Kerala: Moulavi case verdict deals a blow to CPI(M)’s efforts to woo Muslim voters

UDF or LDF? Are Muslim voters in the state facing a dilemma?

[FILE] An anti-CAA rally organised by various Muslim organisations in Kochi [FILE] An anti-CAA rally organised by various Muslim organisations in Kochi

On March 17, 2017, Mohammed Riyas Moulavi, a 34-year-old madrasa teacher from Choori near Kasaragod was found dead in his room within the modest confines of Muhayuddin Juma Masjid of Choori, where he had sought solace to sleep. Allegedly, close to midnight, a gang entered the mosque compound and slit his throat.

Pinarayi Vijayan’s first government in Kerala was less than a year old when this murder occurred, and his party had not yet devised its carefully planned social engineering strategy, which focused on attracting more votes from minorities, ensuring his re-election to power in the 2021 assembly elections. The murder was initially investigated by the Kasaragod DCP and later by a special investigation team of Kerala Police. Three accused— Akhilesh, Nidhin, and Ajesh, all allegedly associated with RSS—were arrested and spent seven years in jail without bail.

On March 31, the Kasaragod Principal Sessions Court pronounced the verdict, shocking Moulavi's kin and the community. The court acquitted all three accused. It observed that the prosecution's case rested on the premise that all three shared a common motive—hatred against the Muslim community—leading to the murder. However, the court acquitted them, stating that the alleged motive remained unproven by the prosecution, causing the foundation of the case to collapse.

"It can be safely concluded that the investigation is not up to the standard and one-sided. So, the accused are entitled to the benefit of doubt," the court said in its judgment.

Political observers suggest that the verdict has dealt an unexpected blow to CPI(M)'s election strategies to attract Muslim minority votes, especially from northern Kerala, in the upcoming elections.

"There were major failures from the state government in conducting a proper investigation, and the prosecution failed," says Adv Adeeb Salah, a political observer from northern Kerala. "The prosecution even failed to prove the motive. The state should have approached it with proper concern. It was the state's lack of diligence that resulted in the failure of the prosecution."

Each vote holds significance for the CPI(M) in the upcoming elections, as the party teeters on the brink of losing its national party status. Furthermore, with the Kerala chief minister presenting himself as a champion of Muslim minority, the Moulavi case introduced a major twist in the plot.

Eye on vote patterns

In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the Congress-led UDF secured victory in all but one of the 20 constituencies in the southern state. A significant factor contributing to this landslide victory was the consolidation of Christian and Muslim votes, along with those of forward caste Hindus, in favour of the UDF. Sabarimala issue and Rahul Gandhi’s candidature in Wayanad were cited as some of the major factors for the UDF success. Along with that, a strong anti-BJP sentiment leading to minority consolidation also contributed to their landslide victory. According to a CSDS-Lokniti Post-Poll Survey, in 2019, 65 per cent of Muslim votes and 70 per cent of Christian votes went to the UDF, while the LDF only garnered 28 per cent of Muslim votes and 24 per cent of Christian votes. However, in the 2021 assembly elections, the tide turned in favour of Vijayan and his party.

In 2021, Vijayan managed to attract more votes from the Ezhava community, other OBCs, SCs, Muslims, and Christians compared to the 2016 assembly polls. The post-poll survey data from Lokniti-CSDS revealed that nearly two-fifths (39 per cent) of Muslims and Christians voted for the LDF in 2021, whereas the UDF received 58 per cent support among Muslims and 57 per cent support among Christians. However, there was a considerable decline in support from minority communities for the UDF compared to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

It was in the post-2019 debacle phase that the red party put in place its please-all strategy. During this phase, Vijayan successfully portrayed himself as a defender of Muslims on the national stage during anti-CAA protests, while simultaneously accusing the Congress-led UDF of appeasing extremist Muslim factions. The party recognized the growing divide between Christian and Muslim minorities on various issues. The UDF's tactical alliance with the political wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, the Welfare Party of India, during the 2020 local body polls, facilitated CPI(M)'s efforts. Additionally, the CPI(M) successfully brought the Kerala Congress (Mani), which primarily represents Christian interests in Central Travancore, into the LDF fold. The party also made significant inroads into IUML strongholds in Malappuram district by fielding ex-IUML leaders as candidates. These strategies, coupled with broader social engineering techniques and the memories of the flood and Covid phase, worked in favour of the CPI(M) in the 2021 assembly elections.

In recent years, political analysts like Hameed Chendamangalloor have noted a trend of "succumbing to the pressures of religious landlords". He noted that this trend, particularly notorious during the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) government's tenures, has become prevalent within the LDF governments under Pinarayi Vijayan, too.

In an interview with a national daily in 2023, Chendamangalloor remarked, "Instead of approaching issues from a secular standpoint, Kerala’s political parties are increasingly adopting a religio-communal perspective". He cited the sabotage of the proposal for gender-neutral uniforms and the hindrance of the Kudumbashree campaign for gender equality by the present LDF government as prime examples of this shift.

A mega 'national' seminar against the Uniform Civil Code, inaugurated by party's general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, and attended by over 15,000 people, last July, became a vivid illustration of this trend. It marked the first instance of any political party organizing such a large-scale gathering since Prime Minister Modi reignited discussions about the UCC in June 2023. When announcing the seminar, the party's state secretary, M.V. Govindan, stated that they would invite the orthodox Muslim scholarly body, Samastha Kerala Jam-Iyyathul Ulema, which holds the largest support base among Kerala Muslims and is backed by the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), the second-largest party in the UDF.

The CPI(M) later extended an invitation to the IUML as well for the seminar. Since December 2022, the CPI(M) has taken several actions that were interpreted as attempts to woo the IUML into joining the LDF. Interestingly, when the CPI(M) conducted the anti-UCC seminar, it did not extend invitations to any women's organizations or progressive organizations from minority communities that work towards reforms in personal laws. V.P. Suhara, a social activist based in Kozhikode and founder of NISA—an organization advocating for the rights of Muslim women since 1997—shared with THE WEEK back then that the CPI(M) did not invite her or any other women activists, as “such an invitation would be detrimental to their chances of securing the support and votes of orthodox organizations”.

Later in November 2023, the CPI(M) held a massive pro-Palestine rally in Kozhikode. Similar to the anti-UCC programme, the CPI(M) invited Samastha Kerala Jem-iyyathul Ulema as well as the Kerala Muslim Jamaath and Mujahid factions to the event. The invitation was also extended to the IUML, but they declined it—like they had done with the anti-UCC protest—citing technical reasons.

Since last year, a rift between the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and a section of EK Samastha has been under public scrutiny. Observers note a perception that the CPI(M) is attempting to exploit this division. In the upcoming elections, the party is fielding K.S. Hamza, a former Muslim League state secretary who enjoys the backing of a section in Samastha, as its Ponnani candidate. However, it remains to be seen how much influence the pro-CPI(M) section in Samastha wields.

Observers like Salah see a similar move in Pinarayi Vijayan and his party's efforts to court the dominant and orthodox sections of the Muslim community by making the Union government's notification of the Citizenship Amendment Act a dominant political issue in the Lok Sabha election campaign. Interestingly, in early March, the chief minister announced that “CAA will not be implemented in Kerala”. Since then, he has reiterated this stance on multiple occasions.

However, observers like Chendamangalloor do not believe this will translate into votes. “Does the CPI(M) think that leaders of all these Muslim organizations are fools? CAA is already a central rule, how can the Kerala government just say that it will not be implemented in Kerala? How can they make such a claim? All of this is just an eyewash in front of the people,” he says.

Trust issues and dilemma

In the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, the CPI(M) is fielding four Muslim candidates, way more than the Congress and the BJP. In 2019, A.M. Arif was the sole Muslim contestant on the party symbol and the only LDF candidate to win the polls. Political observers note that the CPI(M) has indeed made serious efforts to gain traction among minority voters. However, they still predict a more favorable outcome for the UDF.

Chendamangalloor observes that the Congress party and the UDF remain the only viable option for minorities in Kerala. “In the past, the CPI(M) may have had more presence nationwide. But it is now a party with influence only in Kerala. Muslim organizations also know this well,” he says.

Author and political analyst M.N. Karassery observes that there will likely be some differences in voting patterns this time. “All different sections of Muslims voted for the UDF in 2019,” he says. “Which means not only cadres of Muslim League, but sections like AP Sunni, EK Sunni, Mujahid, Jamaat-i-Islami, Welfare Party, and the SDPI. That is why the UDF won 19 seats last time. There are many other factors, too. But there was a consolidation of Muslim votes in favor of the UDF. This was because there was an expectation that Modi would lose and Rahul Gandhi would become the prime minister. Even Muslim League leader P.K. Kunjalikutty contested in that election because he expected to become a union minister. However, this time, it is not that easy for that Muslim vote consolidation to happen. A vast majority still wants to see the defeat of Modi. However, the expectation about Congress party's performance is not as high as last time. Which makes things complicated,” he notes.

The absence of high expectations about the Congress or its leader Rahul Gandhi makes things unpredictable, according to Karassery. “For instance, in Wayanad constituency, a section of people who are opposing Modi will face the dilemma of whether they should vote for Rahul Gandhi or CPI national leader Annie Raja. It is not easy to answer that question,” he says.

Karassery adds that the factors adding to this dilemma include some of the inconsistencies that minorities observe in the attitude of the Pinarayi Vijayan’s government. “The LDF made so much noise against the CAA, but cases filed against anti-CAA protesters remained all this while. There is no clarity about what the LDF will do when it comes to the case of the national register of citizens. Also, doubt about whether there is an adjustment between the BJP and the state government exists. The failure of the prosecution in the Maulavi case strengthens that doubt. In fact, I do not think the honorable chief minister has earned the trust of Muslim sections in Kerala. So, the picture is not clear for the CPI(M) either. It is not going to be a unilateral Muslim vote consolidation for the UDF, but even then, we cannot say as of now how much will go to LDF either. Because the nonpartisan Muslim voters are facing a dilemma.”

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