A Vote Against ‘40% Commission’, ‘Double Engine Sarkar’ and the Politics of Hindutva

The tradition and culture of Karnataka politics meant that the BJP's efforts to communalise the electorate and move away from serious issues were in vain.

The electorate of Karnataka has decisively voted against two fundamental issues in the assembly elections of May 2023: unbridled mega-corruption of the BJP government and its politics of hate in the name of Hindutva. The ‘Double Engine Sarkar’ made no sense when the local engine would not move without the fuel of 40% commission. There have also been other critical issues, such as price rise, increasing unemployment and the anti-farmers and anti-workers policies of the BJP that led the people to vote overwhelmingly for the Congress.

Talking about mega-corruption, it must be noted that the ‘death by suicide’ of Santosh Patil, a contractor from Belagavi, has not gone in vain. People have avenged it abundantly. D. Kempanna, the president of the Karnataka Contractors’ Association, too has been daring in exposing that this was not an individual case and that every contractor was made to pay this commission, right from junior engineers to ministers. However, it is Santosh Patil’s dying declaration that nailed the ‘40% commission Sarkar’ of former minister Eshwarappa and the government. What is more shocking is that Patil was the national secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini, a BJP youth outfit. That was the unkindest cut. The BJP government was so corrupt that it did not exempt its own cadre from payment of bribes.

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The ‘40% commission’ and the ‘PayCM’ campaigns stuck to chief minister Bommai’s government and no amount of rallies and roadshows by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and J.P. Nadda could undo the damage. The electorate refused to believe their lies and be fooled again. And the ‘Modi magic’ evaporated as soon as he left town. Even the furious incantation of ‘Bajrang Bali’ and equating him with Bajrang Dal was seen as a cheap trick of a desperate politician seeking votes in the name of religion.

Of course, Eshwarappa resigned in April 2022 and was denied a ticket, but when Modi visited Mysore for a roadshow on May 6, there was only one prominent leader standing next to him during the Rath Yatra and that was Eshwarappa. Modi stood next to him for about four hours but had no time to question the state authorities on the letters of Santosh Patil or that of D. Kempanna. Nor did he condole the death of Santosh Patil, the national secretary of the Hindu Yuva Vahini. What message was he sending? Whatever it was, the people saw and understood that Modi stood firmly with the corrupt.

Politics of Hindutva

Never has the state of Karnataka, since its formation in 1956, so brazenly discriminated against a minority community through its policies, executive orders and the use of police force. Adding injury to this demonisation of the Muslims were the vigilante forces such as Bajrang Dal and ‘Rama Sene’ that routinely assaulted them in Mangalore. And the Bommai government defended the ‘moral policing’ of Rama Sene on the youth.

Hindu religion has never been so cruel as made out by the politics of Hindutva, for Karnataka has had no history of medieval pillage of temples by invading Muslim armies. So, what historical atrocity were we avenging here? How can the politics of Hindutva get traction and appeal to the voters here? What do the democratic history and political culture of the state tell us?

Tradition and culture of Karnataka politics

Firstly, Karnataka has had a history and tradition of ‘Centrist’ politics, with the state policies being mainly left of centre, which is generally pro-poor and socialist to a large extent.

Although Mahatma Gandhi and Karl Marx have had their share of influence in the past, a more abiding influence has been that of liberal democrats like Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar and socialists such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, and his bitter opponent Indira Gandhi, who too adopted socialist policies when pushed to a corner.

Those influenced by the socialist thought of Lohia were men like Shantaveri Gopala Gowda, K.H. Ranganath, J.H. Patel, S.R. Bommai, Ramakrishna Hegde and of course, Devaraj Urs who carried out the most significant Land Reforms Act. Even H.D. Deve Gowda, who grew up in the same political milieu, is undoubtedly committed to socialism and secularism, though his son is bereft of any such commitment to ideals.

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Fourthly, Karnataka has had an intellectual movement inspired by liberal, secular and universalist ideas prominent in the poetry of Gopalkrishna Adiga, D.R. Bendre and Kuvempu. In the field of literature, it was evident in the writings of U.R. Anantmurthy, Girish Karnad and in the journalism of P. Lankesh, which was carried forward by his daughter Gauri Lankesh till she was killed for her stubborn courage.

Fifthly, there was an important movement led by rationalists and critical thinkers who exposed godmen, myths, mythologies and superstitions, such as Abraham Kovoor and H. Narasimhaiah, then Vice Chancellor of Bangalore University in the mid-1970s. We also had M.M. Kalburgi, Vice Chancellor of Hampi University, a great rationalist who was killed in August 2015 by people opposing rationalism and a questioning mind. To recall their contribution today is very important when fake news, prejudice, superstition, bigotry and hate speeches are the common currency of politics.

Sixth, caste politics have been a far more important factor than religion-based politics. Unlike religion, caste is not seen as an exclusionary or divisive factor in our politics. It is seen as an aggregator or a mobilising force for leaders who promote policies of social justice for their constituents.

Finally, Karnataka has had a long tradition of Dalit protests led by ‘Bandaya’ and ‘Andolan’ movements that have shaped our political, social and literary sensibilities. No politician can afford to ignore the power of the suppressed.

Going back to our electoral politics, in all the 15 assembly elections held since 1952, the Congress party, a Centrist force, got a clear majority in 9 elections and the Janata Dal, another Centrist coalition, got a clear majority in two elections. In the remaining three elections the BJP emerged as the single largest party but without a clear majority. In 2008, the BJP was short by one MLA but formed the government with a few independents. How the BJP formed the government with Yeddyurappa as the chief minister in 2019 is well-known and needs no repetition. What is clear is that the ‘politics of Hindutva’ has never found ‘adequate and sufficient’ support in the state, certainly not enough to cross the line of 113 seats.

More importantly, people here have generally voted for Yeddyurappa rather than the BJP. The ‘Lingayat constituency’ is more powerful than the ‘Hindutva constituency’. And because Yeddyurappa had to appeal to a base larger than the Lingayat vote bank, he followed inclusionary politics that took along other castes, religious groups and regions besides North Karnataka. He, therefore, scrupulously avoided talking the extremist language that threatened other communities or polarised society. And when he was chief minister, he strictly ensured that nobody raised the issues of ‘Halal, hijab, Azān and love jihad’ etc. But forcing his exit, the national wing of the party enforced a Gujarat model and the UP model on the BJP here and paid grievously for it.

The Congress, a centrist coalition, that has always carried with it diverse castes, classes and regions triumphed back to power on its traditional strength of liberal, democratic, secular and socialist values that have had a permanent appeal to the voters here. Finally, it’s a return to sanity, liberalism and moderation in our politics and fraternity in our social relations, hopefully.

Ravi Joshi was formerly in the Cabinet Secretariat.