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Amit Shah’s jibe on Rahul Gandhi’s dress and the row over him meeting a radical Catholic priest in Kanyakumari indicate how the BJP will try to counter the Bharat Jodo yatra.

Rahul Gandhi’s choice of Kanyakumari as the starting point for his yatra is symbolic in several ways. Kashmir to Kanyakumari is how India is described so his yatra had to start here. But Kanyakumari is also the only place in Tamil Nadu and among the diminished number of areas nationwide where the Congress and the BJP are the two principal contenders for election wins.

Kanyakumari is the only place in Tamil Nadu that figures in the Bharat Jodo map. Rahul is not even going to Sriperumbudur where his father was assassinated, for which Congress ally, the DMK, had drawn much flak, politically.

The Congress continues to be a strong force in at least three of the six assembly constituencies in Kanyakumari district. In the past, the Congress was the dominant force here and its principal challenger was the CPM. Kanyakumari politically rehabilitated Kamaraj by electing him to Lok Sabha in 1969 and 1971 even as the DMK-Congress (I) alliance swept that election. Kamaraj was the only Congress (O) candidate who was elected in the state.

Rahul Gandhi’s choice of Kanyakumari as the starting point for his yatra is symbolic in several ways. Kashmir to Kanyakumari is how India is described so his yatra had to start here

But even as Christianity grew and currently has the most adherents than any other religion in that district, the BJP has been able to build a Hindu vote on Christian growth. Nadars, the dominant community in the district, are almost split vertically on Hindu-Christian and political lines. Though caste still rides over other factors and Hindi-Christian Nadar weddings are not uncommon, the RSS has been able to put together a strong base in the Nadar community as well.

With the CPM declining, the Congress continues to be an important player in a district where Dravidianism has never struck roots. The Congress base contains a substantial Christian component.

By all accounts, Rahul’s visit served to energize his party here and enthused others. At the kickoff of the Bharat Jodo yatra, he met a range of people – common folk, Congress workers, social activists and others. S P Udayakumar, who spearheaded the agitation against Koodangulam nuclear plant that came up almost entirely due to the efforts of Congress governments in the Center, enthusiastically met Rahul Gandhi.

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The Congress party had pulled out all stops to make the campaign a success. Journalists were taken by train and plane to ensure media coverage. George Ponnaiah, a Catholic priest who has associated himself with the Congress party, met with Rahul Gandhi along with many others.

George Ponnaiah, a Catholic priest who has associated himself with the Congress party, met with Rahul Gandhi along with many others (Photo credit: @shehzad_ind Twitter page)

It is not known if Rahul knew that Ponnaiah has freely articulated radical, Christian fundamentalist viewpoints. But, as the video of the meeting went viral, Ponnaiah’s record has become a tool for the BJP to run down the Bharat Jodo yatra. Its supporters have poured vitriol even as national media and television picked up on the company Rahul was keeping.

Ponnaiah was arrested last year and lodged in Palayamkottai prison for a jibe against local BJP MLA M R Gandhi not wearing footwear. Gandhi has said that he doesn’t wear footwear since he doesn’t want to step on the soil of Bharat Mata. Ponnaiah caustically told a religious gathering that the soil of Bharat Mata was unhealthy and can cause diseases so footwear was necessary. He also attacked Modi and Amit Shah. Even the DMK was not spared. Ponnaiah has been critical of the state government’s initiatives in maintenance of Hindu temples.

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When Ponnaiah got bail, a good crowd of hundreds of supporters was at the Palaymkottai jail to receive. This was an indication that Ponnaiah did have backers for his radical ideas and that Kanyakumari politics has become highly polarized on religious-political lines.

With the CPM declining, the Congress continues to be an important player in a district where Dravidianism has never struck roots. The Congress base contains a substantial Christian component

Sections of print and television media have played along. Channel reporters have taken the line that Ponnaiah has a record of being anti-national. In the video of the meeting, Rahul seems to be earnestly asking spiritual questions to the priest, as a genuine seeker. But the BJP played it up as per its playbook, questioning or at least devaluing Rahul Gandhi’s Indianness and nationalism. The yatra will be closely watched and the BJP will be waiting to turn any misstep, real or imagined, to prevent Rahul Gandhi from gaining momentum.

While Arvind Kejriwal has refused to engage the BJP on its Hindutva turf, the Congress has portrayed itself as the non-BJP party strongly in recent times. While Kejriwal has championed the chanting of Hanuman Chalisa, the Congress has directly taken on Hindutva to put together a coalition of liberal, secular minded Hindus as well as minorities besides others. And the BJP will certainly seek to paint the Bharat Jodo yatra as western, anti-Hindu and therefore anti-national.


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