More minority ministers spell trouble for Congress in Kerala

The ruling Congress Party in Kerala has stirred a hornet’s nest with its latest move to induct two more ministers from minority communities, taking the total Christian and Muslim ministers to 12 out of 21.

The move has led to the heads of the two main Hindu community organizations to come out openly against the government’s “minority-appeasement” policies.

All the three main constituents of the ruling alliance in Kerala — the Congress Party, the Kerala Congress and the Indian Union Muslim League — are led by leaders belonging to the minority communities, leading to what many Hindu leaders call a over-representation of Christian and Muslim members in the council of ministers.

For example, both the Congress and the Kerala Congress representation in the council are led by Christians. The Congress delegation is led by the chief minister Oommen Chandy himself and the Kerala Congress ministers are led by finance minister KM Mani.

The third partner, the Muslim League — the second largest party in the combine — is led by PK Kunhalikutty, the minister of industry, IT and urban affairs.

The situation has arisen partly because of the demographics of the Congress Party’s own support base and partly because of the choice of its allies.

The two main allies of the Congress — the Kerala Congress and the Muslim League — draw their support primarily from Christians and Muslims, leading to most of their MLAs being from these two communities. As a result, when the slots of ministers were allocated to these allies, most, if not all, went to minorities.

In addition, with the passing away of late K Karunakaran, the Congress party leadership too has come to be seen as dominated by Christian leaders such as Chandy and PC George.

A Hindu Nair leader, Ramesh Chennithala, who was tipped to be the chief minister after the combine won a razon-thin majority in last year’s elections, chose not to join the government, reportedly as he was unhappy about not being offered the chief minister’s seat by the Congress’ central leadership.

The peculiar constitution of the ruling alliance has also led to geographic imbalances in representation. The Muslim League, which gets most of its votes and MLAs from one of Kerala’s 14 districts, has 5 members in the current council of 21 ministers.

Christians and Muslims make up around 20-25% each of the Kerala population, with the remaining 50-55% comprising of the ‘Hindus’ — including dalits, who were kept out of the Hindu fold by traditional Hindu leaders.

The Congress traditionally drew its support from the upper caste (Nair) Hindus, who opposed the egalitarian policies of the main opposition, the Communists. It also commanded an oversized voteshare from the prosperous Syrian Christian community, both independently and through the Kerala Congress alliance. For example, during the last election, 75% of the Syrian Christians reported to have voted for the Congress alliance, according to exit polls.

The new constitution of the council of ministers, with the addition of two more ministers, has led to scathing remarks by the head of the Nair caste association — the Nair Service Society — a traditional ally of the Congress Party.

NSS-chief Sukumaran Nair said the Congress Party has “made a fool of” those who voted for the alliance in the last election. The Nairs are estimated to constitute about 8% of Kerala’s population and constitute the second biggest Hindu vote block. In uncharacteristically blunt comments, he said Ramesh Chennithala has been turned into a “scarecrow.”

The caste-association leader of the biggest Hindu group, the Ezhavas — one of the strongest support base of the Left parties — also jumped into the fray to attack the decision to induct two more minority-community ministers.

“With this, the Congress Party has lost all its credibility and exposed itself as a very low class institution,” Vellapally Natesan, general secretary of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam or SNDP, said. He said the CPI(M) general secretary Pinarayi Vijayan should speak up against the policies of the government.

The BJP, which has the support of around 8-10% of the Kerala population (almost entirely comprised of upper caste Hindu groups) has tried its best to take advantage of the current climate of disaffection in the Hindu community. Besides alleging that the move to induct two more minority-community ministers has “disturbed the communal balance” of Kerala, the party called for a voluntary strike (hartal) in the state capital Trivandrum today.

The hartal, however, was largely a failure as most citizens ignored the city-wide strike-call.

The BJP has been actively trying to stitch-together an alliance between the Ezhavas, who comprise about 25% of Kerala’s population, and the Nairs under its ‘Hindu’ umbrella. But the Ezhavas, who formerly professed Sramanic religions such as Buddhism and Jainism, are loathe to support the aggressive Hindutva ideology of the BJP.

Shaped by the influence of egalitarian and tolerant Sramanic religions, the psyche of the middle and lower caste Hindus in Kerala have so far turned out to be hostile territory for the BJP’s right wing ideologies. The Nair leadership, on the other hand, is loathe to abandon a party with which it has had an equation for almost a century. As such, the BJP has been left with the support of non-Nair upper caste Hindu groups, which make up most of its 8-10% support base.

The BJP, however, is bound to try to take the maximum advantage of the current imbroglio, particularly as the Communist parties consider it beneath their dignity to attack the Congress alliance on grounds such as communal representation.