On April 11, clad in his trademark white shirt and dhoti, Kummanam Rajasekharan, the BJP candidate from Thiruvananthapuram constituency, stood on top of his campaign vehicle and waved to supporters on either side of the road.

As he travelled from Kachani to Kesavadasapuram in the constituency, enthusiastic crowds garlanded him, some wrapping green and saffron shawls around his shoulders. Party workers shouted “Bharat mata ki jai.”

Rajasekharan gave short speeches at some places, reiterating his resolve to work for the development of the constituency and to protect traditions and rituals – indicating that he would continue to oppose the entry of women into Kerala’s Sabarimala temple.

In September, the Supreme Court ruled that women of all ages must be allowed to worship at the Ayyappa temple, leading to widespread protests in the state. Previously, only girls and women who were not of menstruating age were permitted into the shrine.

“I am confident of a big win in Thiruvananthapuram,” Rajasekharan told Scroll.in during the course of his tour. “The BJP has made huge inroads into the constituency. Moreover, voters are disenchanted with the two coalitions whose candidates have been winning this constituency every five years. People want change.”

He was referring to the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front that have ruled the state successively over the past seven decades. In the last two elections, the seat was won by Shashi Tharoor of the Congress.

“Women’s entry at Sabarimala is a crucial issue in this election,” he said. “Devotees are aggrieved by the Supreme Court verdict and the state government’s decision to implement it. Only the BJP stood with them and this election gives them an opportunity to pay us back.”

Thiruvananthapuram votes on April 23, in the third phase of the seven-phase Lok Sabha elections.

Fight for Thiruvananthapuram

The BJP has never won a Lok Sabha seat in Kerala. It is hoping that the furore over the Sabarimala verdict will consolidate the Hindu vote in the state, and give it the foot in the door it so badly wants.

The state has 20 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP is contesting 14, leaving six for its allies – five for the Bharath Dharma Jana Sena and one for the Kerala Congress (Thomas).

Political observers are wondering if Thiruvananthapuram will be the first Lok Sabha seat the BJP will win in Kerala.

Rajasekharan does stand a good chance, observers say. The saffron party has been pumping in human resources and money to secure his victory. The party’s ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is coordinating the campaign, and has deputed workers from all over the state for to carry out ground-level electioneering in the constituency.

Party leaders hope that the unity among Hindus that followed the Sabarimala verdict, Rajasekharan’s popularity across religious lines, and systematic canvassing will help it seize the seat.

But Thiruvananthapuram will still not be a walkover for him. The constituency is headed for a tough triangular contest. The other two prominent contenders are two-time incumbent MP Shashi Tharoor of the Congress and former Kerala minister C Divakaran of the Communist Party of India.

Kummanam Rajasekharan during his campaign in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Tough fight

Tharoor first won the seat in 2009 by a margin of 99,998 votes against his closest rival P Ramachandran Nair of the Communist Party of India. P Krishna Das, the BJP candidate, came fourth with 84,094 votes.

In 2014, though Tharoor won the seat again, the BJP moved up to second place, with O Rajagopal as its candidate. Tharoor’s victory margin was also reduced to just 15,470 votes. Thiruvananthapuram was the only Lok Sabha constituency in Kerala where the BJP finished as the runner-up that year.

The BJP has been recording a steady growth in its vote share in Thiruvananthapuram since 1998, when its nominee, Kerala Varma Raja, bagged 12.39% of the votes polled. O Rajagopal took this to 20.93% in 1999, before increasing it to 29.86% in 2004.

However, the party’s vote share sank in the 2005 bye-election, when it got just 4.8% of the vote. In 2009, its vote share increased marginally to 11.4%. In 2014, O Rajagopal took the vote share to 32.32%.

In the 2016 state elections, the BJP made history by winning its first Assembly seat in Nemom, in Thiruvananthapuram district, where O Rajagopal defeated the Communist Party of India (Marxist) candidate V Sivankutty by 8,671 votes.

The Sabarimala seat

Besides Thiruvananthapuram, the BJP is also hoping to win the Pathanamthitta constituency, which lies 100 km north east of the state capital. The Sabarimala temple comes under this constituency.

This seat too is witnessing a three-way contest involving two-time incumbent Anto Antony of the Congress, Veena George of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and K Surendran of the BJP.

In the 2014 elections, the BJP finished third here, after the Congress-led United Democratic Front and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front. In previous general elections, the BJP’s vote share in Pathanamthitta was 7% in 2009 and 16% in 2014. The vote share increased to 18.7% in the 2016 Assembly elections.

Political observers say the BJP might better its vote share here, but is likely to be consigned to third place.

Micro-level campaign

To help the BJP, the Sangh Parivar – a collective of Hindutva organisations that includes the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the muscular Bajrang Dal – ­is focusing on booth-level electioneering: it is visiting homes and meeting families, especially in Thiruvananthapuram.

“We would like to build a long-term association with the voters and hence this thrust on micro-level campaign,” said Sandeep Kumar, an RSS leader in the state capital.

The Parivar has deployed around 50 “page pramukhs” in each booth, who have been given the task of with meeting regularly with the voters listed on a single page of the electoral rolls. A page pramukh is expected to meet with voters between 10 and 15 times before the election. These workers report to the booth presidents. Each booth has two such presidents, one from the BJP and the other from the RSS.

“This is a successfully tested campaign method in many North Indian states,” said Narayanan, a page pramukh in Thiruvananthapuram Assembly constituency. “We are getting positive feedback from the voters. We will definitely get more votes this time.”

Narayanan has been visiting all the 30 voters he is in charge of regularly. “I already met them 10 times so far,” he said. “I will continue to meet them till election day.”

Kumar said such grassroots-level work will help Rajasekharan win the election. “We have made deep inroads into the voter base of other political parties,” he said. “Page pramukhs will win the battle for us this time.”

On April 13, this reporter accompanied some page pramukhs on their house visits in Thiruvananthapuram.

They tried to convey to voters that the Communist Party of India-led state government had abandoned Hindus on the Sabarimala issue, spoke of Rajasekharan’s role in fostering Hindu unity, and explained why Narendra Modi should be prime minister again. After this briefing, page pramukhs listened attentively to the concerns of the voters, and responded patiently, peppering their comments with their pet Hindutva themes.

In Thycaud, an elderly woman said she would not vote this time as her children had not got government jobs. Page pramukh Sudheer told her that her children would benefit from the 10% reservations for the general category on the basis of economic backwardness, which the Modi government had introduced in January. “Amma [mother], BJP government brought in economic reservation to address this issue,” he said. “Don’t worry. Your children will get jobs soon.”

Sudheer said he saw the door-to-door campaign as an opportunity to address the concerns of Hindus. “I always highlight the achievements of the Modi government and the Sabarimala issue during house visits,” he said.

Page pramukh Sudheer meets a voter in Thiruvananthapuram. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Banking on Sabarimala

The Sangh Parivar had initially supported the Supreme Court judgement on Sabarimala but backtracked following protests from various Hindu organisations. It then put itself at the forefront of agitations against the verdict.

The Parivar organised protests under the banner of Sabarimala Karma Samithi, a coalition of Hindutva groups under the aegis of the RSS, which alleged the state’s Left Front government was showing “undue haste in implementing the verdict”.

The protests reached their peak during the Mandala-Makaravilakku season, which runs from November to January, and is the longest pilgrimage season in the temple. The protests died down after the police arrested Parivar workers in connection with violence during some demonstrations.

As polling day draws near, the Sabarimala Karma Samithi has begun to revive the issue. It has held protest rallies in Thiruvananthapuram and erected hoardings to appeal to Hindu sentiment. These have slogans such as: “Mandalamethayalum Mandala Kalam Marakkaruthu”, or “Don’t forget the pilgrim season whichever constituency you belong to.”

In its manifesto, the BJP has promised to bring the temple’s rituals to the notice of the Supreme Court and seek constitutional protection for them. It has, however, not mentioned bringing an ordinance to circumvent the ruling.

Rajasekharan said Sabarimala was a major election issue and that he would secure the votes of Hindus aggrieved by the attacks on religious traditions. “The police had tortured our workers who tried to defend the traditions,” he said. “Devotees will not forget it. That is why we have mentioned the Sabarimala issue in our manifesto.”

He claimed that devout Muslims and Christians were living in fear after the Sabarimala verdict. “They fear that the Supreme Court may target mosques and churches next,” he said.

According to data collected by local researchers, Thiruvananthapuram has 67% Hindu, 19% Christian (including Nadar Christians) and 14% Muslim voters. The Hindu community comprises 39% upper caste Nairs and 27% backward Ezhava communities. Hindu Nadars, another backward community, comprise 4%.

However, the Sangh is worried by the decision of the Nair Service Society, a prominent organisation of the Nair community, to maintain a distance from all three major political players, only advising its members “to make the right choice”.

The Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam, a powerful outfit of the Ezhava community, has not publicly backed any candidates either. It is expected that Nair candidates Tharoor and Rajasekharan will divide Nair votes, while Divakaran may walk away with the majority of Ezhava votes.

A hoarding with a message that says: Don’t forget the pilgrim season whichever constituency you belong to. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Sabarimala not an issue

In Nair neighbourhoods in Thiruvananthapuram, many voters said the entry of women into Sabarimala was not an issue for them, with some even saying it was of concern only to “lower-caste people”.

“I am least bothered about Sabarimala,” said 85-year-old retired college teacher KK Krishnan Nampoodiri who lives in Thycaud. “I will vote for Rajasekharan to bring Modi back to power.”

Neelakantan Nair, 80, a retired government employee, will vote for Rajasekharan too, but not because of Sabarimala. He wanted to give Modi a second term as prime minister. “Who is worried about Sabarimala?” he asked.

CNS Nair said Sabarimala is an issue for lower-caste people. “It is not an issue that touches a chord with people like me,” he said.

Election posters of BJP candidate Kummanam Rajasekharan. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Influence of Nadar community

In 2014, Tharoor scraped past Rajagopal thanks to votes from members of the Nadar community and Muslims.

Nadars are categorised as Hindu or Christian. Christian Nadars are numerically strong in Thiruvananthapuram, which comprises seven Assembly segments.

The Nadar community holds sway in Parassala, Kovalam and Neyyattinkara Assembly segments while Muslims are scattered in all parts of the constituency.

In 2014, Tharoor took a lead of 2,407 votes in Parassala, 9,288 votes in Kovalam and 8,203 votes in Neyyattinkara. Rajagopal led in the remaining four Assembly segments.

The Sangh Parivar has been trying to woo the Nadar community for quite some time. Earlier this month, it welcomed into the National Democratic Alliance the Kerala Kamaraj Congress, a political party that claims to enjoy the support of the community.

Kerala Kamaraj Congress leader Vishnupuram Chandrashekharan claimed that his party would consolidate Nadar votes in favour of Rajasekharan. “We will show the strength of Nadar community this time,” he said.

But Congress leaders said that the party is a Hindu Nadar party and it does not wield influence among Christian Nadars. “Christian Nadars who belong to South Indian United Church will vote for Tharoor,” said NK Balan, a diocesan council member from Parassala. “Our Diocesan Council recently took the decision to support him,”

The Congress has been reminding voters of Rajasekharan’s past.

Congress state president Mullappally Ramachandran said last week that Rajasekharan had created communal divisions during the Nilakkal agitation in 1982 and after communal riots in Marad beach, in Kozhikode, in 2002-2003.

In 1982, Rajasekharan had led an agitation against the Congress-led government’s decision to permit a church to be built in Nilakkal, near Sabarimala, in Pathanamthitta district. “The government sacrificed Hindus’ interests to get Christian votes,” he was quoted as saying by ucanews.com, a website about Catholic matters.

Rajasekharan was also accused of making inflammatory speeches after communal riots hit Marad beach in 2002 and 2003, in which 14 people were killed.

He had then launched campaigns to warn Hindus against conversion and led a march to the Secretariat in 2015 seeking government action against Chief Secretary Jiji Thomson for “promoting evangelism”.

Political analysts said that Rajasekharan’s past would ensure that both Christian and Muslim voters will consolidate against him.

Auto-rickshaw driver Fahd Muhammad, 45, agreed. The BJP was projecting Rajasekharan as a saint without any communal prejudices, he said. “But Muslims and Christians in Thiruvananthapuram are not fools to forget the past,” he said. “We saw him igniting communal passions. We will vote against his communal politics.”

BJP candidate K Surendran campaigns in Pathanamthitta. (Photo: By special arrangement).