The May 2 release of the Congress party’s manifesto for Karnataka’s assembly elections was followed by an immediate furore. Under the ‘Law and Justice’ section, it promised “firm and decisive action” against groups that promote communal or caste-based hatred. In vague terms, it discussed the option of banning these groups, naming both Bajrang Dal and the Popular Front of India. The mention of the latter, already banned by the Union Government under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in late 2022, is a hat-tip to the new calculus of balance that is de rigeur for India’s opposition. Any mention of Hindu communalism is to be appropriately complemented by the inclusion of its Muslim ‘other’.
This promise on the manifesto was sensational and evoked a range of reactions, even among commentators sympathetic to the Congress. Some saw an “act of electoral courage” in abandoning the soft Hindutva line to finally challenge core elements of the BJP’s ideology. Other responses ranged from caution – a ban risks turning it into a rallying point and may be counterproductive. Pragmatic disapproval – the Bajrang Dal could have been undermined or opposed quietly without announcements on a manifesto. The third reaction was outright dismay – how could the Congress shoot itself in the foot by playing into a communal flashpoint one week before polling day? The opposition campaign had so far focused on corruption and development issues. B.S. Bommai’s government had been on the defensive and largely jettisoned the Hindutva talking points it had experimented with over the last three years. Even Amit Shah’s astrologer-like predictions of riots in the event of a Congress victory had not struck a chord with voters, and the BJP was increasingly desperate.
The Bajrang Dal controversy could not have come at a better time for the BJP, which lost no time in seizing the opportunity. Twitter handles of party leaders changed their profile pictures to a Hanuman silhouette and a variant of “I am a Bajrangi”. BJP leaders of all shapes and sizes then began to feverishly invoke the issue in their campaign rallies. Narendra Modi went further on May 3, claiming that the Congress had insulted “those who say Bajrang Bali”. By a sleight of hand, he tried to equate unsuspecting devotees of Bajrangi/Hanuman to the unholy hordes of the Bajrang Dal, whose repertoire of violent pan-Karnataka projects includes moral policing, hate speech, economic boycotts and attacks on interfaith couples. The Prime Minister of India decided to avenge this affront to the Bajrang Dal, and exhorted the crowds to say “Jai Bajrang Bali” in the polling booth and vote to punish the Congress. In the following days, the state BJP faithfully attempted to fan the flames, even putting out the same call on their Twitter handle.
The issue was also cause for concern among progressive civil society groups. We wondered whether the BJP had finally found its tinderbox of the season, and if the ensuing conflagration would consume all the painstaking work that had gone into critiquing the government on development issues. As Bahutva Karnataka, a citizens’ forum for communal harmony and democratic values, we urged the Election Commission to file FIRs against Narendra Modi and the state BJP for violating the Model Code of Conduct and soliciting votes in the name of a Hindu deity. We invoked Section 123 (3) of the Representation of the People Act, which forbids appeals to vote on grounds of religion, caste and community. Additionally, we cited Sections 130 (1a) and 131 (1b) which prohibit canvassing near the polling station and other disorderly behaviour. It was important to address both the substantive and procedural violations that follow from Modi’s statement, and the Election Commission assured us that they would follow up on the complaint, issue a notice to the state BJP, and ensure that polling is conducted without any untoward incidents.
Looking back on the week from polling day, I cannot but argue that the Bajrang Bali pitch has failed. On the one hand, Bajrang Dal has a scattered presence across the state, and variously competes with other right-wing groups for mundane forms of power and patronage. Making these gangs of lumpen youth discursively interchangeable with the monkey-god requires acrobatics of the imagination that even Modi could not accomplish. Bajrang Bali is a deity better known in parts of North India, whereas a corresponding figure in Karnataka would be Anjaneya or Hanumanta. Despite attempts over the years to reimagine the monkey-god as solely embodying a masculinist aggression, perhaps the BJP’s slogan misrecognised the plurality of an emotive cultural register. The Congress party has also moved fast to control the damage – they recognised the threat to their election narrative and equivocated over the ban, even as D.K. Shivakumar promised to build more Hanuman temples if voted to power.
With the ruling party’s tail on fire, it remains to be seen whether BJP supporters will heckle or raise slogans before they vote in the polling station today. It would mean that the pugilistic public culture of Modi’s India presses our buttons all over again.
Vishesh Guru is a member of the Bahutva Karnataka citizens’ collective.