How Kerala BJP is milking Ganesha row to divide electorate on communal lines
On November 5, 2018, the then BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai, while addressing the Yuva Morcha activists in Kozhikode made a statement that effectively captured the essence of the ‘Sabarimala protest’. This protest, which was against the entry of women into the holy shrine, was led by activists from the Sangh Parivar group and supported by other Hindus, including Congress members.
The Sabarimala issue is a ‘golden opportunity’ for the party, Pillai had said, going on to add that the BJP has set the agenda for Sabarimala and others have to surrender before that agenda.
Despite perceiving a favourable opening in the Sabarimala issue to gain electoral support in Kerala during the 2019 general elections, the BJP was unable to convert this opportunity into significant votes. Instead, the Congress benefited from the protest, which came at the expense of the LDF. Riding on a politically determined minority consolidation and boosted by Rahul Gandhi’s candidacy in Wayanad, the Congress-led UDF achieved an unprecedented victory, securing 19 seats, while the ruling LDF only managed to secure one seat.
Now with the 2024 elections round the corner, the BJP is eyeing yet another golden opportunity in assembly speaker A N Shamseer’s speech on scientific temper, with an anecdotal reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of head transplantation in the case of Lord Ganesha. As some right-wing Hindu outfits created a huge furore after the speaker’s remarks alleging that he had ridiculed Hindu belief and Lord Ganapathy, the BJP is now diving in to strategise to magnify the issue to a greater extent.
K Surendran, BJP state president said, “Bharatiya Janata Yuvamorcha will take out an assembly march on August 8 demanding an apology from the speaker and the VHP has announced protest marches to the devaswon boards on August 9. Apart from this, BJP will hold a prayer demonstration in front of the state secretariat on August 10.”
From the day the speaker A N Shamseer made this comment, BJP has been working overtime to pit Hindu organisations against him. Their attempts have worked as they effectively rallied the Nair Service Society (NSS) to organise a prayer protest at Ganapati temples. But the NSS suddenly dragged their feet, retracting from their initially announced protests and have decided to pursue legal action against the speaker, if the government fails to take action in response to their demands.
The Congress also had sensed a Sabarimala like opportunity at first and rallied behind the NSS leadership issuing statements against the speaker. However, they eventually recognised that Sangh Parivar would end up reaping the benefits. Despite their leaders urging the speaker to retract the statement, they were not too enthusiastic to get into the specifics.
“We won’t exploit this as a chance to secure votes, but we stand in solidarity with the worshippers. The speaker’s comment was inappropriate, and it would be advisable for him to retract it,” said V D Satheesan, the leader of Opposition.
CPI(M) had initially put its whole weight behind A N Shamseer, asserting that he shouldn’t retract his statement. However, they later adopted a more moderate stance in their language. The party subsequently clarified that the speaker had never characterised Ganapathi as a myth.
Now it seems the Hindutva bandwagon is the sole entity actively mobilising its assets on the ground along communal lines against the incumbent CPI(M) administration and its representative, A N Shamseer, the assembly speaker, who happens to be a Muslim by birth.
The upcoming series of protests scheduled in Thiruvananthapuram are perceived as a last-ditch attempt by the saffron outfit to divide the electorate along religious lines, portraying A N Shamseer as an adversary of the Hindu community.
A senior CPI(M) leader told The Federal that everyone knows the BJP’s ploy and it’s not going to work in Kerala.
“Shamseer is not the first one to criticise the saffronisation of education and the unscientific rants of our Prime Minister. As Shamseer has a Muslim background it suits their agenda, and they are going hammer and tongs after him. They have been training their guns against him, minister Mohammed Riyas and Rajya Sabha MP, A A Rahim for quite some time. K Surendran’s derogatory remarks on the assembly speaker is the latest of it,” he said.
The central committee of the CPI(M) has expressed its solidarity with Shamseer and has decided not to engage in discussions on the topic as it could easily take on a communal angle.
Congress and Tharoor
The Congress, meanwhile, is observing the situation as it unfolds. They are waiting to see if this episode will cause a dent in the CPI(M)’s Hindu voter base, and whether that will work in favour of the BJP or the Congress.
In this context it should be noted that, Shashi Tharoor’s view on Lord Ganapathy is similar to what Shamseer had professed. Though Tharoor had shared his viewpoint around eight years ago, the Congress leader now however said that his critique was reasonable back then given his own faith in Ganapathy. But he does not think Shamseer should criticise something he does not have faith in.
Kerala BJP alters its stance
While BJP has employed a clear Hindutva stance and anti-Muslim rhetoric in northern states, it has shied away from adopting a similar approach in Kerala. Even though the core Hindutva ideology remains constant, with accusations directed at the CPI(M) and Congress for catering to minority interests, the BJP in Kerala has been avoiding an overt display of this position. This is in contrast to their strategy in other parts of the nation.
However, for the first time, the Kerala BJP is now trying to encash on anti-Muslim sentiments by taking out protests against the assembly speaker dubbing him as an Islamist apologist. Even when they took to the streets with the Sabarimala protests, it was against the government in the wake of a Supreme Court order. On this occasion, their demonstration was singularly targeted at Shamseer, highlighting his alleged act of not only making disparaging comments about Lord Ganapathy but also extolling Islam, his own faith.
“Does he possess the boldness to confront Allah, similar to how he confronted the Hindu deities?” challenged Surendran during a press briefing. The state president of the BJP further stated that not only would his hands be severed, but his head as well if he did. Not a single BJP leader failed to mention that Shamseer is a practising Muslim in their speeches during the last two weeks.
This time the BJP is keen that the protests be carried out in the banner of Hindu organisations which are part of the Sangh Parivar. According to Viji Thampi, who is the state president of the VHP, they are planning to host an event at Thiruvananthapuram, with participants from various spiritual institutions, including Mata Amritanandamayi Math and other notable community figures to chalk out their plan of action to move forward.
“During the Sabarimala protests, we did all the hard work and others reaped its dividend,” said Surendran, adding that ‘this time that should not happen’.
K Surendran’s statement indicated that the party recognised their failure in 2019 despite investing considerable effort following the Sabarimala controversy. It has become clear that the Hindu nationalist party’s key strategy in Kerala will now involve employing anti-Muslim rhetoric. This shift in approach comes in the wake of their unsuccessful attempts to gain support from the Christian community following the Manipur riots.
With the general elections round the corner, the fault lines seem to be well drawn in Kerala, but this time it does not have a political but a communal character. Nevertheless, certain political analysts speculate that the BJP may not achieve significant success, and the CPI(M)-led LDF may not suffer a severe setback as they had in the 2019 elections.
This is because the current issue holds less weight in comparison to the Sabarimala protests. Furthermore, the Muslim minority community is not as estranged from the ruling front due to various factors.