A pre-election directive by an influential Catholic group in Kerala asking its flock not to vote for candidates from parties that do not support Prohibition, has put several Church-backed bodies in a spot.

The ruling Congress-led United Democratic Front introduced phased prohibition in Kerala in August 2014. The policy has led to the closure of over 730 bars in the state so far, and if Prohibition continues, Kerala is expected to be alcohol free by 2024. Ahead of the May 16 state elections, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which heads the Left Democratic Front, has refused to clarify its stance on Prohibition despite pressure from several quarters, including its general secretary Sitaram Yechury.

The Church wields considerable political clout in Kerala because of its influence over Christians, who constitute nearly 18% of the population and are a force to reckon with in 42 of the state’s 140 constituencies. Therefore, the directive by the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council, a body of bishops representing three Catholic denominations in the state, means that Christian groups that were gravitating towards the Left may now need to rethink their strategy.

Falling in line

Some groups have abandoned plans to back the LDF following the directive, while others are set to defy it.

The Malayora Karshaka Samithi, formed for the protection of hillside farmers with the support of the Church, has dropped plans to support the LDF and is set to enter the fray directly. It will contest the Thiruvambady seat in Kozhikode district. The High Range Samrakshana Samithi, another Church-sponsored body, is headed for a split with one section declaring its support to the LDF. This faction – headed by Idukki MP Joice George, who was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2014 with LDF support – has already started working for the LDF candidate at Idukki, returning the support extended to George by the Left during the 2014 Parliamentary elections.

The Thamaraserry and Idukki dioceses, which backs both these organisations, have not taken kindly to both the moves.

Other groups like the Kerala Latin Catholic Association, which has supported the LDF in the past elections, and the Indian Farmers Movement, a Church-sponsored peasants forum, are lying low for now. Though the LDF offered the Ernakulam seat to Shaji George, the president of the Kerala Latin Catholic Association, the offer has been declined.

Infam has, however, backed a candidate of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party. A priest associated with the movement said that body backs former Tamil Nadu chief secretary PC Cyriac, who is contesting from Kothamangalam, because he played a role in ameliorating the condition of farmers in his capacity as chairman of the Rubber Board and later as president of Infam.

Another Church-backed body, the Madhya Virudha Samithi, floated by the Temperance Commission of the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council to spearhead the struggle against liquor, has backed the UDF.

Samithi secretary Father TJ Antony said that the LDF’s refusal to take a stand on Prohibition is viewed as a ruse to reopen bars if the LDF is voted to power. “Though there are many deficiencies in the UDF policy, we cannot keep our eyes closed to the fact that it has brought down consumption of hard liquor in the state,” Antony told Scroll.in. “This has brought peace to several families. We do not want this to be disturbed by voting for those who are trying to reopen bars.”

Antony added that the Samithi wouldn’t have been opposed to the LDF if it had made it clear that it would not reopen bars. “Instead, they say that they will implement phased prohibition by way of abstinence,” said Antony. “We do not think this is pragmatic. We have been trying to create awareness against the ill-effects of alcohol for several decades, but it has not brought down liquor consumption.”

The Samithi’s backing is good news for the UDF, which has been losing its sway over Christians in the state with the LDF making inroads into this votebank over the years. Christians had initially been wary of the LDF because of its professed atheism. However, with past Communist governments making no attempt to impose their atheism on Christians – and even participating in Church activities – large sections of the Christian population started shifting political allegiance to the Left.

Minorities consolidation

This development forced the Church to stop its practice of openly directing its followers to vote for the UDF. Previously, Bishops issued pastoral letters in favour of the UDF. But these appeals have now been replaced by general guidelines without any reference to specific parties or candidates.

But political observers say that the Church is still inclined to support the UDF. “The Church in Kerala is not guided by any ideology,” said writer and political commentator NM Pearson. “It will support those who protect its interests. It apparently considers the Congress as the best protector of its interests.”

This is possibly because, apart from faith, the Church has a huge stake in commercial activities such as education and health. In this, it does not expect much support from an LDF government, which has fought against the commercialisation of both these sectors.

The support of Christians is all the more important for the UDF as the Bharatiya Janata Party has attempted a Hindu consolidation by forging alliances with several Hindu organisations. The party’s electoral understanding with the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful organisation of the Ezhavasthe largest Hindu group in Kerala in local body elections saw the UDF losing one third of the local bodies.

The UDF is apparently trying to consolidate minorities to offset the loss of Hindu votes. But while the Indian Union Muslim League is expected to hold Muslims together, the UDF is doubtful about Christians since the Francis George-headed section of the Kerala Congress – a regional party backed by the Church that is a major player in the Christian belt – has switched over to the LDF.

The Christian belt comprises major chunks of Thrissur, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, and winning here is considered crucial to attain power in the state. For instance, the LDF secured 29 of the 42 seats in these five districts in 2006, when it formed the government. Similarly, the UDF won 26 seats in these districts in 2011, when it won the state elections.

The UDF fears that the bar bribery allegations against Kerala Congress (M) leader KM Mani may affect its prospects in this belt. Battling a slew of other scandals in the run up to the May 16 election, it is therefore trying to push its Prohibition agenda hard. It hopes that the Kerala Catholic Bishops Council directive will help it improve its position in the Christian belt, and eventually help it retain power.

However, Father Francis Xavier, deputy secretary of the Kerala Regional Latin Catholic Council, said the UDF shouldn’t assume that the Church will support it for its Prohibition policy alone. The track record of candidates also matters, he said. “Prohibition is only one of the issues cited by the Church,” said Francis. “There are other things that concern us. The faithful will take their decision taking into account all this. We are leaving the choice to their conscience.”