KOCHI, India — At the National University of Advanced Legal Studies, students in crisp white shirts and black slacks chat excitedly about politics. Fired up over the upcoming election, in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi and several state representatives are up for re-election, these students will start to vote on April 23. And unlike their counterparts in every other Indian state, youth here say they are predominantly issue-based voters.
This poses a challenge for supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, trying to make inroads here.
“There’s no Hindu political identity in Kerala. Generally, the Hindu political identity is frowned upon,” 21-year-old Ananth Subhalakshmy says with a shake of his head. Indeed, the BJP’s campaign around Hindu Nationalism or hindutva, is unlikely to sway voters in the most religiously diverse state in India. One opinion poll predicts that out of the 20 available seats for members of parliament from Kerala, only one will go to the BJP.
“Religion as a social institution has not seriously influenced the political preference of youngsters in Kerala,” says Sanjose A. Thomas, associate professor of sociology at Sacred Heart College, Thevara, a region within Kochi. “When you take other states of India, the picture is totally different. There again religion dominates as a factor,” he says.
Students here have drawn what Thomas calls a “line of demarcation” between religion and politics, where they’ll prioritize issues such as unemployment, the economy, and corruption over religion.
Since the general elections in 2014, the BJP government has sparked criticism for its increased pressure on religious minorities. The tight relationship between the country’s leadership and Hindu religious figures, and the tendency of those figures to promote extremism, has called into question Modi’s commitment to Muslim and Christian citizens. But because Modi served as chief minister in the northern state of Gujarat until 2014, BJP rhetoric is more tightly associated with northern India, students say.
In many other ways, too, Kerala is touted for its unique place in Indian society. It’s achieved 100 percent literacy. It’s the only state where women outnumber men. And, Thomas says, “Kerala always speaks about, boasts about I would say, its higher education potential,” which has historically caused the state to lean left politically.
For 22 year-old Anandhapadmanabhan Vijayakumar, a self-proclaimed “fence-sitter,” the central issue is job creation. But, he says, “The BJP itself has its own agenda, which probably will have to be discussed anyway. They do contest on a lot of social aspects.”
Vijayakumar is talking about political polarization under the guise of religiously contentious issues. In other words, the BJP is forcing a political conversation — about the marginalization of minorities and secularism in India, particularly — under a religious lens, with the issues of anti-Muslim sentiment and the Supreme Court ruling on Sabarimala. (In the latter case, police officers escorted two women of menstruating age into the famous temple in Kerala for the first time, to heated protests from both sides of the debate.)
For instance, some young BJP-supporters, like Subhalakshmy and 22-year-old Mukesh M., come from Hindu families but don’t identify as particularly religious. They’re not casting their ballots in favor of a Hindu state.
Instead, Mukesh is repelled by what he perceives as left-wing involvement in Indian tradition. And, in reference to Sabarimala, Subhalakshmy said he is put off by a government that encroaches on religious spaces.
“We shouldn’t be using religion to get votes,” another student, Arjun P.K., says. He will be voting for the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI (M), the current government of the state. But still, P.K. says he can agree with the Right on Sabarimala.
“Even I am of the opinion that the judiciary shouldn’t have stepped in the shoes of the legislature. We have a separation of powers under the constitution. And according to the design of the constitution, such a decision was supposed to be taken by the legislature,” he says.
The marginalization of the Muslim community, arguably advocated by the BJP, is another issue that, though not experienced as intensely in Kerala due to its relative intercommunal harmony, may sway voters in the state.
For instance, 18-year-old Nihal Sahu considers the political implications of his vote on his Muslim family and community. “I would prefer a government that doesn’t marginalize me,” he says, making a cynical joke.
Sahu also considers how the BJP stokes fear in Hindus that Muslims will override their interests — in parts of the country other than Kerala, the socioeconomic situation of different religious groups varies. Marginalization aside, Sahu disagrees with BJP policies across the board.
However, Thomas is skeptical that most Keralans are as concerned with marginalization as Sahu.
“Muslims and Christians who are relatively a minority in India as a religion, are in the majority when we take the numerical preponderance of these two communities in Kerala,” he reasons. “We can say it actually keeps them at bay in terms of voting in accordance with religious lines. The very concept of marginalization or even being a minority — such factors do not seriously influence their voting preference.”
This article is part of a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, made possible in part by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the color of the uniforms at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies. The slacks are black.