Fr Jalson P George, the Vicar of Bethel Aramana, one of the 30 dioceses of Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, in Chengannur in Alappuzha district, was engaged in a serious political discussion at the church with fellow members of the Parish Council — Saji Pattarumadam, the media coordinator of the Orthodox Church, and VJ Chacko, the Parish council member. Upfront, they made a prediction: “The LDF has an upper hand in this constituency, but it might not find it as smooth as it had last time.”
Chengannur, known as the ‘Gateway of Sabarimala’ that has traditionally been a UDF stronghold, was grabbed by LDF in 2016. After the demise of CPM’s KK Ramachandran Nair who was elected in 2016, sitting MLA Saji Cheriyan regained the seat in the by-election in 2018. Cheriyan, a senior CPM leader who keeps cordial relationship with the Church, is contesting again this time.
Fr Jalson openly acknowledged that he is a Congress supporter. But, he could also not hide his liking for Saji Cheriyan, the sitting MLA. “He has done a lot of developmental work in this constituency,” said Fr Jalson.
So why shouldn’t it be smooth for the LDF candidate in a constituency where people have traditionally toed the Church’s line? “First of all, we must realise that voters today are very empowered. A generation that listens to the political opinions of Church leaders is gone. This current generation does not listen to us in matters related to politics,” said Jalson.
The Christian population in Kerala is widely spread across the state, but the five central districts — Ernakulam, Idukki, Pathanamthitta, Alappuzha, and Kottayam, which together have 42 Assembly constituencies — have a substantial population that often decides the political fortunes of every party.
The Christian population in central Kerala mainly belongs to three factions — Catholic Church (both Syrian Church and Latin Church), Orthodox Church and Jacobites.
The Congress-led UDF has a tangible majority in central Kerala as it enjoys the general support of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The Jacobites and Latin Church often adopt an issue-based approach to both the fronts (LDF and UDF).
All Church factions have a common standpoint – ‘We will help those who help us’. The Church leaders usually never express their political interests in public, but bring it up internally by issuing pastorals and while delivering speeches in altars, mostly days before polling.
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The upcoming assembly election is unique in the political history of the Christian-dominated central Kerala due to many factors.
A prominent shift that has happened in central Kerala is the change in the alliances in UDF and LDF. The Kerala Congress (M)’s departure from UDF and entry to the LDF has already proved to be groundbreaking for the LDF in the 2020 local body elections.
The CPM’s elaborate seat-sharing with the new ally has surprised many even within the party and the front, and also led to open expression of displeasure among the grassroot-level cadre. By giving 13 seats to the Kerala Congress Mani group, the CPM and LDF is aiming to bring a major shift in central Kerala, eyeing an additional 10 seats.
At present, LDF holds 23 out of the 42 seats across the five districts with the front having dominance in Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta districts. It is expecting a clean sweep in Kottayam, headquarters of Kerala Congress Mani group besides three or four more additional seats in Ernakulam and not less than two more seats in Idukki.
The Kerala Congress (Joseph), another splinter faction of Kerala Congress, is an ally of the UDF. The Congress hopes that the voters would not change their mind though the leaders have shifted their political allegiance.
“The leaders of Kerala Congress (M) went with LDF, but we do not think the masses will go with them,” said senior Congress leader Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, an MLA and former minister.
Another unique factor about the upcoming election is the BJP’s attempt to make inroads into the Christian vote bank. But it is not all of a sudden that central Kerala has come under the BJP’s spotlight. The NDA had a Member of Parliament long back in 2004. PC Thomas, representing a splinter faction of Kerala Congress, had aligned with NDA and been a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet in 2004.
“The BJP could not make any progression. They cannot win the trust of the minorities in Kerala unless they change their attitude to the minorities in other states. The Christians still fear the BJP,” said Saji Pattarumadam, the media spokesperson and a member of the Church Council of Orthodox faction in Chengannur.
The BJP’s recent attempts to resolve the dispute between the Orthodox and Jacobite factions has prompted a huge political debate in Kerala. The mediation talks chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few months ago (which was strategised by PS Sridharan Pillai) has enhanced their bargaining powers with both the UDF and LDF.
The Jacobites Church that lost around 50 churches due to a Supreme Court order has deeper grievances and have been trying to negotiate with NDA, according to sources.
However, this move is not supported by the entire Church.
Dr Coorilose Gee Varghese, the Metropolitan of Niranam Diocese of Jacobite Church, expressed grave concerns over this move. “The Church leaders should not make such alliances. I do not think the community in general is going to make any gains by aligning with a party that propagates aggressive Hindutva,” he told The Federal.
There are multiple voices within the Christian community, both for and against the BJP. The ‘Sathyanadam’ weekly, the official mouthpiece of Archdiocese Ernakulam of Catholic Church, in a recent editorial, criticised all political alliances – LDF, UDF, and NDA.
While it critiqued the LDF and UDF for their politics, the editorial cautioned against the BJP for having a communal agenda. “When BJP leaders visit churches seeking political support, you should ask them why Stan Swamy is still in jail and why justice is being delayed to the Christians of Kandhamal,” the editorial said.
Fear is evident in the words of Fr Jalson too. “I can call for casting a vote for BJP in my speech at this altar. But will I be able to deliver a speech at all if BJP comes to power,” asked Fr Jalson, pointing at the Altar.
A closer analysis of the present vote share of the BJP, UDF, and LDF makes the picture clearer. The BJP has a vote share of around 20-30 per cent in seven constituencies across central Kerala and it hopes to get more in Pathanamthitta district, where the historical Sabarimala temple is located.
In Chengannur constituency, which has been the focus of the BJP since a couple of decades, former state unit chief Sridharan Pillai had bagged 42,000 votes in 2016 and sustained the same in the 2018 by-election. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the current state BJP chief K. Surendran, who contested from Pathanamthitta constituency, had amassed over 30,000 votes in all the assembly segments and came second in Adoor segment, pushing the UDF candidate to the third place.
The Pathanamthitta parliamentary constituency includes two assembly segments from Kottayam and five from Pathanamthitta district. In the Adoor and Aranmula constituencies, in Pathanamthitta, he had secured over 50,000 votes. Later in 2019, he again contested the by-poll in Konni Assembly constituency (vacated by Adoor Prakash who was elected to the Parliament in 2019) and polled 28.65% votes, but ended up at the third position. This was immediately after the Sabarimala fiasco.
“Whenever BJP gathers its maximum votes, LDF wins,” Fr Jalson and other members of the Parish Council unanimously agreed on this point. Fr Jalson also disclosed that R Balasankar of BJP had visited him and other Church council members a few days ago. Balasankar is acknowledged as the man who played a role in protecting the 800-year-old Cheppadu St George Orthodox Syrian Church from being demolished for the expansion of the National Highway. “But I am not sure how far this would reflect in voting,” said Jalson.
The Kerala Congress (M) headquarters in Pala in Kottayam, is in a celebratory mood. Everyone we met in their office did not conceal their excitement over being the third largest party in LDF. On the contrary, the party insiders are yet to come to terms with this unusual display of benevolence.
“Kerala Congress is a party that does not have any ideological ground, but their only criterion is power. I don’t know how far we can trust them,” said a senior leader while speaking to The Federal. The UDF and Congress in particular is lagging far behind in preparations and campaigning as they have not finalised the candidates.
To conclude, the present scenario is favourable to the LDF in central Kerala. Both the factors – the alliance with KC(M) and BJP expanding its vote share – would facilitate the winning chances of the LDF candidates. However, this is very much amenable to change depending upon the candidates of UDF and BJP and their efficiency in bringing out the fallouts of the government.