In Cong-BJP fight in Kanniyakumari, religion trumps other issues

Kanniyakumari is one of the two constituencies in a Dravidian fortress where the two parties are in a direct contest.

WrittenBy:Lakshmi Priya
Kanniyakumari Congress candidate Vijay Vasanth (left) and BJP candidate Pon Radhakrishnan.

The Nadar factor

The fishing communities, however, form only the second-largest community vote base of Kanniyakumari. The constituency’s single largest caste group is the Nadars, with the region comprising an almost equal number of Hindu and Christian Nadars. Categorised as OBC in Tamil Nadu, the Nadars are a numerically and financially dominant caste group in several southern districts in addition to Kanniyakumari, including Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli, Tenkasi, and Virudhunagar. Brahmins, Nairs, and Vellalas form a lesser share of the Hindu population.

When the BJP first found its footing in the Kanniyakumari district in 1996, winning an Assembly seat on its own in Padmanabhapuram, it was following extensive grassroots efforts by its parent organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since the 1980s. Ever since, the Nadar community is said to have been its largest supporter besides its typically ‘upper’ caste voter base.

Pon Radhakrishnan, who is contesting for BJP from Kanniyakumari for the 10th consecutive time now, had won as MP from the region only once before in 1999, during the BJP’s brief alliance with the DMK in Tamil Nadu. Until then, the erstwhile Nagercoil constituency — which became Kanniyakumari after the 2008 delimitation — had mostly remained faithful to the Congress.

Kamaraj, president of the Nadar Samajam in Nagercoil, tells us that the community’s support will be with the BJP this time as well. “We haven’t released any official statement, but we stand by the BJP. They are winning across India for a reason, and they should come to power here as well. Only then would the district see any development,” he says. 

Notably, both the BJP and Congress candidates in this election hail from the Hindu Nadar community, which the Congress hopes would work in their favour. “Despite what community organisations say, the more secular Hindu Nadars will also be voting for the Congress,” a local party leader tells us.

SP Udhayakumar, writer and anti-nuclear activist, says the caste location of the BJP and Congress candidates is no coincidence, as Kanniyakumari is yet to have it another way. “Almost every candidate any party has fielded in the Kanniyakumari constituency so far has been from the Nadar caste, whether they be Hindu or Christian. That is the only way to secure the majority votes, and the parties generally wouldn’t risk fielding someone from another caste group,” he says.

Speaking to us on the premises of the Suchindram temple in Nagercoil, Udhayakumar admits that Kanniyakumari is a communally sensitive district, especially after the Mandaikadu Hindu-Christian riots of 1982. “BJP’s strategy has always been to take advantage of this communal tension. Pon Radhakrishnan himself has blatantly aided and abetted this narrative in his many controversial speeches, warning of imminent riots and creating a fear surrounding Hindu conversions to Christianity,” he says.

The Kanniyakumari region had been a Congress bastion for the longest time, says Hussain Ahmed, a local leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)], as we meet him at the party office in Krishnancoil near the Nagercoil town. “The region’s social and political fabric largely aligned with neighbouring Kerala. Until BJP emerged as a contender, the Congress and the Communists were the strongest parties in Kanniyakumari,” he says. He adds that the BJP had first mobilised the ‘upper’ castes before gaining the support of the Nadars.

Hindu-Christian equations

Hussain says Kanniyakumari has a peculiar religious trait. “It isn’t uncommon here to see a single family with both Christian and Hindu members. For example, even as an elder brother raises a Hindu family, the younger brother might marry a Christian woman and raise their children as Christians. This is most prevalent among the Nadar community, and it isn’t frowned upon. Caste, after all, is the single most unifying factor in India,” he says. Udhayakumar, for instance, says several members of his own family are Christians, but that far from affects their daily social relations.

The RSS and BJP, however, have campaigned persistently against this family structure, says Hussain. “As part of their propaganda machine, the BJP and RSS wove a narrative that such family units would lead to Hindus becoming a minority in Kanniyakumari. They milked the idea to a point of saturation, and have been successful to an extent in driving a wedge between Hindu and Christian Nadars. That is how they won the 2014 elections because while they unitedly stood behind this divisive narrative, the secular forces were all divided,” he says.

Udhayakumar adds that despite the region’s communally fragile nature, there have never been any notable instances of tension between Hindu and Muslim groups in Kanniyakumari. “It is the systemic manipulations and calculations of the Sangh Parivar that has brought the region to this point,” he says.

Kaliyappan, state joint secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), meanwhile says the opposition parties are deliberately reducing the election to religion, to “hide the fact” that Vijay Vasanth hasn’t been able to bring any development to the constituency as an MP. “Minorities have no problems with us. In a Christian-majority area in Colachel, for instance, a group of Christians voluntarily built a campaign tent and canvassed votes for us. We are not denying that some minority communities may have concerns, but that is largely owing to the propaganda peddled against BJP by vested interests,” he alleges.

Opposition unity

Hussain points out that after Pon Radhakrishnan (BJP-DMK alliance) defeated Congress’ N Dennis in 1999, the constituency has not elected the same party twice in a row — except during the 2021 bye-election when Vijay Vasanth was elected after his father’s demise. “The Nagercoil Lok Sabha constituency had remained a Congress bastion for the longest time, with Dennis alone winning up to six consecutive elections since 1980. Later in 2004, CPI(M)’s AV Bellarmin won the constituency with a significant majority, with the support of both the Congress and the DMK. But this alliance later broke up, and the victory in the 2009 election went to DMK’s Helen Davidson for the first time. Then, of course, BJP won in 2014 and the Congress in 2019 and 2021,” he details.

History indicates that to defeat BJP, unity of the secular forces is crucial, says Hussain. “We have achieved that this time and the voters in Kanniyakumari have already recognised the dent that BJP has made in our secular fabric,” he adds.

Udhayakumar echoes Hussain’s words, pointing out that when Pon Radhakrishnan won in 2014, all the major parties in Kanniyakumari including the DMK, AIADMK, Congress, and the CPI(M) were contesting separately. Udhayakumar himself had contested that election, as a candidate of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

“The candidates of all six of these prominent parties were Nadar, including me, and the equation made it easy for the BJP to win. But now that the Congress, DMK, and the Communist parties have come together, it will make a significant difference. One of BJP’s primary strategies to counter this is to split the coastal votes. But that is also unlikely to happen because the fisherfolk are well aware of their political realities now,” he says.

Inputs from Sindhu Nepolean.


Power NL-TNM Election Fund

General elections are around the corner, and Newslaundry and The News Minute have ambitious plans together to focus on the issues that really matter to the voter. From political funding to battleground states, media coverage to 10 years of Modi, choose a project you would like to support and power our journalism.

Ground reportage is central to public interest journalism. Only readers like you can make it possible. Will you?

Support now


We take comments from subscribers only!  Subscribe now to post comments! 
Already a subscriber?  Login

You may also like