Surendran was the party’s frontrunner for the candidature in Pathanamthitta and even before the official confirmation on Saturday, he had been engaged in ground work at his constituency.
Early this month the Chief Electoral Officer in Kerala had issued a strict warning to political parties that votes cannot be sought in the name of Lord Ayyappa, the presiding deity at the controversy-struck Sabarimala shrine. But the CEO fell short of banning any attempt to make the Sabarimala issue as such a matter of discussion this election.
It is this little but definite space left free by the Electoral Officer that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now hopes to encash upon at Pathanamthitta, the constituency which has been the hotbed of the Sabarimala agitation by fielding K Surendran, a national general secretary of the party, who had led the anti-women entry agitation at Sabarimala from the forefront.
Surendran was the frontrunner for the candidature in Pathanamthitta and even before the official confirmation on Saturday, he had been engaged in ground work at his constituency.
According to top sources Surendran had the backing of the RSS and the entire Sangh Parivar had acceded to Surendran’s claim in spite of a strong contest from the State BJP President P Sreedharan Pillai and Union Minister Alphons Kannanthanam for the constituency.
Last week when the first list of BJP candidates was released with Kerala included, Pathanamthitta candidate had been left unannounced.
Even though the state leadership had given the perception that it was done in order to first reach an understanding with BJP’s only ally in Kerala BDJS.
On Saturday an elated Surendran expressed optimism at winning BJP’s first ever Lok Sabha seat in the state. “It is a huge responsibility that the party has entrusted upon me. Sabarimala will certainly become the main talking point at Pathanamthitta because it is a big social issue here. I am sure of my victory,’’ K Surendran told media persons.
Public opinion and surveys confirm that entry of women in Sabarimala and the way the Left government in Kerala handled the issue will be a talking point not only at Pathanamthitta but throughout the state.
A recent opinion poll conducted by a Malayalam news channel had shown the extent to which Sabarimala could play on the minds of the voters.
While 54 % of the voters across the state felt that entry of women in Sabarimala was the biggest issue they face, 59 % in south Kerala alone felt the same. What is more shocking is that a 66 % felt that it was wrong to allow women of all ages to enter the shrine and another 54 % felt that the way Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan handled it was not right.
Although there has been resistance to the right wing’s stand during the agitation, the poll shows that anger against the ruling disposition is still simmering in at least the southern districts in the state. By fielding Sabarimala agitation’s poster boy like Surendran in Pathanamthitta, it is this opportunity that the BJP hopes to make dividends from.
Surendran’s victim card
What sealed the candidature in favour of Surendran is the victim card that he would be able to play while seeking votes at Pathanamthitta. During the heights of the agitation – post the Supreme Court order allowing entry of women of all ages to the shrine – Surendran led from the front. What resulted was an incarceration that lasted 25 days.
The BJP will be hoping that images of Surendran in a torn shirt being dragged into a police van at the dead of the night from the base camp near Pamba, would have an impact in the minds of the voters.
Much to the political advantage of the BJP, Surendran was not only denied bail by the court but was also banned from entering Pathanamthitta district.
“What makes Surendran the right candidate in Pathanamthitta is the sheer atrocity that the Left government unleashed upon him. Cases after cases were slapped on Surendran. There is no doubt that no other person can evoke the hurt and sentiments of the entire community towards the way in which the government had trampled upon our rights at Sabarimala as much as Surendran can. We hope he wins and gives them a befitting answer,’’ Prithvipal, state convener, Achara Samrakshana Samiti, one of the organizations that fights the entry of women tooth and nail told The Lede.
If local sources are to be believed Prithvipal’s words do find resonance across Pathanamthitta district which should worry not just the CPI(M) but also the Congress candidate who is a two time sitting MP from the constituency. Prithvipal has also added that his organization along with many others would soon embark on a mission to remind voters about the need to vote for Surendran.
But political observers do not share the same enthusiasm. CR Neelakandan is the state convenor of the Aam Admi Party which has little presence in Kerala. But he has an interesting take on the situation in Pathanamthitta.
“Surendran is no doubt BJP’s best bet and he will beat the CPM candidate hands down. There are no two thoughts about that. But whether he will get enough votes to win the Pathanamthitta seat and beat the sitting congress MP, that looks too far a bridge to cross simply because apart from the sabarimala issue based votes that he would gather this time, the BJP does not have an original vote base in that constituency to build up on say like what you will see in Thiruvananthapuram,’’ Neelakandan told The Lede.
The tricky vote bank at Pathanamthitta
But what makes the BJP see hope in Pathanamthitta is also the working of two scenarios purely based on arithmetic with caste and religious equations behind it.
Firstly, more than fifty percentage of the population in Pathanamthitta district are Hindus while a little less than 40 % are Christians. Hence the BJP hopes a consolidation of the Hindu vote bank in Pathanamthitta could set Surendran on the road to victory.
But for that to happen, the Nairs and the Ezhava, the two main Hindu communities need to come together, that – observers say – may not happen soon.
But the picture at Pathanamthitta could very well be different if it works out. If sources inside the Nair Service Society or the NSS that represents the predominant Nair community are to be believed, Sukumaran Nair, the NSS supremo has already given a green signal to Surendran’s candidature.
“If Surendran in spite of hailing from the Ezhava community could garner the electoral support of the NSS then that is the sign of something big happening here. Sabarimala has given him a hero’s image after the 25 days he went to jail especially among the womenfolk cutting across caste barriers and that will have its impact,’’ KVS Haridas, senior journalist and told The Lede.
KP Sasikala, the sate president of the Hindu Aikya Vedi is well known for her hardline stand on Sabarimala. She is also seen by some as a highly polarising figure. But at Pathanamthitta even she seems to adopt a different tone.
“The situation in Pathanamthitta is very different. It is not a matter of faith of just one community, caste or religion. But people cutting across all such barriers are vouching support for Surendran. You will not only see consolidation of the Hindu vote bank but even Christians and Muslims will come out to vote for him because he stood for believer in all religions and not just the Hindus. Sabarimala is such an emotive issue for all,’’ Sasikala, told The Lede.
Rahul Easwar who is credited with kick starting the Sabarimala agitation long before the political parties took over says, “On the ground we have credible intelligence which says that there is a consolidation of vote bank but it is not like what many people think. This is an ‘inclusive consolidation’ based on the Sabarimala issue favouring Surendran and not a ‘communal consolidation’. Lord Ayyappa finds acceptance across religions. In fact the Muslim League was the first to support us.”
Secondly, even if such an ‘inclusive consolidation’ does not happen, the BJP hopes that a split in the Christian vote bank, since both the UDF and the LDF candidates are from two opposing denominations from the Christian community, will work to its advantage. But that would completely depend on which way the split swings.
Orthodox Christians form the larger portion, somewhere around two lakhs, are at the moment terribly miffed with the ruling left for its inability to allow them entry into their churches against the wishes of the Jacobite faction in spite of a Supreme Court order. They have had a long standing litigation with the Jacobites over the ownership of churches and its properties.
So a consolidation of their votes for the sitting Congress MP Anto Antony could mean that Surendran would very well fall off the race and eventually pushing the Left candidate Veena George to a distant third place.
“Christian votes will get split without doubt. But that need not help the BJP as they may calculate simply because the orthodox votes in large numbers will go to the congress candidate this time because the orthodox community has openly taken a stand against the Left government’s inability to protect its rights. So if the BJP wants to cover that it needs to find at least three lakh votes from the majority community which is close to impossible,’’ veteran journalist Roy Mathew who hails from the area told The Lede.
Pathanamthitta is no cake walk as the BJP would want many to believe. But this is perhaps the first time that the party is anywhere close to a possible victory in the state.
After the NDA independent candidate PC Thomas won the Kottayam seat on his own weight in 2004, the last time any BJP candidate came close to even challenging an opponent was the famous 2014 battle at Thiruvananthapuram when former Union Minister O Rajagopal lost to the high profile Shashi Tharoor by a mere fifteen thousand votes.
Whether Pathanamthitta will rewrite history for the BJP – analysts believe- will depend on a lot of political arithmetic as well as powerful campaigning in the days to come.