How a Controversy Over Women Entering This Temple Is Shaping India’s Election

How a Controversy Over Women Entering This Temple Is Shaping India’s Election


By Jeffrey Gettleman and Emma Cott

The results of India’s election will be announced on Thursday, and exit polls indicate that the right-wing populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi will take another five-year term.

Modi is a divisive figure. Critics say his Hindu nationalist politics have pitted Hindus against the country’s Muslim minority, while his base enthusiastically defends his record on the economy and national security.

Our correspondent, Jeffrey Gettleman, traveled to the south Indian state of Kerala, to see how Modi’s party, the B.J.P., is expanding its reach. Kerala is a progressive state, with large communities of Christians and Muslims, and the highest literacy rate in India. It’s one of the least likely places for Hindu nationalist politics to succeed. In fact, Modi’s party has never won a single seat in Parliament from Kerala.

Now, that may be changing.

That’s because Kerala is home to Sabarimala Temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines. In September of last year, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to block women of childbearing age from entering Sabarimala. Traditionally, women ages 10 to 50 have been barred because of the celibate deity, Ayyappa, who is said to live there. The devout believe that fertile women could tempt him.

The Supreme Court decision incensed religious Hindus. They called it an attack on their faith. Modi’s party seized the political opportunity, helping fuel violent protests that lasted for months. They called themselves the party that stands up for tradition, and tried to turn that anger into votes for the B.J.P.

India is a deeply religious country. It is also a secular democracy. These two things are getting harder to square, as the B.J.P. uses the Sabarimala controversy to ride a wave of Hindu nationalism into the most secular parts of the country. If Modi’s party is able to pick up new seats in Parliament from Kerala, it could predict the direction of the entire country.



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