Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah on Saturday became the first passenger to arrive at the brand new Kannur airport, which is due to be inaugurated on November 9. He was in Kannur, the epicentre of the decades-long feud between the Marxists and the BJP, to inaugurate his party’s new district headquarters—Mararji Bhavan—named after KG Marar, the once-towering figure of the Jan Sangh in Kannur. However, it was Shah’s rabble-rousing speech targeting the Left government on the occasion that came to hog the headlines.
Amit Shah served an ultimatum to Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan to stop “oppressing Ayyappa devotees or the BJP workers will raze the Left government down”. Shah was alluding to the nearly 3,500 arrests—most of them BJP/Sangh Parivar karyakartas—by the Kerala police for their role in perpetrating violence and damaging public property during the Sabarimala agitation. While some of the arrested have been granted bail, the majority of them have been remanded to judicial custody.
Shah also passed his own judgment on the historic verdict of the five-judge bench of the Supreme Court allowing women of all ages to visit Sabarimala temple. Going one step further, he called upon the courts to issue orders that could be practically implemented. Apart from his statements likely amounting to contempt, his thinly-veiled comments on “implementable orders” throws an open challenge to the Constitution which makes it mandatory for governments to strictly implement its orders under Article 141. In fact, Shah’s comments could be interpreted as an attempt at arm-flexing the Supreme Court with regard to some of the important matters pending before it.
Shah’s comments have come as a godsend to the embattled Kerala chief minister, Pinarayi Vijayan. The chief minister reacted to Shah’s polemic on Facebook by calling it “an attack on Supreme Court, Indian Constitution and our judicial system”. Shah’s comments on BJP workers razing the Left government down brick by brick also played into the Left narrative of perpetual threats from the BJP government to pull down the Pinarayi Vijayan government unconstitutionally. If anything, Shah’s statements would only rouse public opinion in favour of Vijayan, firefighting on multiple fronts following the mass protests. Even Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala and the Congress attacked Amit Shah for his comments and dubbed his visit an attempt to fan riots in the state.
The Sabarimala verdict had seen the BJP volte-facing from their initial position. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) took a politically risky call to back the Supreme Court order—although it was the default position to adopt. The Congress declared they would “stand with the devotees”—which was interpreted as lacking an ideological position on the issue.
Despite mounting political pressure and people thronging the streets in large numbers, Pinarayi Vijayan hasn’t backed down from implementing the court order. While this firm stand has appealed to a lot of secular, democratic, progressive people in the state, it becomes all the more risky, considering the fact that the CPI(M) is the largest recipient of Hindu votes in the state.
The BJP sees this as their big opening to grab a bigger share of the votes through a polarisation campaign. With the two-month makaravilakku season set to commence from November 17, the saffron party has announced a rath yatra, led by its state president PS Sreedharan Pillai, from the northern district of Kasargode to Pathanamthitta starting November 8. Pillai has shed his image of a “moderate” in the interim as he blatantly tried to communalise the Sabarimala issue by repeatedly raking up the religious denominations of police officers posted in the shrine.
Amit Shah also mentioned the Nair Service Society (NSS) and the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam (SNDP) in his speech and declared the BJP would stand shoulder to shoulder with the socio-religious organisations in opposing the implementation of the court order. The Nair Service Society was the first to raise a banner of revolt against the Supreme Court verdict and had spearheaded state-wide prayer processions. The CPI(M)’s attempt to pacify NSS president Sukumaran Nair through backchannels hasn’t yielded any results.
The Marxists have sought to counter the agitations with a fact-dissemination campaign led by the chief minister himself. The programme has been rated as successful based on their initial assessment having already covered four districts. However, it is unclear whether this campaign would have any impact beyond the core voters of the CPI(M). Kerala’s media outlets have played their part by taking editorial positions supportive of the progressive stance of the state government.
The Comrades are hopeful that the people of Kerala wouldn’t ultimately fall for the polemics of the reactionary forces. Amit Shah’s speech is assumed to have served a timely reminder of the true designs of the Sangh Parivar in that regard.
It would be interesting to see how the vote shares of the principal players are affected in the Lok Sabha elections as a result of the Sabarimala issue. Senior journalist Sunnykutty Abraham points out how each political party’s stand is solely determined by expediency. The BJP is hoping to dent the Ezhava vote base of the CPI(M) apart from consolidating their influence among the Nairs. It remains to be seen whether the Sabarimala issue could lead to any consolidation of Hindu votes behind the BJP, or instead see the Congress regaining their Nair vote base.
The Congress’s decision to stand with the reactionary forces has come in for criticism from a lot of quarters. For a party that claims the legacy of Kerala’s reform movement in the early 20th century, their brand of secularism is now diminished to appeasing the most regressive elements of each community. Social critic MN Karassery cautions the Congress that it would be accused of being on the wrong side of history by future generations.
Pinarayi Vijayan’s evolution as chief minister has been one of the interesting consequences of the Sabarimala verdict. Following his timely interventions during the floods, the Sabarimala issue has seen him single-handedly taking on the reactionary forces. Whether he ultimately emerges triumphant or not, Vijayan’s legacy as chief minister will be defined by his steadfast commitment to progressive values and upholding the rule of law.
The Sabarimala issue definitely offers the BJP a golden opportunity to convert the mass agitation into votes for the party. But Amit Shah’s visit and empty rhetoric are unlikely to yield any political dividends beyond energising the party cadres.