Turkey's Hagia Sophia was among the factors that contributed to the United Democratic Front's (UDF) rout in December's municipal body polls in Kerala, analysts say. Ahead of the upcoming assembly elections, the UDF leadership went into a damage control mode, after the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), one of its constituents, was accused of supporting the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The top brass of the IUML and the Congress has been reaching out to bishops and leaders of Orthodox and Jacobite Christians over the past couple of months.
The IUML, in particular, has been in an overdrive to clarify the "misinterpretation" of its stand on the issue.
This suggests that the sixth-century erstwhile cathedral, converted from a museum into a mosque in July last year, continues to remain a factor in the electoral battle in Kerala.
Why Hagia Sophia is causing political ripples in Kerala
The sentiments of the state's Christian community was attached with Hagia Sophia - the largest church of the erstwhile eastern Roman empire. In 1453, it was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul). In 1934, 'secular' Turkey turned the iconic site into a museum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, considered as a "neo-Ottomanist", restored Hagia Sophia as a mosque in July 2020.
The move was condemned by the Christian community worldwide. In Kerala, the IUML landed in the dock following an article published by Panakkad Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal - party's state unit chief - on the controversy.
In his opinion piece published in Chandrika newspaper in July, Thangal was accused of expressing "open support" to Erdogan's contentious move.
"Many European countries, which have opposed Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia, have not allowed Muslims the right to offer namaz… when all contemporary Christian religious and political leaders disagree with the conversion… they do not make any stake over its ownership realising that historically there is no ground for such a demand," the Indian Express quoted an extract from his piece in the Malayalam daily.
The Catholic Church, known as a traditional supporter of the UDF, had marked its objection over Thangal's article. The Kerala Catholic Bishops' Council also issued a statement slamming the IUML.
"Before glorifying the encroachment of Hagia Sophia Church, Muslim League leader Sadiq Ali should have learned history. To justify Erdogan would be a liability of political Islamists in Kerala. That should not be at the cost of endangering the future of Indian secular democracy and peaceful co-existence of religions," the Bishops' Council had said.
The ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) also seized the opportunity, accusing the UDF of promoting "radical Islam" through the League.
LDF convener A Vijayaraghavan described the IUML as a "Trojan Horse" acting as a bridge between the UDF and Jamaat-e-Islami and other Islamist outfits.
Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member, asked in a Facebook post how the IUML would be able to question the BJP over the Ram Mandir issue after "openly supporting" Erdogan over the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The flak was not restricted to the Muslim League. The Congress also came under criticism for failing to restraint its ally on "supporting" the Erdogan-led Turkish regime.
"Jamaat-e-Islami is an organisation which supports the Turkey government. With the Muslim League leader hailing the conversion of Sophia Hagia into a mosque, the link between Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami has come to the fore. Congress has decided to ally with Welfare Party, the political wing of Jamaat-e-Islami and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of the Popular Front of India. What is the stand of Congress towards the Muslim League's approach of acknowledging the act of Turkey ruler?" Balakrishnan had asked in a social media post, ahead of the municipal polls.
The UDF rout in municipal elections
The UDF faced massive electoral reverses in 12 out of the 14 districts of Kerala. The only district where it won strongly was the Muslim-dominated Malappuram.
The setback was more intense in central and southern Kerala - where the Christian community voters are in strong numbers in an array of seats.
Cumulatively, the UDF could win only 141 of the 474 seats compared to the LDF's 328.
The defeat of the Congress-led coalition, barely four months before the high-stake assembly elections, led to pollsters sensing a change in the voting pattern of Kerala. The state, since 1980, has been voting out the incumbent ruling party after every five years.
LDF making forays at UDF expense
The Christian community, which numbers to around 18 percent of the state's population and can affect results in approximately 33 assembly seats, has traditionally been a UDF supporter.
The community's leadership has, over the past couple of decades, shown some aversion towards the communists. This, however, appeared to change ahead of the municipal polls.
The tactical stand taken by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan over the Orthodox-Jacobite dispute over the burial grounds and control of churches, allowed the coalition to gain support from the Jacobite camp.
The state government had brought an ordinance for faithful from both factions to use the same burial ground.
The entry of the Kerala Congress (M) faction, headed by Jose K Mani, into the LDF is also expected to draw voters from the Christian community towards the ruling coalition. The party has been allotted a significant significant 13 seats, under the pre-poll arrangement.
Congress and IUML's troubleshoot
The return of former CM Oommen Chandy at the centre of Congress' election campaign was expected to pacify the Christians who were hurt by the UDF over the Hagia Sophia issue.
Chandy, a member of the Orthodox Christian community - which hold more numerical strength as compared to Jacobiites - was expected to reclaim the community's support after entering into the election campaign.
The IUML, meanwhile, began visiting a spree of Church leaders to "clarify" their approach on the reconversion on Hagia Sophia into mosque by the Turkish government.
Thangal, who was at the centre of the controversy due to his contentious article, spoke to Malayalam news channels and dailies to refute the anti-Christian charge.
"I just tried to tell the readers about the developments related to Hagia Sophia. I was not supporting the Turkish government over its decision," he reportedly said in a TV interview on February 27.
Thangal blamed the CPI(M) for "twisting" his statements to project them as anti-Christian. On the contrary, he claimed, his family has always been a strong votary of Christian-Muslim ties. "My father had helped the community to build a church in Malappuram town," he added.
Thangal had, in late January, also met the Metropolitans of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, Yakoob Mar Irenaios and Geevarghese Mar Yulios, who were invited at his residence in Malappuram for a "friendly visit".
The return of IUML general secretary PK Kunhalikutty - known for his cordial relations with all community leaders - from Delhi to Kerala is also considered as a move to bridge the Muslim-Christian divide.
Kunhalikutty resigned as the Lok Sabha MP in February, and subsequently made his full-time return to state politics. Over the past two months, he met some of the influential Church leaders in southern Kerala - where the UDF had suffered setbacks in the municipal polls.
Efforts were taken by the Congress camp to bring the Muslim and Christian sides on the same page, and resolve the differences over Hagia Sophia and minority scholarships, according to party insiders.
The minority scholarships, which are distributed at 80:20 ratio - the larger share for Muslims - has also been a point of concern. Thangal, in a publicly-made statement, said the UDF is ready to look into the issue. Any discrepancies related to it should be cleared, he said.
Congress' youth leader Chandy Oommen, the son of Oomen Chandy, also attempted to pacify the Church leaders who were hurt by Thangal's article which allegedly supported Erdogan.
The RSS and the CPI(M) are attempting to reap political dividends by dividing the Muslims and Christians, he alleged.
"It's unfortunate. Do we really need to fight each other for some matters which had happened in some other country (Turkey)," news agency PTI quoted him as saying on February 5.
'Shift from communal issues to welfare issues'
IUML and Congress insiders claim that the controversy over Hagia Sophia has been resolved to a large extent through a proactive role played by their respective leadership.
The Christian community is now looking towards local and state-specific issues, they claim. Political experts also agree, claiming that both the Sabarimala issue and the Hagia Sophia row lost steam as the assembly polls neared.
"To a certain extent, it (row over Hagia Sophia) had affected the poll prospects of the UDF in the municipal elections. But it is not going to be a big issue in the assembly polls," Dr MH Ilias, Professor and HOD at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, told Moneycontrol."The political equation has changed. Now, there is a shift from communal issues to welfare issues," he added.