The joke of the season is a BJP leader accusing Karnataka’s Congress chief minister of dividing people along communal lines. The BJP had combined the talents of Newton, Einstein and Chanakya to invent the science of pitting people against people in the name of religion and caste. It still remains the prime promoter of the technology. Karnataka, in the heat of a life-and-death election, will no doubt see all parties copying the BJP. Communalism will be in full gallop. We can already hear party strategists saying ‘May the worst man win’.
Actually, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is being quite smart. Cynical, may be, but smart. Lingayats, with B S Yeddyurappa as leader, have been BJP’s presumed support base. Siddaramaiah created havoc for the BJP by formally approving the Lingayat community’s demand for separate religion status (which will qualify them for minority privileges). The claim that Veerashaivas and Lingayats are the same was shattered with Veerashaivas protesting and Lingayats cheering Siddaramaiah. (Lingayats reject Brahminical precepts, bury their dead instead of cremating them, follow Basavanna’s vachanas in Kannada and use no Sanskrit text and have rituals entirely different from Hindu versions). Siddaramaiah had already ordered the display of Basavanna’s portraits in government offices across the state. Of course the Centre will not approve the state’s new proposal on Lingayats. But Siddaramaiah has scored the points he wanted to score.
Smart, too, has been the chief minister’s use of the Kannada pride card. The removal of Hindi signboards from metro stations was welcomed by many when it became known that in some Hindi-speaking states traffic signage followed a one-language formula, and that milestones in many rural roads in southern Karnataka had only Hindi lettering on them. BJP chief Amit Shah’s speeches to Kannada audiences in Hindi, without translation, struck people as a sign of arrogance. In this climate, Siddaramaiah got Apple to include Kannada in their keyboards and demanded that passports issued in Karnataka have details in Kannada.
The government also promoted the Kannada Flag. It didn’t invent the idea; a separate flag had been there from the pre-independence days of the Samyukta Karnataka movement. In 1938, acclaimed writer B M Srikantaiah wrote a poem called “Kannadada Bavuta” (flag). A decade before that, poet laureate Kuvempu had composed Jaya He Karnataka Maathe, which stirs listeners’ hearts even today. Thus Karnataka has its own anthem as well. By no means can this be seen as a challenge to national unity. Every state in America has its own flag, but they still remain the United States.
Karnataka also has something which perhaps nobody else has: a mother-goddess of its own called Kannada Bhuvaneshwari. Distinguished litterateurs of the state and some public figures came together last year with an appeal to the chief minister for the installation of a Bhuvaneshwari statue at a prominent spot in Bangalore city. There are two temples dedicated to the goddess in the state. A statue in the capital will boost the state’s cultural heritage—and win some votes, costing less than the BJP’s Patel statue in Gujarat.
In five years of power, Siddaramaiah has done nothing that can be called outstanding in terms of vision. But no major scandal has caught up with him either. He has been reasonably good at budget management. His populist moves such as Indira Canteens have won some appreciation. He also wins approval by challenging Modi in Modi style. An example is his meet-the-people programme called “Kaam Ki Baat” (any resemblance to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat being purely non-coincidental).
In the circumstances, a direct test of strength between Siddaramaiah’s Congress and Yeddyurappa’s BJP can well go in the chief minister’s favour. But two obstacles may disrupt the scenario. One is the vote-wasting capability of India’s most frustrated politician, H D Deve Gowda. His JD(S) doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting anywhere near power. But he can be an effective nuisance—and he likes to play that role.
The second obstacle before Congress is the Harris factor—the unforgivable display of gangsterism by a Congress MLA’s son in a restaurant. The father had clearly promoted his rowdy son’s rise in Congress politics. The blot on the Congress can perhaps be removed to some extent if the party disowns the Harris family altogether, denying a ticket to the MLA father as well. Whether the leadership will have the imagination to take such a righteous stand is to be seen. In other words, the doors to power are wide open, anyone can walk in, saint or sinner. That’s the pity of it.