Why Kerala Is So Crucial For Rahul Gandhi And A Diminished Congress

Bright red Che Guevara and hammer-and-sickle flags flutter on the long Calicut beach. In Ermeli on the foothills of Sabarimala, the Vavar masjid sits in age-old co-existence with the Ayyappa temple opposite. Vavar, the Muslim, was known as one of the greatest friends of Ayyappa, the Hindu deity. In Calicut town, lines of devotees file peacefully into twin shrines; some walk to the 14th-century Tali Maha Shiva temple, others towards the 13th-century Muchundi Palli mosque. They don't disturb each other. In Trivandrum city cafes, young Muslim girls in headscarves sip coffee and laugh into mobile phones. Under the aegis of a Communist regime, Kerala is open for business. Spanking new buildings, footbridges and malls reveal a big and visible push for infrastructure.

In Kerala, the Left is business-friendly and supremely electable; religious divisions are blocked by centuries-old community interconnectedness; the Nehru-Gandhis, unlike in other parts, command enormous goodwill. At a time of dominant Hindutva and opposition weakness in most of the country, Kerala is marching to its own tune.

Hindu, Christian, Muslim communities have long co-existed in relatively peaceful equipoise. Kerala has never seen any large-scale communal riots, except in 1971-72 in Thalassery. With 18% Christian, 27% Muslim and 54% Hindus, religious minorities in Kerala are stable, dominant in their regions, and not vulnerable or easily ostracized as the "other." The IUML or Muslim League of Kerala is not a radical marginal outfit; instead, it's a centrist moderate force and its leading lights like CH Mohammad Koya have even served as Kerala Chief Minister. The IUML remains a key alliance partner in the Congress-led UDF coalition contesting 27 seats, and for the first time in 25 years, putting up a woman candidate, Noorbina Rasheed from the Kozhikode South constituency. "There should be women's reservation in both parliament and legislative assemblies. Women's representation is unstoppable, it's only going to increase," Noorbina tells me. Unlike in north India, Kerala's Muslim women are increasingly visible and articulate in public.


Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan

The Muslim League's welfarist, moderate centrism, however, is increasingly being challenged by more radical outfits, like the SDPI and the Welfare Party. MK Muneer, veteran IUML politician contesting this time from Koduvally, says the League's constitutional stance and belief that India social fabric must never be disturbed is under threat from radicalized youth increasingly galvanized by issues like CAA-NRC and attacks on Muslims elsewhere in India and in the world. This even as highly influential Kerala Muslim intellectuals like CT Abdurahim, MN Karassery and others remain staunch secular progressives and give the community a modern identity. "I identify as a Muslim," says Shemim K, a 28-year-old Ph.D scholar, "but I don't believe in mixing religion with politics and will always opt for secular leaders." Kerala's educated, modern and progressive Muslim community, an equal in power-sharing and administration with Hindus, is another feature that underlines the state's distinctiveness.

Another distinctive feature of Kerala is the nature of the Left. In Kerala, the Left is non-doctrinaire and pragmatic. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is enormously popular, a towering personality cult, known for his autocratic yet decisive style. Vijayan has made a strong bid for growth, pushing infrastructure projects, cutting red tape for entrepreneurs and unveiling a digitization programme. He combines the business-friendly approach with welfarist beneficiary economics, distributing food-kits during the lockdown, hiking pensions to Rs 1,600 per month and offering a Rs 1,000 one-time payment to the poor. Kerala is the only state in India where the Left has produced a popular leader, who, although accused of corruption, ideological dilution and subordinating the party to his own persona, is not only electable, but may just with this election end the pattern of incumbent being replaced by the alternative in every election. From Calicut to Trivandrum, posters of Vijayan dot the landscape. Dool News, a lively website run by young team, points to his popularity among youth. Some call Vijayan "Irattachankan" (double-chested or strongman). He is Kerala's own Mr. 56-inch-chest, known to be famously dismissive of the media, occasionally even ordering journalists out of press conferences. Local media have derisively dubbed him "Modi in a mundu."

Another feature that makes Kerala different from other states is the continuing popularity of the Nehru-Gandhis. In the 1977 elections, after the Emergency, the Congress won Kerala. Today, the party is hobbled with factions and a leadership crisis, yet, among fishing communities, already nursing grievances about the LDF's bid (now cancelled) to tie up with a US marine company, there is significant approval of Rahul Gandhi's recent outreach. In 2019, the Congress dominated Kerala's Lok Sabha seats, winning 19 of 20 seats in what local Congress leaders describe as a 'Rahul Wave' and the party is far more organizationally entrenched here than in other states. In the 77-year-old Oomen Chandy, the Congress too has a universally-liked, popular face, although mindful of party factionalism, no leader has been projected as Chief Minister. "This is a do-or-die existential battle for us, who becomes Chief Minister will be decided by the elected MLAs after the results," says Ramesh Chennithala, the leader of the opposition in the state assembly.


Congress leader Rahul Gandhi after the Aikido demonstration during his visit to a college in Kerala 

One reason why the Congress cannot afford another defeat is the spectre of the BJP inching its way forward in the state. In the 2016 assembly election, the BJP gained almost 15 per cent vote share and won its first ever assembly seat from Nemom in Thiruvananthapuram. For the BJP, Kerala has been a last frontier, a state where the RSS has traditionally had a strong shakha presence, but where the party has been unable to break the LDF-UDF duopoly. A senior BJP leader says this time, the party aims to get a 20% vote share and be ready as a contender for power in 2026. "We will wait, our time will come," says the BJP leader. The party's proceeding carefully: it mentions "love jihad" in its manifesto but steers clear of beef bans in a state where beef chilli fry and a glass of toddy is relished across communities.

Among upper-caste Hindus, particularly the Nairs, once the backbone of the Congress-led UDF, the drift towards the BJP is strongly discernible. "We have no problems with the Hindi language as Tamil Nadu does, and for us, Narendra Modi is our leader," say devotees gathered at the Calicut Tali temple. Who would be their preferred Chief Minister? Octogenarian 'Metroman' E Sreedharan gets their unanimous vote.

Yet, while the BJP's vote share in Kerala has been consistently rising since 2011 (from 6% in 2011 to 15% in 2016), Hindus in Kerala are not a monolithic bloc. The dominant Ezhava caste is aligned strongly with the Left (Vijayan is an Ezhava) and still influenced by the egalitarian anti-caste teachings of early 20th-century reformer Narayan Guru. Polarisation is extremely difficult with tightly-knit communities living in proximity, with Christians and Muslims as influential as Hindus. Mixed primary schools have also built powerful and intimate connections between religions. "We simply can't afford communal riots here," says journalist NP Chekutty. "How can I fight with a Muslim or a Christian if I have to borrow money from him tomorrow?"

So while the BJP juggernaut is barreling across states and now poised to make strides in Bengal, in 2021, Kerala could prove to be a bridge too far for the saffron party. This is not to say that Kerala's history of staunchly secular politics will not be re-written in the future. But for the moment, Kerala's unique cultural mosaic makes it a fortress against the BJP's conquering ashwamedha horse. Here, hammer-and-sickle versus the hand remains the primary contest.

(Sagarika Ghose is a senior journalist and author.)

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