Kerala’s major cash crop, rubber, is turning out to be the likely catalyst that could help the BJP win Christian votes in the state that has allowed the saffron party little political space.
Diseases, climate change, and plunging global prices are threatening to deliver a mortal blow to rubber plantations, and the planters’ desperate attempts to stay afloat may help the BJP and its ideological mentor, the RSS.
According to official estimates, Kerala has over 18 lakh rubber-cultivating families and over 14.5 lakh families — mostly Catholics — are dependent on rubber plantations.
Archbishop of Tellicherry (Thalassery) Mar Joseph Pamplany knows well that the BJP has been eyeing a share of the Christian votes.
He made a promise to back the BJP in the Lok Sabha coming polls in 2024 — if it increased the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for natural rubber to ₹300.
One MP, if MSP goes to ₹300 per kg
“Being the party in power at the Centre, the BJP can decide the policy. The rubber-growing families are getting only ₹120 per kg for the product,” the influential archbishop said while addressing a farmers’ meeting at Alakode in the Kannur district on Saturday, 18 March.
“The production cost is estimated to be ₹220. If the Centre ensures ₹300 per kg of rubber, the farmers affiliated to us would ensure an MP for the BJP from the state,” local newspapers quoted Archbishop Pamplany as saying.
The prelate said farmers would vote for any political formation if they received a minimum support price of ₹300 per kg for natural rubber.
He also told Prime Minister Narendra Modi that such a support price would end his regret about not having a single MP from Kerala.
Blame it on Centre: CPI(M) and Congress
The ruling CPI(M) and Opposition Congress were quick to respond to the archbishop. They pointed out that the Narendra Modi government’s international trade agreements were solely responsible for the fall in the price of rubber.
According to CPI(M) state secretary MV Govindan, the trade agreements signed by the Centre facilitated the large-scale import of low-quality natural rubber for industrial purposes while the locally available quality varieties were failing to find takers.
“No minority community in India will benefit by forging a political understanding with BJP-RSS. In the case of rubber, a reality check is needed, and it will expose the forces which landed the rubber cultivators in a severe financial crisis,” he told South First.
Congress leader VD Satheesan, also the leader of the Opposition in the Kerala Assembly, said that more than 500 churches had come under the Sangh Parivar attack in the past four years outside the state.
Terming the archbishop’s statement an outburst of emotion, Satheesan said Christians were always the prime target of the BJP-RSS. He also urged the archbishop to look at the reasons for the fall in rubber prices.
“The Union government’s policies caused the fall,” he told South First.
BJP offers to help farmers
Meanwhile, BJP state president K Surendran welcomed the prelate’s promise, saying that he expressed people’s emotions and the BJP would do whatever possible to help the rubber farmers.
He also expressed happiness over minority community leaders grasping the reality.
The archbishop later denied political motives behind his speech and added that no meetings were held with the BJP leadership over the price of rubber.
But it was later revealed that BJP Kannur district president N Haridas and a host of other party leaders had met him a day before the controversial speech at his office in Thalassery.
However, Haridas on Monday, 20 March, claimed that the meeting did not discuss the price of rubber or politics. It was about a possible visit of National Minority Commission members to the district.
Meanwhile, the archbishop’s statement gained political significance in the backdrop of Modi’s statement that the BJP would soon forge a coalition with Christians in the state and that the formation would ride to power.
His statement was about Christians in Goa, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Nagaland helping the BJP alliance come to power.
Bishop Remigiose backs Archbishop Pamplany
On Monday, Bishop Remigiose Inchananiyil of the Thamarassery diocese came out in support of the Thalassery Archbishop, saying both the CPI(M) and the Congress have been cheating rubber farmers for several decades by holding out false promises.
He said the church would support any formation or ideology that would benefit the farming community.
However, he urged the Centre to stop importing rubber and to restore all subsidies for rubber farmers.
Archbishop Pamplany’s overtures to the BJP-RSS are not new. On several occasions in the past, he has made public his affinity for the BJP-RSS leaders.
In September last, he issued a pastoral letter in the Archdiocese of Tellicherry, urging girls to be cautious against extremist elements trying to snare them by feigning love.
In the letter, he had also urged the Christian community to revamp programmes to make teenagers aware of and equip them to evade “love traps” set by extremist elements.
The letter, issued without any apparent provocation, appeared more like an extended version of the “love jihad” bogey, manufactured in Kerala by Sangh Parivar elements and exported nationwide to fuel Islamophobia.
As usual, the Sangh Parivar welcomed the prelate’s statement.
This is the first time a Christian leader in Kerala has welcomed the BJP-RSS alliance since the prime minister suggested such a possibility.
Like in the case of Pamplany, the Thamarassery Bishop also shares some elements of Islamophobia.
Along with the rubber price, the statement of Remigiose on 20 March indirectly criticised the awarding of a Minorities Welfare Department to a Muslim minister by Chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan.
He alleged that Vijayan handed over the department to a particular person from another religion contrary to the assurances given to the church leaders.
Despite the statement by the Thalassery archbishop becoming a topic of intense debate, no other bishop in Kerala has come forward so far to reject it as an individual’s opinion.
Political observers felt that both love jihad and rubber prices are becoming excuses for the church leadership to forge political ties with the BJP-RSS.
The significance of rubber
The rubber cultivators contribute 2.5 percent GST to the state finances while setting apart the same quantum of GST to the Union government. Among the crops in the state, rubber is the only one that pays tax and is second only to coconut in terms of cultivation area.
For the last several decades, rubber and its price have decided the political approach of Kerala Christians.
For a long time, Congress gained political dividends from the Christian community through central government policies promoting rubber cultivation.
The CPI(M) came to power for a second consecutive time two years ago by bringing the Christian party, the Kerala Congress (M), into its fold.
Most activists and leaders of the Kerala Congress (M) are rubber growers, and the joke was that the political elasticity displayed by the party when it moved to the Left camp was in keeping with the flexible character of natural rubber.
Now, the BJP hopes that, in the long run, the Kerala Congress (M) would come into its camp with the blessings of the church.
Why are rubber prices down?
Climate change has caused a sharp fall in production of rubber, and growers across the state face the tough choice of holding onto the crop or abandoning their generations-old occupation altogether.
When the price of rubber is low, farmers engaged in its cultivation bring down production to keep their losses at a bare minimum, and when the price increases, they tap more to capitalise.
The excess of rubber piling up in central Kerala, devoid of major takers, indicates the decrease in domestic consumption as cheap import alternatives are chosen over locally cultivated products.
While a global crisis is gripping the rubber sector because of climate change and multiple diseases, the prices are being lowered to the point the growers barely break even.
As the rubber prices continue to decrease to a several-year low, rural Kerala now has plenty of anxious small-scale rubber growers looking at various alternatives to the cash crop, such as fruits. And it is unsure whether they would favour BJP politically as wished by their bishops if they brought in the desired MSP.
Rubber cultivation was a crucial factor in developing many districts in Kerala, especially Kottayam, Pathanamthitta, Idukki, and Ernakulam.
Small towns sprouted in this region, new rubber-related business ventures began, and prosperity was visible everywhere. This was not linked to big planters alone; small planters, too, thrived in the boom. But over the last few years, the scenario gradually changed as the price of rubber started falling.
Stakeholders in trouble
The average price of one kg of natural rubber in December 2022 was ₹142. 53. In 2021, the average price was ₹182. 79. But in 2011, it peaked at ₹243 per kg.
The steady fall in the price of rubber, the increase in labour costs and fertilisers, and the new diseases and climatic changes have put the stakeholders in real trouble.
Added to this is the move by the Centre to scrap the Rubber Act and the Rubber Board, which the rubber planters and small-time farmers here feel will sound the death knell for them.
While Muslims constitute 26.6 percent of Kerala’s demography, the number of Christians in the state is 18.38 percent. As these communities make up almost half of the state’s total population, the only way left before the Sangh Parivar is forging an alliance with Church leaders at one level and the political forces that enjoy the blessings of bishops and priests at another level.
The BJP’s options
The developments related to rubber indicate that BJP may be able to influence some of the church leaders.
In the long run, the BJP hopes to forge alliances with the Kerala Congress (M), which is currently an alliance partner of the ruling LDF, and its breakaway faction, the Kerala Congress (J), which is a constituent of the Opposition UDF.
The BJP hopes to consolidate the powerful Nair and Ezhava community groups in its favour once it works out a power-sharing formula with the Christian-backed political parties.
Even while nurturing high hopes, what makes the BJP-RSS leaders anxious in Kerala is the refusal of the minority community members to toe the political line of their religious leaders.
Society, in general, is cautious about political affiliations and preferences. Across Kerala, Christians seldom go by the political preferences of their religious leaders, and it is almost similar in the case of Nairs and Ezhavas.
In the case of the CPI(M) and the CPI, which head the LDF, and the Congress, which leads the UDF, their support bases are almost intact even now, and they are spread among people of different religious and caste groups.
Irrespective of religious affiliations, Kerala has many people who value politics and electioneering beyond caste and communal grounds.