The draft law prepared by the Congress in Kerala on Sabarimala reeks of electoral populism. With the state likely to go to assembly polls in April, the Congress evidently wants to win over the “Hindu vote”. The Sabarimala Ayyappa Devotees (Protection of Religious Rituals, Customs and Usages) Act, 2021, mooted by the party on Friday, promises to give legal sanctity to the custom that bars entry of women of a particular age group into the shrine, authority to the chief priest to decide on rituals and practices followed in the temple, and a two-year imprisonment for those who violate them. It is inappropriate for the party to make such promises when a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court is reviewing its own judgment, which had found the custom related to the entry of women to be unconstitutional.
Like most parties, the Congress has performed flip-flops on Sabarimala. Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi initially held that the party stood against customs that were prejudiced against women, but they retreated when the party’s Kerala unit spoke in favour of the status quo. The party actively supported the mobilisations against the 2018 Supreme Court verdict. In the general election that followed, the Congress won 19 of the 20 Lok Sabha seats — its success was attributed to a Hindu consolidation on account of its Sabarimala stance. But the political scenario in the state has changed since. Results of the recent local bodies polls indicate that the ruling Left Front has recovered lost ground. The Congress now seems to think that Sabarimala could help revive its fortunes and force the LDF on the defensive. The promise of a law to protect a custom that is evidently anti-women, however, is a stark reminder of its ever-wavering liberal credentials. In the Shah Bano case (1985), the Congress sided with the conservative view and legislated to overturn a Supreme Court verdict. The party did not benefit from its embrace of conservatives — in fact, its move unleashed a wave of conservatism, which privileged community identities and customs over the republican values and individual rights ingrained in the Constitution. The space for centrist views got restricted and ended up diminishing its own prospects, among others.
That the party has fallen back on an agenda that had run its course also shows a lack of political imagination within the Congress. And shines the light on the path not taken — the party could have made its pitch for office by questioning the LDF’s record and offering a better governance agenda.