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In Kerala, the Church is a crucial political player

Going into the final lap of the Kerala Assembly election campaign, the million-dollar question is whether the Left Democratic Front (LDF) can buck the four-decade-old trend of the electorate voting out the government in the State. Even as pre-election surveys and opinion polls predict a second term for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, the outcome would still depend on many factors, including the polarisation of Christian votes in central Kerala. While pollsters generally tend to take the Christian community as a monolith, or distinguish only between Syrian Christians and Latins, it is important to analyse the historic role played by the Syro-Malabar Church in Kerala politics to establish the root cause of this vote shift.

Switching of loyalties

Syrian Christians, or Saint Thomas Christians, are further divided into the Syro-Malabar Church (Catholics), the Jacobite, Orthodox and Mar Thoma factions of the Malankara Rite, apart from the Protestants. The long-standing dispute between the Jacobite and Orthodox factions had been sought to be capitalised on by both the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kerala for a while, but it is the tectonic shift in the political stance of the numerically strong Syro-Malabar Church which jolted the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) in the preceding local body polls.

The significance of the switching of loyalties of the Syro-Malabar Church needs to be underscored by the fact that it has been a crucial political player in the State right from the 1950s. In fact, the Catholic Church was at the vanguard of the Vimochana Samaram (Liberation Struggle) which felled the first E.M.S. Namboodiripad-led Communist Party of India (CPI) government.

The formation of the Kerala Congress, the Congress breakaway party, in 1964, was the first instance of the Church ditching the Congress in Kerala. But when the Congress split at the national level in 1969 and Youth Congress leaders such as A.K. Antony and Vayalar Ravi assumed leadership of the party with their progressive policies in Kerala, the Church went back to supporting the Kerala Congress. When the Kerala Congress joined the Congress-CPI alliance government led by C. Achutha Menon in 1975 during the Emergency, it backed that government, and its support for Congress has continued since. Even as recently as the tenure of the previous LDF government led by V.S. Achuthanandan, the Church and the CPI(M) were at each other’s throats, with then Education Minister M.A. Baby regularly baiting the Church.

However, some developments during the latter half of the tenure of the Achuthanandan government led to a gradual change in this equation. The Kerala Congress faction led by P.J. Joseph was increasingly getting marginalised in the LDF and the 2008 delimitation exercise saw Malappuram district, the stronghold of the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), getting additional seats. The IUML had been politically isolated in Kerala politics until 1967 when the Left gave it political representation. The party made steady progress in extending its clout.

Post the 2008 delimitation exercise, the Syro-Malabar Church took the initiative to broker a truce between the Kerala Congress factions of K.M. Mani and P.J. Joseph leading to their merger in 2010 to try and ensure parity with the IUML in their political representation in the UDF. However, the Congress refused to concede extra seats to the unified Kerala Congress and the merged party ended up contesting much fewer seats than the IUML in the 2011 Assembly polls. In that close election, the UDF prevailed over the LDF. The IUML, which had a good strike rate compared to other parties, demanded a fifth ministerial position, thereby breaking the power equations prevailing in the UDF. Not only did IUML’s flexing of muscles have an impact on the majority community, it also riled the Church which saw the once dominant Kerala Congress, a party it identified with, being reduced to a small player in the UDF. Nevertheless, as the Congress had the advantage of being in power in New Delhi, it managed to keep things in check for the time being.

Following the Congress’s ouster at the Centre and the UDF’s loss in Kerala in 2016, stray cases of Christian girls running away with their partners to join the Islamic State began to occupy the minds of the clergy and the BJP’s high-pitched ‘love jihad’ campaign began to resonate with the Church during this period. This phase also coincided with a steep fall in prices for rubber, a crop synonymous with the Syrian Christian community in central Kerala, and an increase in Gulf remittances and growing affluence among the Muslim community.

Fear of IUML domination

Meanwhile, the Kerala Congress also came out of the UDF and the ball was set rolling for the party’s LDF entry before the next election. With K.M. Mani’s demise, the official faction was led by Jose K. Mani, his son, and joined forces with the LDF. This brought the Church closer to the Communists. For a long time, K.M. Mani was the Church’s pointsman in the UDF. His demise meant that the UDF no longer had a line of communication open with the Church. The Congress’s tactic to bring Oommen Chandy, hailing from the Orthodox faction, to the forefront in the run-up to the Assembly election had absolutely no impact on the Church whatsoever as Mr. Chandy no longer enjoyed the Church’s trust.

The wresting of three extra seats by the IUML in the UDF, up from 24 in 2016 to 27 in 2021, further raised the hackles of the Church even as the P.J Joseph-led Kerala Congress faction had to settle for just 10 seats. Meanwhile, the LDF was magnanimous in allotting more seats to the Jose K. Mani-led Kerala Congress faction, sending a clear signal to the Church that its representative in the LDF would get decent accommodation.

An article by a key IUML leader in the party organ on Hagia Sophia’s re-opening as a mosque in Turkey and the Congress’s confused response on the issue of reservations for economically weaker sections following IUML’s posturing had exacerbated the Church’s schism with the UDF even before the local body polls. The LDF’s win defying all predictions in those polls was clearly aided by the Christian vote shift away from the UDF in Central Travancore, among other factors.

The Church reckons that it is in its interest to back the LDF this time around. Its fear of IUML dominating the UDF is also parroted by the LDF propagating this theory with abandon. The UDF is the ultimate loser here as any polarisation in its Christian vote will upset its plans of coming back to power. The Congress hasn’t also helped its cause by failing to open a channel of communication with the Church following K.M. Mani’s demise. Unless the laity chooses to defy the Church in large numbers, the UDF will end up paying a heavy price for failing to arrest matters following the setback in the local body polls.

Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post

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Printable version | May 8, 2021 8:01:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-kerala-the-church-is-a-crucial-political-player/article34247853.ece

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