The BJP had no idea that the Sabarimala verdict would turn out to be such a brain-twister.
The party, and its extended family, had no confusion to begin with. The RSS had, back in 2016 itself, said the ban on women of a certain age in Sabarimala was 'improper.' Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi, the RSS sarkaryavah or general secretary, had even sounded a bit amused that such a custom was still in vogue in the country. “When women are allowed in all temples, why are they not allowed here, this is something we must think about,” he had said about Sabarimala in 2016.
When the Supreme Court verdict came on September 28, no other political leader was as circumspect as BJP state president P S Sreedharan Pillai. He was eager to look progressive but since he was unsure how the Hindu community would take it he managed to restrain himself. In the end, he conveyed a sort of neutrality by speaking about female equality and sanctity of faith.
The BJP's ideological sources, notably Bharatheeya Vichara Kendram, also felt that there was nothing sacrilegious in letting women into Sabarimala. The party mouthpiece 'Janmabhoomi' even ran a piece by Vichara Kendra deputy director R Sanjayan that said the verdict would in no way affect the beliefs and customs of the temple. If more evidence for the party's indifference to the issue was needed, have a look at old photographs published in 'Janmabhoomi' of ritual child feeding held at Sabarimala in the presence of women of all ages. The photographs are part of the exhibits the Supreme Court had referred before pronouncing the verdict.
Shock of silence
It was a mystifying sort of silence that finally jolted the BJP in the Sabarimala issue. “There were no Facebook hashtags celebrating the Sabarimala triumph. Even the feminists were generally silent,” a top BJP leader said. By then, in places like Aranmula and Pandalam, women started coming out in large numbers in protest against the Supreme Court verdict.
Community organisations, notably NSS karayogams and local temple protection committees in Pathanamthitta district, played a big role in the silent mobilisation. One of BJP's top state intellectuals, who had publicly supported the entry of women, said he did not expect such a response by the faithful. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, too, acknowledged that women were taking to the streets without any prodding by the Hindu outfits. The Congress, sensing the opportunity, was quick to align with the protesters. In this case, the party could not be accused of opportunism. Its governments had consistently opposed the entry of women.
BJP had no choice but to quickly jettison reason and turn politically wise. The LDF government, especially Pinarayi Vijayan, was promptly cast as the villain. “The chief minister is playing divisive politics by trying to create misunderstanding in Hindu community,” Sreedharan Pillai said. Pillai, who only a few days ago looked keen to be seen as a progressive, is all set to lead a five-day 'Save Sabarimala' march from Pandalam, Ayyappa's birth place, to the secretariat from October 10. Of course, Suresh Bhaiyyaji Joshi was asked to swallow his 2016 words.
Have one's cake and eat it too
To BJP's credit, they changed track without being too apologetic. “Individual members of the party might have different opinions but the party has unitedly formulated a firm stand on the Sabarimala issue. We want both the government and the Devaswom Board to file a review petitions in the Supreme Court,” said M T Ramesh, a general secretary of BJP.
The ideological wing of the party was asked to come up with a sound reason for the seeming volte-face. A delicate political strategy was soon put in place. It was worked out in such a way that the party will not look as if it had usurped a movement that had swelled on its own but still would be seen at the forefront of the struggle. “This is why we insist that the government file a review petition. We want to be seen as working for the faithful, and not as if we are spearheading a movement. At the same time we did not want any other political party, however small or big, leading the movement,” a top BJP intellectual said. A classic case of having one's cake and eating it too. With Pillai's 'Save Sabarimala' march, the party looks likely to pull the seemingly impossible feat off.
From Sabarimala to secretariat
There are many in the party, including its top leadership, who still believe that there is nothing wrong in allowing women into Sabarimala. “But the core committee has come to the conclusion that we have to sympathise with the feelings of the faithful. They might be angry for the wrong reason but still they are angry. They need to be pacified. That is why we have embarked on a peaceful movement to get the government and the board to file a review petition,” the BJP think-tank member said.
The resentment that has been triggered by the Sabarimala verdict could also be used by the party to engineer a larger Hindu mobilisation in the state. “The Sabarimala issue perhaps might not be the right cause to fight for but the sudden eruption of anger over the issue is symptomatic of a deep hurt the Hindu community in the state has been nursing for a long time. The Sabarimala verdict is a small hurt that has caused all the pain accumulated over the years to burst forth,” the leader said.
The BJP's real interest in the Sabarimala issue, therefore, is the party's assumption that the hurt caused by the verdict will make the Hindu community suddenly aware of the older, but far graver, injustices done to it. What these injustices are, the party does not define. It is content with sustaining the perception of injustice.
From Sabarimala to the secretariat is the larger BJP gameplan, though it woke up to the idea a bit late.