The Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) is a unique experiment in the Indian state of Kerala which had a Muslim party – Indian Union Muslim League (IUML), a Christian party – Kerala Congress, and a ‘secular’ party – Indian National Congress. The unique experiment was conducted in the late 1970s when the Christian and Muslims united to end the domination of ‘atheist’ Communist parties.
This unique alliance succeeded in ending the domination of Communist parties in Kerala and gave the state three chief ministers namely – K Karunakaran, A K Antony, and Oommen Chandy. Since the 1980s, the alliance has mostly switched power with the Communist Party’s Left Democratic Front. However, an event in Turkey broke this almost four-decade-long alliance and led to a humiliating loss of the Congress-led LDF in the recently concluded Kerala local elections.
When the Turkish President Erdogan decided to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, this divided to Christians and Muslims of Kerala because the structure was the seat of power of Eastern Orthodox church for hundreds of years. While the Indian Union Muslim League came out in open support of the conversion of the structure into a mosque, the Christain community and their representative, Kerala Congress (Mani) opposed it.
The Jose K Mani led Kerala Congress (Mani) switched allegiances from the United Democratic Front (UDF) to Left Democratic Front (LDF). Moreover, the Christian community, which used to vote in large numbers for the UDF, voted for the LDF en masse in the 2020 Local Body Elections, as the community was not happy with the takeover of the former by the Muslim league.
Panakkad Sadiq Ali Shihab Thangal- a senior leader of the Muslim League in Kerala – the second largest partner in UDF, in an article on Hagia Sophia titled ‘The Friday Prayer at Ayasofya’ on July 24, published in the party daily ‘Chandrika’, said, “Many European countries, which have opposed Turkey’s decision on Hagia Sophia, have not allowed Muslims the right to offer namaz. When all contemporary Christian religious and political leaders disagree with the conversion, they do not make any stake over its ownership realising that historically there is no ground for such a demand.”
“Turkey President Tayyip Erdogan, who is raising his voice in the international community for the systematically-oppressed Muslims across the world, has been attacked under the guise of pseudo-secularism,” added Sadiq Ali, who is a part of the IUML’s high power committee and also a prominent member of the Malappuram-based Panakkad family, which has a considerable stake in Kerala politics.
Moreover, the Catholic Church, which stood behind the Congress party and UDF for so long, openly criticised the article and even gave subtle hints to the Christian community to switch allegiances to the other block.
“Before glorifying the encroachment of Hagia Sophia Church, Muslim League leader Sadiq Ali should have learned history. To justify Erdogan would be a liability of political Islamists in Kerala. That should not be at the cost of endangering the future of Indian secular democracy and peaceful co-existence of religions. There is danger in unilaterally interpreting history,” said the Kerala Bishop Council in a statement.
The CPM leaders were quick to paint the Congress and UDF as communal to ensure that the Kerala Hindus, as well as the Christians, vote for the party in large numbers. Kodiyeri Balakrishnan, its politburo member and then state secretary asked in a Facebook post, “How the Muslim League can now oppose the BJP government’s move to construct a Ram temple where a mosque once stood.”
“Jamaat-e-Islami is an organisation which supports the Turkey government. With the Muslim League leader hailing the conversion of Sophia Hagia into a mosque, the link between Muslim League and Jamaat-e-Islami has come to the fore. Congress has decided to ally with Welfare Party, the political wing of Jamaat-e-Islami and Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), the political wing of Popular Front of India. What is the stand of Congress towards the Muslim League approach of acknowledging the act of Turkey ruler?” he asked.
Even after the election victory, the CPM had not softened stance against Congress. Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan recently said that the Muslim League is making decisions for the Congress Party. “Has the League become a centre for commenting on the internal affairs of the Congress and deciding who should lead the Congress?” he wrote in a Facebook post.
Now the Congress Party has been reduced to a representative of the Muslims in Kerala, and the LDF, as well as BJP, are trying to woo the Hindu and Christian voters. BJP won many gram panchayats and city mayorships in the recently concluded elections, and now it has positioned itself as the major opposition to LDF.