained that ‘love jihad’ is a phantom created by communal forces.

Another strategy some parties used was to instil the fear of a ‘Muslim Deputy CM’ and further polarise votes. Ever since Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) leader PK Kunhalikutty returned to state politics after resigning his Lok Sabha membership, WhatsApp groups have been busy peddling theories that if the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) were to win the elections, the IUML would be ‘ruling’ Kerala. To a certain degree Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan also added credence to such fears when in December 2020 he said that the IUML was deciding for the Congress.

Now with about 18 percent Christians in Kerala, how could political parties gloss over this vote-bank! On March 30, while addressing a rally at Palakkad, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reminded the people that “Judas had betrayed Lord Christ for a few pieces of silver... just like that LDF has betrayed Kerala for a few pieces of gold”. Modi was referring to the gold smuggling case in which the Chief Minister’s Office has been dragged in. The next day it was Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s turn when she said that “there is nothing more farcical than quoting the lines of Jesus on a political stage and unleashing the prosecution on those whose lives are spent on serving the poor”. She was accusing Modi of not commenting on the nuns being harassed in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh.

Even on polling day, April 6, it was the Sabarimala issue that dominated air waves. Comments by some leaders on Sabarimala and the likely change in government led Vijayan to comment that “Ayyappa and all the other gods and even the gods of those following other faiths are with this (LDF) government”.

Ever since its drubbing at the 2019 general elections where it won just one of the 20 seats, Left leaders are increasingly acknowledging Ayyappa and other gods. Come to think of it, if capitalism and communism can symbiotically co-exist, why not atheism and faith!

This assembly election is a wind vane showing how future election campaigns will be fought --- where religion will increasingly be on top of every political party’s agenda. In this excessive and unnecessary focus on religion by political parties, they avoid facing important questions, such as: why does Kerala have an unemployment rate of 16.3 percent, while the national average was 9.1 percent; when was the last time a government welcomed a major industry into the state; why doesn’t a highly-urbanised Kerala have a waste disposal mechanism, etc.?

It’s not for nothing that there is the separation of Church and State. If politicians assume to speak and protect our faith, soon faith leaders will opine on how the State needs to be run — and that’s when one screams blue murder!
Viju Cherian is Opinion Editor at Moneycontrol. He writes on politics and policy, and hosts Political Bazaar.

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