As the lines blur between religion and politics, it's a triangular political battle in Kerala's Pathanamthitta district, with Sabarimala at the centrestage. With political parties clueless of which way the votes will sway, people in this constituency 100 km from state capital Thiruvananthapuram are seeing intense campaigns by BJP, Congress and Left candidates.
There are people who would be voting for the parties for the very first time. Then there are others who stand by their party loyalties, despite disagreeing as devotees with the implementation of Supreme Court order that allowed women of all ages to enter Sabarimala.
Then, there are those who welcome the order on grounds of equality - but have varied political orientations, ranging from Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) to CPM-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).
"I believe in equality. And if men can enter Sabarimala, why can't women? I think Congress will be a good alternative in the centre," a Sabarimala devotee Ariya said.
The Congress had challenged the Supreme Court's order.
Veena, a student and first-time voter, feels differently. "I think Sabarimala is the most important issue. I am a devotee. Around 90 per cent of women in Kerala are devotees and they are against the Supreme Court's order and the decision of the state government is just not right."
In her 70s, Rohini Amma said, "I will vote for BJP because of the Sabarimala issue. I used to vote for the Left earlier."
Around 30 kilometres away, Ramani Amma in her 60s said, "LDF will win. Veena George will win. Sabarimala has nothing to do with this election. The chief minister only implemented the Supreme Court's order."
In Pathanamthitta constituency, BJP candidate K Surendran's election campaign is drawing huge crowds. People involved in BJP's election strategy say since the Sabarimala controversy, the party has seen an unparalleled rise in its booth level workers.
Mr Surendran has 245 police cases registered against him. All these cases are related to violence seen at Sabarimala and attempts to stop entry of women below the age of 50. These protests in and around Sabarimala has catapulted Mr Surendran's fame by manifold. "Ayyappa Sharanam" slogans are loud and intentional.
Responding to questions against him, Mr Surendran said, "Yes, it is a Supreme Court decision. All that is ok but the way the Left government has handled this is not ok. And you can see the love, support and prayers I am getting. In one day the Left government filed 245 cases against me. What violence are you talking about? It's our faith."
"Sabarimala is a crucial issue for us. There are other development issues like drinking water, but Sabarimala can't be ignored," Mr Surendran said.
During his election campaign, he told supporters, "I lost assembly elections in north Kerala by just 89 votes. Left cross-voted against me, in favour of UDF. You all must be vigilant to ensure this doesn't happen. Don't let Pathanamthitta slip into anyone else's hands."
Dodging the question of BJP making inroads, two-time Congress parliamentarian Anto Antony said he was confident of winning again. "BJP is trying to communalise this election. This has never happened in this constituency, but I think people will not accept their strategy. LDF is always with atheists. We always stand with believers and we respect that. Former Congress chief ministers' affidavit protected the interests of believers, but it is the Left that changed it."
An elderly woman quipped at a roadshow of Anto Antony. "He has never come here before. He has come here now to ask for votes," she said. Mr Antony responded, "This is a Left campaign against me. I am born and brought up in this constituency. I live here. I spend 16-17 hours every day in my constituency. These are false allegations."
The Left has fielded Veena George, a legislator and former journalist. She first contested in the last assembly elections and won, and this is her second election. Also, this constituency is a high prestige battle for the Pinarayi Vijayan government.
Alleging incompetence of the Congress lawmaker, Veena George said, "This election is not about Sabarimala. People require development. In the last 10 years, nothing has been done. No national highway, no national institute. Needs of our farmers have not been met."
"BJP is trying to spread communalism. They are trying to do what they have done in Gujarat. People here won't fall for the BJP-RSS trap. They will uphold democratic secular values. Recent bypoll results are in favour of LDF," she said.
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