Soumya Nair, 55, claims to have attended every major protest against the Supreme Court’s September 28 judgement allowing menstruating-age women to pray inside Kerala’s Sabarimala shrine. That is because she wants to “protect Hindu traditions and customs”.

The protests started in early October and intermittently continued well into the new year. They were organised by the Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a coalition of Hindutva groups under the aegis of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which railed against the state’s Left Front government for “its undue haste in implementing the verdict”.

The agitation, which sometimes became violent, drew Nair close to the Bharatiya Janata Party. She now believes it is the only political party “that works for Hindus”. Despite this, she will not vote for the Hindutva party on April 23. “I will vote for the Congress,” said the activist from North Kerala’s Kozhikode. “I am not ditching the BJP. It is a tactical decision.”

Nair calculates that the BJP does not stand a chance in Kozhikode, which is set for a direct fight between MK Raghavan of the the Congress and A Pradeep Kumar of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). “I am donating my vote to the Congress to prevent the CPM from winning. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is the bête noire of Ayyappa devotees,” she said, referring to Sabarimala’s presiding deity. “I want to defeat his candidate. The Congress too protested against the government stand.”

Nair does not know that the Supreme Court heard the matter for 12 long years and that the BJP welcomed the judgement before changing its stance. It does not matter, she says. What angers her is that the state government did “injustice to Hindus by not filing a review petition against the ruling. “I am concerned only about Hindu religion. Nothing else matters to me at the moment,” she declared. And to teach the ruling party a lesson, she will vote for the Congress.

Which party will benefit most from the “Hindu mobilisation” effected by the Sabarimala stir is a question that political pundits have been pondering since October. The answer, it now seems, is the Congress. spoke with several people who participated in the Sabarimala agitation in Kozhikode, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram. The majority of them said they want to defeat the Left Front. They will vote for the BJP where it is seen to be strong – mainly Pathanamthitta and Thiruvananthapuram – but will go with the Congress where the grand old party is the main challenger to the Left Front.

This story has been reported from five parliamentary constituencies.

Wooing the faithful

The BJP is in no mood to give up, though. The saffron party has made its role in the Sabarimala agitation the main campaign plank, reminding voters of its attempts to stop women from entering the temple and “defiling” it.

In its manifesto, the BJP has promised to bring to the Supreme Court’s notice the temple’s rituals and seek constitutional protection for them. However, it has not mentioned bringing an ordinance to circumvent the ruling as many expected.

Sabarimala was not spoken of much at the public meetings of any of the three major parties – Chief Electoral Officer Teekaram Meena had warned that invoking it would be a violation of the Model Code of Conduct – until Prime Minister Narendra Modi did so at a rally in Kozhikode in April 12. He did not refer directly to Sabarimala, but said the BJP will “stand with devotees to protect traditions”.

The next day, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the Congress and the Left Front will pay a heavy price for tricking the devotees.

The Congress followed suit. Addressing a rally in Pathanamthitta constituency, in which the Sabarimala shrine falls, on April 16, Rahul Gandhi said people have the right to follow their religion and its practices and his party will never oppose that.

The Congress calculates that its non-violent protests against the Supreme Court’s ruling – as opposed to the Sangh Parivar’s violent agitation – have won it support from a large section of the “silent majority”.

The party had organised protests at many places, including Pathanamthitta, urging the government to file a review petition. It is now reminding the voters that its last government had filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2015 opposing women’s entry into the Sabarimala shrine.

The ruling party is sticking to its position that it was duty-bound to implement the top court’s judgement.

Seeking votes for the BJP's Kummanam Rajasekharan in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Make the right choice’

Hindus are nearly 52% of Kerala’s population, Muslims 26% and Christians 18%. Of the Hindus, around 16% are upper caste Nairs. The community, which traditionally votes for the Congress, was at the forefront of the Sabarimala stir, galvanised by the influential Nair Service Society. In fact, it was this Hindu mobilisation that forced the Sangh Parivar to rethink its stance welcoming the judgement and join the agitation.

But as the election rolled around, the society decided to maintain an equal distance from all three major political players, only advising its members “to make the right choice”.

The society seems to have gravitated back towards the Congress now, although it has refrained from saying so explicitly. In the April 15 issue of its mouthpiece, Service, the group claimed the BJP launched the Sabarimala agitation without seeking a legal recourse while the Congress focused on finding a legal solution. It also criticised both the state and central government for not taking steps to protect the rights of Ayyappa devotees.

G Sukumaran Nair, the society’s general secretary, had already complained on April 8 that the BJP did nothing for the Sabarimala devotees despite having a brutal majority in Parliament. “Why is it promising to protect the interests of the devotees now?” he asked.

A Congress rally in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Not surprisingly, Congress leaders are hopeful that the society will back the Congress. “The NSS secretary has dropped enough hints in support of the Congress although he opted not to endorse any political party publicly,” said Thampanoor Ravi, head of the Congress-led United Democratic Front’s election committee in Thiruvananthapuram. “The party will garner maximum votes from the Nair community.”

Nair votes are crucial for the Congress’s Shashi Tharoor to win Thiruvanathapuram for the third time. He is taking on the BJP’s Kummanam Rajasekharan and the Left Front’s C Divakaran.

The community also carries much electoral heft in Pathanamthitta, where Anto Antony of the Congress is up for reelection against the Left Front’s Veena George and the BJP’s K Surendran.

A senior functionary of the Nair Service Society who would only speak anonymously claimed the organisation’s stance will benefit the Congress. “Besides, NSS knows that the BJP has a remote chance of coming to power in Kerala,” he said. “So, we cannot back them. The Congress has a fair chance of coming to power in the next Assembly election.”

Graffiti seeking votes for the Left Front's C Divakaran in Thiruvananthapuram. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Nearly 27% of Kerala’s Hindus are Ezhavas, listed among the Other Backward Classes. They traditionally support the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Community leader Vellappally Natesan of Sree Narayana Dharmaparipalana Yogam Vellappally Natesan, had not endorsed the Sabarimala agitation.

‘I am happy’

Rahul Gandhi’s assurance that the Congress will “stand with the devotees” seems to have mollified some voters who thought the party did not do enough to assuage the sentiments of the Sabarimala faithful.

Among them is Congress worker S Vijayan, 56, who lives in Thiruvananthapuram. The retired government employee said he was crestfallen when his party did not resort to “BJP-style protests” against the Supreme Court’s ruling. “Many people in my booth complained about it. Now, I am happy that the Congress realised the need to stand with the devotees,” said Vijayan, who is coordinating the party’s campaign in Perunthani ward.

He claimed Gandhi’s assurance “will be a game changer” for the party, especially in Thiruvananthapuram and Pathanamthitta. “Rahul Gandhi is a man of his word and he will keep his promise,” Vijayan said. “Now I can ask people to cast their vote for the party. Each vote is crucial in these two constituencies and his promise will win the game for the Congress.”

Congress worker C Vijayan says Rahul Gandhi's assurance to stand with Ayyappa devotees is a game changer. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Also read: BJP is agitating the loudest against Sabarimala ruling in Kerala – but Congress may gain the most

Congress hopes Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Kerala’s Wayanad will energise party across South India