The Kerala Left Front government’s decision to cut short the tenure of Travancore Devaswom Board president Prayar Gopalakrishnan was largely overshadowed in the wake of the controversy leading to the resignation of a third minister from the Pinarayi Vijayan Cabinet in just three-and-a-half years. Businessman-transport minister Thomas Chandy, representing Sharad Pawar’s NCP, sent in his resignation letter through the state party president after almost three months of open defiance, allegedly with tacit support from the Chief Minister. Through his resignation, Chandy has made sure that there is not an iota of credibility left in the ruling Left Front. By prolonging his departure, Chandy, accused of encroaching on government land, has also widened the divide between the two major constituents of the Front, CPM and CPI, now indulging in a slanging match publicly. All the four CPI ministers had stayed away from a crucial Cabinet meeting in protest against Chandy’s presence at the meet, just an hour before the formal announcement of his resignation. Still insisting that he has not resigned, but is just stepping aside, Chandy rode in his ministerial vehicle, with police escort to boot, to his home town of Alappuzha, leaving behind a trail of controversies and a Chief Minister to salvage his tattered image of a strongman. The exit of Chandy, after a series of ignominious attempts to cling on to power with the help of CPM will be considered the most shameful episode in the history of Left Front governments in the state.
Even as the controversy over the minister’s land grab was raging, the state government through a hurriedly passed ordinance reduced the term of Travancore Devaswom board president and a member from the prevailing three years to two. This was done a day before the president, Prayar Gopalakrishnan, and member, Ajay Tharayil, both nominees of the previous UDF government, completed two years in office. The decision, though not unexpected given the stand-off between Gopalakrishnan and Pinarayi Vijayan, surprised many as it came just six days before the prestigious annual Sabarimala pilgrimage—Mandala Makara Vilakku—was set to begin. State Governor P. Sathasivam, who had sought an explanation following objections raised by BJP and Congress, finally signed the ordinance, following assurance from the government that it would not affect preparations for the Sabarimala festival. Devaswom minister Kadakampally Surendran had informed the Governor that the decision to cut the term of the TDB was “based on detailed consultations and after ensuring its legal sanctity”. Setting aside the legality of such a move, it was clear that the government wanted its own people at the helm of the board on such an important occasion. The new president, former CPM MLA A. Padmakumar is the vice chairman of the Kerala Cooperative Deposit Guarantee Board, and the member, K.P. Sankaradas is a leader of the AITUC, the trade union wing of the CPI.
Of the four devaswoms—Guruvayur, Travancore, Malabar and Cochin—that control most of the temples in the state, TDB is the richest, with over 1,200 temples under its administration. Sabarimala is its main income source, with over Rs 100 crore alone coming from there during the festive season. Other renowned temples under its jurisdiction include the famed Mahadevar temples at Ettumanoor and Vaikom in central Kerala. Temples are not the only source of income; there are many money-spinning colleges too under these boards. Every political party that comes to power wants a share of the pie. Now too the reason given for the change are allegations of corruption in TDB, with the government planning a vigilance inquiry into these charges. CPM, a known atheist party, softened its stance when it comes to temples and gods only after its cadre started joining BJP in north Kerala. “The party does not bar people with religious belief joining, but they should not let their faith intrude into the affairs of the state,” chief theorist of the party, Prakash Karat had once stated. However the dichotomy regarding visit to temples still haunts the party. Only in September, minister Surendran came under criticism from the party for making offerings at the Guruvayur Sreekrishna temple on Ashtami Rohini day. But on the same Krishna Jayanthi day, CPM had taken out shoba yatras all over its stronghold Kannur, to counter BJP processions.
The Left Front government’s decisions regarding temples are considered more political than devotional. As soon as it came to power in May 2016, the same minister had accused Hindu bodies of misusing temple premises and threatened to ban RSS shakhas from practising there. Though it still remains a threat, the ruling CPM has not missed out any chance to take control of places of Hindu worship. Even now the government is in the thick of a controversy regarding the takeover of the Guruvayur Parthasarathy temple in Thrissur by the Malabar Devaswom Board. While the CPM contends that such moves are undertaken to weed out corruption prevalent in those temples, the BJP says the government move is “against communal harmony and the Constitution”. Prayar Gopalakrishnan had been at odds with the Left Front over entry of women in Sabarimala, a move the government plans to pursue. But his removal is seen more as an attempt by CPM to tighten its grip over the purses of lucrative temples than for any good of their administration. This Sabarimala season will also be no different when it comes to improved facilities for millions of devotees who throng there.