Debating India


Saffron spread

Friday 3 February 2006, by PHILIPOSE*Pamela

BJP has used its UP strategies to rise in Karnataka. Will it be different now?

Politics in Karnataka could be the script for a fine Yakshagana performance. The angst of a wronged father confronting a wayward son who threatens to squander a carefully constructed political legacy, has mythological resonances that will long echo through the capacious corridors of Bangalore’s Vidhana Soudha. H.D. Deve Gowda knows well the price the Janata Dal - which flags the word ?secular’ as part of its nomenclature - will have to pay for son H.D. Kumaraswamy’s pact with the BJP. He sees it for what it is: political suicide.

The BJP’s ascent to governance in Karnataka - if things go according to plan - will see the emergence of a bipolar polity in the state. It will also mean an end to the Janata Dal, as we know it, 12 short years after its big moment when various factions led by strongmen H.D. Deve Gowda, S.R. Bommai and R.K. Hedge fought elections together and gave the state its first non-Congress government. For the BJP, breaking the south-of-the-Vindhyas barrier will come as a major psychological boost - the culmination of 16 years of concerted labour.

While covering the 1991 General Election in the state, I could distinctly discern the saffron tint in the air. The Congress, which until then had enjoyed unchallenged suzerainty in the state, had trouble even in encashing politically the sympathy generated by Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. I remember speaking at that point to the erstwhile maharaja of Mysore, Srikantadatta Narasimharaja Wodeyar, who had deserted the Congress for the BJP. He believed that time was on the BJP’s side: “The youth are the moving force today, and they are supportive of the Hindutva cause. The Rajmata may have invited me to join the party, but I am convinced about the BJP’s politics. I am a practicing Hindu and the Congress Party’s policy of minority appeasement was too much.” He subsequently found it more advantageous to return to the Congress, but there was no denying the political frisson he had referred to. That election saw the BJP emerge with four seats in Karnataka - a first in the south - and, more significantly, 29 per cent of the votes. In ’89, it could secure only 2.6 per cent of votes!

How did this happen in a state that had witnessed the Congress’s one-party dominance ever since its birth? The cynical and corrupt politics of the Congress certainly helped, but without doubt Karnataka was the most receptive among the four southern states to the passions unleashed by the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The Sangh Parivar’s Rama Jyothi processions introduced a new dynamic into local politics as a string of riots, in towns like Ramnagaram, Channapatna, Kolar, Devangere, erupted in September-October ’90. In Mangalore, Congress’s Janardhana Poojary who won election after election by cleverly posing as the ?Poojary of the poor’, bit the dust in that election. The BJP’s V. Dhananjaya Kumar, buttressed by vocal support from local temple trusts and pilgrim centres, like the influential Pejavar Mutt and the Shree Kshetra Dharmasthal, defeated him by 35,000 votes.

Over the next decade the BJP consolidated its hold in three pockets of the state: the coastal belt, the Bombay-Karnataka and the Hyderabad-Karnataka regions. There is a popular misconception that the BJP’s politics in the south is markedly different to its north Indian variant. The fact is that the party’s political strategy - the “exclusion-inclusion” paradigm - was essentially the same in Karnataka, as in UP. It played the Hindu card and deepened communal divides in the state, while working for a homogeneous Hindutva identity by melding together disparate caste groups.

To help in polarising the state along communal lines, the Karnataka BJP threw itself into the Idgah Maidan campaign in Hubli, with some help from national leaders. In 1992, during Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra, local party workers attempted to hoist the flag in the Maidan to contest the ownership rights of the Anjuman-e-Islam. The party persisted with the campaign for the next two years, through episodes of rioting and deaths in police firing. Even after the Anjuman-e-Islam authorities defused the issue by themselves deciding to hoist the national flag, the Sangh Parivar continued to target the Idgah Maidan, making Hubli something of a communal hotspot. Its exertions saw a rise in local profile. By 2002, a party that had no presence in the Hubli corporation ten years earlier, had come to occupy 40 per cent of its seats. The conscious search for an Ayodhya-like flashpoint, also saw the Sangh Parivar home in on the Guru Dattatreya Baba Budangiri Swamy dargah, near Chikmagalur. In December 2003, the VHP-Bajrang Dal attempted to “liberate” the dargah with notables like Pravin Togadia and Sadhvi Ritambara providing the required soundbites. The state BJP participated in this campaign with great enthusiasm.

If “exclusion” required the services of the stormtroopers, “inclusion” demanded intense community networking. It was along the coastal belt that attempts to construct a homogeneous Hindutva identity proved most successful. Two factors worked in its favour there. The first was the presence of a disciplined RSS cadre. Ram Madhav, RSS spokesperson, is on record for having noted that the Dakshina Kannada district had become one of the strongholds of the RSS because in at least 300 places shakas have been running at least two programmes each. These included civic interventions like promoting village cleanliness, temple maintenance, water purification, the creation of self-help and knowledge dissemination groups. The powerful mutts and temples that dot the Mangalore-Udipi region were sites of community bonding around festivals, bhajan sessions, and locally convened Hindu Samajosavas. In these activities, the lower castes - which in an earlier era had been kept at a distance - were consciously wooed. Such activities and institutions worked as force multipliers for the BJP. At the political level the party kept itself open to anyone willing to do business with it. If Ramakrishna Hegde had helped it consolidate the Brahmin-Lingayat vote, winning over S. Bangarappa (albeit for a short spell), broadened its appeal among the Idigas.

This strategy of inclusion-exclusion has paid the party rich dividends in Karnataka, where surveys indicate that the party now enjoys considerable support from SC/STs and OBCs in the state. The BJP’s biggest problem so far had been its inability to make that final leap to power and thus keep its restive flock intact. Kumaraswamy may have just solved that dilemma - for the time being, at least.

See online : The Indian Express

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