Kerala Assembly elections: Faithfully yours, BJP tells voters at Sabarimala protest epicentre

Back in 2018, in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s order to allow women of all ages to enter the temple, Konni witnessed violent protests and arrest of hundreds.

If the subject of women’s entry in Sabarimala temple was one of the pet themes of the BJP’s campaign in Kerala, it was shrillest here in Konni, a serene, hilly constituency tucked along the Western Ghats in the state’s Pathanamthitta district.

Back in 2018, in the shadow of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow women of all ages to enter the temple, this region was among the first to witness violent protests. Protesters had clashed with police leading to injuries and arrest of hundreds.

Three years on, in the midst of a fierce triangular fight in Konni, the BJP is banking on the issue. Its campaign included a party jeep snaking its way through Konni town blaring: “Never forget what they did to our belief and faith.” BJP candidate K Surendran, who is also the party state president, was celebrated as ‘Vishwasa samrakshana nayakan (The hero of protection of faith)’.

On April 2, addressing a rally at Konni, Prime Minister Narendra Modi chanted a popular salutation to Sabarimala deity Lord Ayyappa, and accused the LDF government of trying to “destabilise” sacred sites.

But on the ground, it’s uncertain if voters, especially Hindus, would be guided solely by the Sabarimala question. In the period since, there have been two elections in Konni — the 2019 parliamentary elections and an Assembly by-poll the same year. If the Congress led in the LS polls from the Konni segment, the CPM candidate won the Assembly by-election. Surendran was able to increase the BJP vote share but ended up third each time.

This time, Surendran is up against sitting CPM MLA K U Jenish Kumar and the Congress’s Robin Peter. Natives of Konni, both were stationed in the constituency for the duration of the campaign. Surendran, however, had to divide time between here and his second seat, Manjeshwar in the north, where he had lost by just 89 votes in the 2016 Assembly elections. In a state where local politicians don’t have the luxury of a chopper for campaigning, Surendran was offered one by his party.

After the debilitating LS polls setback, attributed to its stand backing the Supreme Court Sabarimala, the CPM-led LDF is seen to have recovered much of its political space through welfare interventions like disbursal of pensions, the care at centres during Covid-19, distribution of food kits during lockdown and investments in roads, schools and hospitals through the KIIFB. This was reflected in the recent panchayat elections in which the LDF captured power in nine of the 11 panchayats under the Konni Assembly segment. The remaining two went to the UDF.

“In the last 16 months, people here have seen the initiatives of the LDF government. The new medical college hospital, a long standing demand of the people, has started functioning. New roads have been built, primary health centres were upgraded to community health centres and the tribal colony of Avanippara got new power connections,” CPM candidate Jenish Kumar says.

On Sabarimala, Kumar parrots the party line without divulging much. “After the by-election, there have been no developments in connection to Sabarimala. All of this was discussed at that time. The people are aware of it and have evaluated the situation,” he says.

As for the Congress, winning Konni is a prestige battle because of one man — Adoor Prakash, its five-time MLA and sitting MP from Attingal. Though Konni is viewed as a Left-leaning constituency, Prakash, 65, has won every election here since 1996, riding on his personal bond with voters. In 2019, he had reluctantly vacated Konni to contest the LS elections from Attingal, a CPM stronghold in southern Kerala.

The Congress had paid the price for not giving the ticket to his trusted aide, Robin Peter, for the 2019 Assembly by-election in Konni. Prakash had rebelled publicly, and the Congress candidate had lost, proving to the party his clout in the constituency.

This time therefore, Peter’s name was quickly cleared. And the Congress’s entire campaign hinged on the goodwill Prakash has.

Ponnamma, 73, a resident of Pramadom panchayat of Konni, says, “Earlier, Konni was simply a chantha (market). Adoor Prakash has made Konni what it is today. In the LS elections, I prayed he would lose in Attingal so that he remains our MLA… (Peter) was a good panchayat president and he did a lot of work. But I can’t say if he will get the same love.”

An ardent devotee of Ayyappa, Ponnamma has not forgotten the events of 2018. “It’s a question of faith. But what did they (the LDF) do? They got women who have no belief in Ayyappa to enter the temple through the backdoor. That’s because they are atheists,” she says.

While she acknowledges the BJP “leading from the front” in protecting Sabarimala custom, Ponnamma adds, “But in order to win here, it’s not enough. They need support from more sections.”

Prakash Kumar, a local member of the upper-caste Nair Service Society (NSS), also calls the contest one between the LDF and UDF, with the former having a slight edge. “Surendran will get a sizable section of the votes like last time, but not enough to win. The Sabarimala sentiments among people have cooled off considerably because the matter is in court. People have more pressing matters now.”

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