In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, how did the incumbent LDF’s support for women’s entry into Sabarimala turn the tables for a government that otherwise enjoyed popular support? K. K. Kailash uses survey data to understand the role of religious sentiment in Kerala’s public sphere.
The Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) was mauled in the recently concluded 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Both popular and scholarly opinion appear to agree that the LDF government’s handling of the Sabarimala verdict broke its back.1 However, we do not know why religion causes such a swift and decisive reaction. Here, I attempt to understand why the government action following the verdict could have triggered an outrage which led to the defeat of the ruling LDF.
Voter Satisfaction with Government Performance
To make sense of the mandate, I use evidence from an all-India citizen survey, the CSDS-Lokniti National Election Study, 2019.2 This post-poll survey shows that voters in Kerala were, on the whole, satisfied with the performance of the ruling state government. Notwithstanding the long-standing partisan competition between the two fronts in the state, in figure 1, we can see that even voters of the Congress-led United Democratic Front, LDF’s primary competitor, were satisfied with the incumbent government. Furthermore, despite the barrage of criticism both during and after the August 2018 floods, 8 out of 10 voters were satisfied with the government’s handling of the relief and rehabilitation work. Again, contrary to expectations, in figure 1 we can see that there is bipartisan agreement on this count. Despite the positive appreciation of the government’s handling of a major crisis, as well as general satisfaction with the performance of the government, the ruling front paid a heavy price.
Note: Two (separate) questions were asked, Question 1: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the performance of the ruling state government of Kerala? Question 2: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the rescue, relief and rehabilitation work done by the state government during and after the floods? The response categories were Fully Satisfied (FS), Somewhat Satisfied (SS), Somewhat Dissatisfied(SD) and Fully Dissatisfied (FD). No response was excluded from the analysis. Net Satisfaction was obtained by adding FS and SS subtracting it from the total of SD+FD. The figure can range from -100 to +100, with a positive sign indicating satisfaction and a negative sign indicating dissatisfaction.
After the Sabarimala Judgement
Immediately after the floods, in September 2018, the Supreme Court struck the gavel for the right to equality and the right to worship and allowed women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple. On the temple question, the Kerala government consistently stood its ground on two counts. First, it welcomed the verdict as a victory for women’s rights and argued that the government was committed to ‘equal freedom and opportunities for all sections of people in the society’. Second, the government maintained that it will implement the order as it was not only ‘constitutionally bound’ to do so, but it was also ‘befitting a progressive state like Kerala’.3 Consequently, it made arrangements for the entry of women by increasing facilities and security in the temple.
However, the verdict was not well-received among the devotees who saw it as an affront to their beliefs. The protests against the government’s stand gradually built up, and soon the unrest spread across the state. There were reports of violent incidents, especially in Pathanamthitta district where protesters clashed with the police leading to arrests and detentions. The relentless media coverage of the protests, attempts of women devotees to enter the temple, as well as discussion of the government’s role in ‘facilitating’ visits added fuel to the fire. The government also boxed itself into a corner when it made a distinction between women ‘activists’ and devotees and said that the former could not be assured security.4
So why did Sabarimala hurt the LDF despite its reasonably satisfactory performance on other counts? The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt (2012), a social psychologist, may have an answer. His central thesis is that most people are likely to be driven by intuition rather than reason, especially on matters of morality and religion. Based on findings from ethnography and experimental psychology, he notes that sentiments help people reach conclusions and evaluations such as agree-disagree, good-bad, approve-disapprove, like-dislike almost instantly or automatically. Reason is used only to justify what is already determined by intuition and sentiment. Consequently, logic and analysis are unlikely to persuade and shape people’s beliefs and thoughts if the issue is either a matter of religion or of high morals.
Haidt also distinguishes between three clusters of moral themes. First is the textbook individual-centred system where the concepts like rights, liberty, and justice matter. However, in the other systems, where the individual is not at the centre, the moral concepts are different. Second is the community system, where people believe they are part of a larger community and have an obligation to play assigned roles. Here, values of duty, hierarchy, and respect predominate. Finally, there are systems where divinity matters. Here people believe that they are part of a cosmic order governed by sacred rules. The moral concepts of sanctity and sin, purity and pollution, elevation and degradation undergird this system. The three clusters are not complementary, and what is right in one cluster may be unacceptable in another.
What Turned the Tables? The Role of Religious Sentiments
The Sabarimala temple case was a clash of different moral clusters. On the one hand, Sabarimala devotees follow a strict regime of rules regarding purity and pollution, which includes their diet, bathing and grooming, as well as norms of celibacy and abstinence. The bar on the entry of women between the ages 10-50 years is one among the many such proscriptions supposedly for maintaining the sanctity of the temple. On the other hand, the Court and government spoke the language of rights and liberty.
The government’s attempts to reason it out, portraying the practices of devotees as outdated and patriarchal by relying on moral concepts like rights, equality, liberty and constitutional morality, found no takers in a setting where the ethic of community and divinity dominated. Additionally, the use of police to check the protesters and also facilitate the entry of women worshipers united believers across the political spectrum who feared that the government’s actions were threatening the sanctity of the temple and its order.
It may surprise many that religion matters in Kerala, especially since in discussions pertaining to religion in Kerala, it is often assumed that the early social reform movements, the Communist movement, the dissemination of rationalist and egalitarian ideas and the spread of class-based trade union and peasant movements would have dampened the ardour of religiosity in the state. However, this does not seem to be the case. As in other parts of India, most people in the state of Kerala engage in some form of religious practice (See figure 2). In Kerala, the most sought-after religious practice is offering prayers. While 95% of the respondents claimed to pray, more than 70% among them said that they prayed daily. Visiting a place of worship was the second most popular form of religious practice, with only 8% of them saying that they never did so. Furthermore, close to 90% of the respondents also said they donated money for religious activities.
It is abundantly clear that religiosity is an integral part of the everyday life of people. To debunk it, as in the Sabarimala issue, would hurt the feelings and thoughts of a large section of the society. The survey found that 7 out of 10 voters opposed the decision of the Supreme Court to lift the ban on the entry of women between the ages 10 and 50 into the temple (see figure 3). When voters were asked how satisfied or dissatisfied they were with the Kerala government’s handling of the entry issue after the verdict, 6 out of 10 voters expressed dissatisfaction with the government (see figure 3).
Note: The questions asked were, Question 1: Where do you stand on the Sabarimala temple entry issue? Do you support or oppose the decision of the Supreme Court to lift the ban on the entry of women between ages 10 and 50 into the Sabarimala temple? The response categories were Fully Support (FS), Somewhat Support (SS), Somewhat Oppose (SO), Fully Oppose (FO) and Can’t Say. “Can’t say” and “no response” were not included in the analysis. Net Support was obtained by adding FS and SS subtracting it from the total of SO+FO. Question 2: Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the Kerala government’s handling of the Sabarimala temple entry issue ever since the Supreme Court verdict came out? Response categories and net satisfaction calculation are same as in Figure 1.
Following Haidt’s thesis, we should expect that those who display a greater sense of religiosity should be offended more by the Sabarimala events. To examine this proposition, I look at the relationship between the practice of praying and the Sabarimala verdict. Figure 4 illustrates an association between (a) reported frequency of praying on the part of the respondent and (b) the perception of the respondent towards the Supreme Court’s verdict allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple and the respondent’s impression about the state government’s handling of the temple entry issue after the verdict. Data reveals that among respondents, those who reported that they prayed more were likely to be offended by the Court’s verdict and also be unsatisfied with the government’s handling of the post-verdict situation as compared to those who did not pray or visit places of worship. Furthermore, the frequency of prayer also mattered; respondents who reported a lower frequency of praying were more likely to be satisfied with the action of the government and also support the verdict of the Court.
To test what was illustrated in figure 4, I examine the association between prayer and whether the verdict mattered when voting. Not surprisingly, we get almost similar results as can be seen in figure 5. Here we see that for more than half the respondents who prayed daily, the Sabarimala issue was important when they voted. In sharp contrast, the issue was not significant for more than half the respondents who claimed that they never prayed at all. At the same time, the data reveals not only a relationship between the practice of praying and vote intention but also an association between the periodicity of the practice and whether it mattered when voting.
Note: The question asked was as follows: How important was the Sabarimala temple entry issue for you while deciding who to vote for in the Lok Sabha election —very important, somewhat important, not much important, or not at all important?
I am not making a claim that Sabarimala was responsible for the defeat of the LDF in 2019. I am aware that there could be multiple reasons. My point here is only to show that religious practice could have an impact on political representation even in a state where progressive values are presumed to dominate. The Sabarimala entry issue demonstrated that portraying religious practices as faulty and degrading does not help. As Haidt argued, when social conventions are invested with sanctity, it hides their arbitrariness and makes them appear necessary. Equality and liberty are undoubtedly crucial for a more egalitarian and democratic society. However, in societies where the ethic of divinity matters, it is difficult to push them on an unwilling people. The only way to convince the other is by becoming one with the other.
Political parties are not prisoners of a given social ordering. They are adaptive entities and often draw and redraw boundaries and alter the environment to their advantage. Nirmala (2019), for instance, has shown us that the CPM is already engaged with religious beliefs and activities and has been successful in secularising many practices and customs. This engagement, while avoiding an unpleasant confrontation, may be the best way forward in persuading the believer to accept new moral values and perhaps achieve a more egalitarian society.
- Haidt, Jonathan. 2012. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage.
- Nirmala, V. U. 2019. “Temple as a Site of Contestation: the Left’s Engagement with Hindu Identity Politics in Kerala,” In Left Politics in South Asia: Reframing the Agenda, edited by Ravi Kumar, 271-307. New Delhi: Aakar.
Acknowledgements: I am thankful to the editors of Ala for their observations and comments. I am grateful to Vibha Attri for assistance with the research. The survey data used here was made available by the CSDS-Lokniti Data Unit. Neither the Lokniti network nor the Data Unit bear any responsibility for the analysis and interpretation presented here; only the author is responsible for any errors that remain.
About the author: K. K. Kailash is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is associated with the Lokniti (CSDS) and is also an honorary senior fellow at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism (CMF), Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. His research interests focus on political institutions and governance, elections, coalition politics and processes and issues of federalism in contemporary India. He has published in the Economic and Political Weekly, Studies in Indian Politics, Seminar, India Review, Asian Survey and Contemporary South Asia besides contributing to numerous edited volumes.