Politics

It’s Advantage For BJP’s Surendran At Pathanamthitta As Women Prepare To Give Their Verdict On Sabarimala Issue

K Surendran of BJP being welcomed/Surendran’s Facebook page
Snapshot
  • “This is the home of Sabarimala Ayyappa temple and the issue of allowing women into the temple is sensitive. It will definitely play out in the elections,” says an autorickshaw driver.

    BJP’s K Surendran gets a hero’s welcome when he arrives to seek votes. Women past their 60s give him a traditional welcome, reserved only for very special and spiritual men, and hug him with affection like their own son.

Discussing the election trend at the Attingal Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala, Ravindran Nair, a tea shop owner, says that despite his non-performance, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) candidate, A Sampath, could win.

Pointing to a poster of Shoba Surendran, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, near his shop in Attingal town 30 km from Thiruvananthapuram, Nair says: “She is going to get a huge number of votes this time.”

Although it is about 75 km from Attingal, Pathanamthitta’s effect can be felt as far as the village where Nair resides.

“The Sabarimala controversy has hurt people here and that will help her garner huge number of votes. But it is unlikely she will win. The Sabarimala factor will, however, help K Surendran, the BJP candidate in nearby Pathanamthitta constituency, to win. It is the issue there,” the tea shop owner says.

Back in the Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency, at a wayside village in the Konni Assembly segment, Surendran gets a hero’s welcome when he arrives to seek votes.

Women past their 60s give him a traditional welcome, reserved only for very special and spiritual men, and hug him with affection like their own son. Surendran bows down in reverence to these women’s affection before seeking their blessings.

“It’s a sight that is worth seeing a thousand times. Hardly has any candidate, leave alone BJP, got such a reception, especially from women, in this region,” says a BJP worker at Pathanamthitta town.

The Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency was created in 2008 after the Election Commission carried out its delimitation exercise. The constituency came into being after Mavelikkara and Adoor constituencies were reconstituted. The Adoor Lok Sabha constituency was a reserved one till 2008 but from 2009 Mavelikkara has been declared as reserved apart from Alathur.

The Pathanamthitta Lok Sabha constituency has seven Assembly segments - Kanjirapally, Poonjar, Adoor, Thiruvalla, Ranni, Aranmula and Konni. Of the seven, Kanjirapally and Poonjar are in Kottayam district, while the rest are in Pathanamthitta district.

According to the Election Commission, there are 12.13 lakh voters in the constituency, with women outnumbering men. Women make up 6.36 lakh votes.

In the 2009 and 2014 elections, Anto Antony Punnathaniyil of the Congress won the seat, though his winning margin dropped in 2014. In 2009, Antony garnered 51.21 per cent of the votes but in 2014 it dropped to 41.27 per cent. In terms of numbers, the Congress candidate got 4.08 lakh votes in 2009 and 3.58 lakh votes in 2014. The CPM candidate finished second in 2009 getting 2.97 votes. In 2014, an independent candidate, Peelipose Thomas, backed by the CPM, ended second with 3.02 lakh votes.

The BJP finished third on both occasions, though its votes increased from a mere 56,294 votes in 2009 to 1.38 lakh votes in 2014. In terms of percentage rise, there was a huge jump from 7.06 per cent to 15.98 per cent. The voter turnout during 2009 and 2014 elections has been 65 per cent and 66 per cent respectively.

This time, too, the Congress has nominated Antony. The CPM has nominated Veena George, its legislative Assembly member from Aranmula, as the Left Democratic Front (LDF) candidate.

In the 2016 Assembly elections, the LDF candidates won from Ranni, Adoor, Thiruvalla, and Aranmula constituencies, while Congress won the Konni and Kanjirapally segments. The Poonjar Assembly seat was won by an independent, P C George, who has now joined the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance.

According to K Padmakumar, Pathanamthitta district’s BJP President, Hindus make up nearly 56 per cent of the electorate in the constituency. Christians comprise 39 per cent of the voters and Muslims the remaining five per cent.

Pathanamthitta’s chances are looking up mainly owing to the controversy over allowing women of reproductive age entry into the Sabarimala Ayyappa temple. The Ayyappa temple is in the Pathanamthitta district. In September last year, the Supreme Court declared null and void the tradition of not allowing women of reproductive age to enter into the temple as Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity, is an eternal brahmachari in this temple.

Following the ruling, the LDF Government of CPM led by Pinarayi Vijayan resorted to forcefully implementing the apex court ruling even as protests, mainly led by women, erupted across the State. Pandalam in Pathanamthitta was the base from where the protests began against the apex court ruling and the State Government’s harsh measures and it quickly snowballed into a major controversy.

Though the Kerala Government seems to have turned a little softer now, people in the State, particularly in Pathanamthitta, are not willing to either forget or forgive its actions. The Congress is also facing the ire of the public as its voice against the ruling and State government’s tactics were too weak. It never openly supported the protests.

“It is not an issue of people just being angry with the CPM Government on the Sabarimala controversy. Surendran was put in jail over this issue for 20 days. People, especially women, recall the ordeals he underwent during the controversy. That’s why there is overwhelming support from the women,” says G Arun Kumar, a BJP councillor in Pandalam.

The BJP sees women outnumbering men in the constituency as a huge advantage. “We expect at least 90 per cent of the Hindu women in the constituency to vote for Surendran,” says Arun Kumar.

On 17 November last year, the Kerala police took Surendran into preventive custody from Nilakkal near Sabarimala even as he and a group of devotees were preparing to go to Pamba, the base camp to reach the Ayyappa temple.

Surendran was detained on the grounds that he and his group were planning to foment law and order problem in Sabarimala. He was in prison for 21 days before the Kerala High Court ordered his release on bail with stiff riders, including the condition that he should not enter Pathanamthitta district.

Kerala police filed 20 cases against Surendran during the controversy. Soon after the BJP nominated him to contest from Pathanamthitta, another 243 cases were filed against him! In an interview to Swarajya, Surendran said he had to file his nomination again after so many cases were filed against him.

“A case was filed against me at 10am in Kasaragod and in less than an hour, another case was filed against me in Thiruvananthapuram, another in Kozhikode, then Kochi, Thrissur and various other parts of Kerala. How is it possible for a person to be charged in so many cases at so many different places at the same time?” wonders the BJP candidate.

Support for Surendran cuts across castes and even religion. “When we went to seek votes for Surendran at a village near Pandalam, even Muslim women promised to vote for the BJP,” says Rajini A, who is leading a group of women seeking support for Surendran.

Some of the women Swarajya spoke to said their reaction on the Sabarimala issue was more out of “anguish”. “Women in the constituency are not angry or upset over the SC ruling on the Sabarimala issue. The mood here reflects our anguish over the developments,” says a BSNL woman employee on the condition of anonymity.

“Even at our homes, we don’t allow women during their menstruation period. When that is the case, the State Government is playing with our beliefs in Sabarimala. You cannot betray our faith. Can you?” asks 70-year-old Sarasamma at the Pandalam Ayyappa temple. Neither Sarasamma nor the BSNL employee wanted to say for whom they will cast their votes in the coming elections.

“Women across Kerala are deeply distressed over the Supreme Court ruling and the State Government’s harsh measures. They will clearly vote for the BJP and Surendran,” says Arun Kumar. An employee at the Pandalam royal house concurs with Arun Kumar, saying a huge number of women could vote for the BJP.

“Women are a worked up lot in Pathanamthitta constituency,” says Nair of Attingal.

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Women have been at the forefront of the protests on the Sabarimala issue. “The LDF government, unable to appreciate the sentiments of the people and riding high on ego, resorted to violence. Women and children were assaulted along with the men folk and jailed without any thought. People watched as their loved ones were beaten for defending their faith. This has deeply entrenched itself on the minds of the women,” says Surendran

“The way Pinarayi Vijayan has handled the Sabarimala issue is shameful. My family and I will be voting for the BJP,” says J Thulasidharan, a lottery ticket vendor from Adoor. Thulasidharan and his family have six votes that were cast in favour of the CPM in 2014.

A strategist of the Congress party didn’t disagree with the view that the Sabarimala issue has given Surendran the advantage - even as latest opinion polls show the BJP edging to the top slot. . “Voters in Pathanamthitta have been emotionally misled. The BJP has simply played on the emotions of the people,” says the strategist, not wanting to be identified.

However, he says anything can happen in the election to indicate that the Congress hasn’t lost hope.

“Out of 1,500 voters in my village, at least 750 will vote for the Congress. We are not bothered who is the candidate. We are voting for the party,” says 50-odd years old A Thomas, hailing from a village near Pathanamthitta, claiming that Christians make up 48 per cent of the voters in the constituency.

The Congress strategist rues that many of the Christian families live abroad and wouldn’t be able to make it to vote on the date of polling. “Maybe those living in the Gulf countries might turn up to vote but not the rest,” he adds.

“The advantage for the BJP is that there is a consolidation of Hindu votes. Even family members of Communists will vote for Surendran,” Padmakumar says, pointing to the fact that no woman from the family of Communists even thought of entering the Sabarimala temple when the State Government encouraged women of all ages to enter the Ayyappa temple.

“This is the home of Sabarimala Ayyappa temple and the issue of allowing women into the temple is sensitive. It will definitely play out in the elections,” says an autorickshaw driver.

Anton Antony and P C George represent two sects of Christianity. Antony is a Roman Catholic while George is from the Malankaran Orthodox community. The BJP expects the Christians in the constituency to be divided in their voting on this account.

Sabrimala Issue Not the Only Reason

No doubt, the controversy over allowing women of reproductive age has given an advantage to the BJP and Surendran. But that isn’t the only reason why he is the front-runner in Pathanamthitta.

“Antony had represented the constituency for 10 years but this place has not seen any development work,” says Padmakumar.

“It required the BJP Government at the Centre to allocate money to a school here to improve its facilities,” he adds.

People in Pathanamthitta are also venting their anger against the Congress as well as LDF as they got no relief during the rains and floods during July-September last year.

“People here got no proper relief from both parties. I came down from Thiruvananthapuram and stayed here to help the affected people, mainly cleaning up the mess left behind by nature’s fury,” says S Kurup, a tourist car driver.

“Most people in the district haven’t even got the relief money promised by the State government. The CPM, however, finds money for its own men and their families,” says Kurup.

He is perhaps indicating the CPM providing monetary relief to the family of its Chengannur MLA K K Ramachandran Nair, who passed away in January, and another CPM State leader.

Padmakumar concurs with Kurup’s views, adding that Antony was among the Parliament members who failed to adopt any village in the constituency under the MP Local Area Development Scheme. “He has also failed to bring any worthwhile investment here,” adds the BJP local leader.

Surendran, on the other hand, says that he has a strong vision for the development of Pathanamthitta. “But, let me make it clear that the culture and tradition, unique to this place will be preserved. There will be absolutely no compromise on it,” he assures.

In particular, the BJP says it will come up with a special development scheme for the tribals of this constituency. Scheduled castes and tribes make up nearly 14.5 per cent of the population in the district.

“There is a sizeable tribal population who have resided here (in Pathanamthitta) for generations. We are firm in our resolve for their welfare,” says the BJP candidate, adding that the party will be taking the locals into confidence to prepare a blueprint for their development.

Concerns over the law and order situation will affect the LDF. “Two youths were murdered at Kasaragod recently. Goons of the CPM were involved in the act. People are upset over this,” says Kurup. Though the youth belonged to the Congress, the BJP could gain as it has been more vocal against the violence unleashed by the CPM cadre.

Another big boost for the BJP in the run-up to the elections is the entry of Poonjar independent MLA PC George into the NDA. “George joining the NDA gives a huge boost for us. He got 63,000-odd votes in the Assembly elections. The Bharat Dharma Jana Sena party candidate, part of the NDA, got nearly 20,000 votes. Even if we discount that a few thousand votes could be lost in view of George’s entry into NDA, we are confident we can get at least 50,000 votes in the Poonjar segment,” says Padmakumar.

A Congress worker in Antony’s office in Pathanamthitta concedes that the going is tough for the sitting member of Parliament. “There are internal fights in the Congress which is making things difficult for our party. But we are confident that Antony will win by a margin of 25,000 to 50,000 votes,” says the worker.

Caught between BJP’s Surendran and Congress Antony is the CPM’s Veena George, sitting Assembly member from Aranmula. Veena George was in the news last year for getting a person arrested for questioning her for the poor status of Aranmula bus stand. The arrested person had made sexist remarks but the police filed a case against him of attempting to incite communal riots.

“George will have to bear the voters ire over the State Government’s poor performance in the last three years. Tardy flood relief efforts by the Vijayan Government will also affect her prospects,” says Kurup.

BJP doesn’t think the LDF will resort to any tactical switch voting, wherein its voters might go out and vote for the Congress candidate to ensure the defeat of the BJP nominee. “LDF simply cannot afford to do it here. It will mean it is aiding Congress in the four Assembly segments it won in 2016,” says Padmakumar.

The contest now virtually looks like a two-horse race with Surendran enjoying an edge, mainly in view of the Sabarimala controversy.

“People in this district undergo fasting for 41 days along with their families. The issue is so sensitive. The CPM Government has hurt each and every Hindus feeling. Surendran and the BJP will benefit from this,” says a political analyst in Thiruvananthapuram.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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