'Karnataka Doesn't Have a History of Violent Communalism. Which Is Why BJP Has a Tough Time Here'

Muzaffar Assadi, a keen politics watcher and Mysore University professor, elaborates on why he thinks BJP is on stage one of its Hindutva project in Karnataka, and is thus not as likely to reap the benefits of the exercise in the upcoming polls.

Mysuru: As Karnataka enters the last phase of electioneering, observers have been unsure about whether Hindutva remains the primary play of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the poll-bound Karnataka.

The BJP has been sending out mixed signals. The state leadership, battling massive anti-incumbency and corruption allegations, has attempted to focus on its achievements over the last five years, and has been urging people to vote for a “double engine government” to benefit from the Union government’s schemes. However, the central leadership has tried to rake up latent communal issues by making remarks that have the potential to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims.

The Union home minister Amit Shah warned people that a Congress government in the state could usher in an era of communal riots, while others like Rajnath Singh attacked the Congress for institutionalising quotas based on religion affiliations. Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Hindutva hardliner Adityanath has been given the responsibility to campaign in the Old Mysore region, which is BJP’s Achille’s heel in the state. Similarly, in Mangaluru, the BJP president J.P. Nadda visited the family of Praveen Nettaru, the BJP Yuva Morcha worker who was allegedly killed by the Muslim right wing organisation Popular Front of India, and called him a “martyr”. 

Communal polarisation has been the mainstay of BJP, but unlike in the northern parts of India, Karnataka may not vote along strictly communal lines. To understand BJP’s political strategy, The Wire spoke to Muzaffar Assadi, a former vice-chancellor in charge and the current Dean of Faculty of Arts at Mysore University.

A political theorist, Assadi has been following the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva experiment and its impact in Karnataka for many decades, and has closely tracked the interface between existing caste and community-based political dynamics and Hindutva. He believes that making hardline Hindutva its sole tactic in the 2023 assembly elections could backfire on the BJP, as Hindutva is only at a stage of “infancy” in Karnataka. 

Key excerpts from The Wire’s chat with him are below.

The BJP has been attempting to get a foothold in the Old Mysore region by reaching out to the dominant Vokkaligas. It ran a narrative that two Vokkaliga chieftains Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda killed Tipu Sultan, the 18th century ruler of Mysore. The Prime Minister himself has been visiting the region frequently. The Sangh Parivar has been propping up the 16th-century Vokkaliga ruler Kempegowda as a community icon. Now Adityanath has been establishing connections between the Gorakhnath Mutt in Gorakhpur, UP and Vokkaliga community’s Adichunchanagiri Mutt in Mandya…

I don’t think that Yogi Adityanath will have any influence over the Vokkaligas, as the community does not approve of the language used by hardliners.

We do not have  strong relations between Gorak Panth, the panth that Yogi is representing  and Vokkaliga Mutts. However, use of such language may work in the north, which has strong memories of Partition, different communal events, and Muslim icons who can be attacked. In Karnataka, barring Tippu Sultan who has been attacked persistently by the Sangh Parivar, there are no such memories of communalism. 

Look at Shah, who says there will be communal violence if Congress comes to power. Then he says that Congress indulges in politics of appeasement. Some of the BJP leaders say that they do not want Muslim votes. People in Karnataka understand that these leaders are trying to drive a wedge between communities, and they do not approve of such communal hate. 

The aim to communalise Karnataka politics has been futile. Strong polarisation along religious lines does not happen in the state, barring a few pockets. Caste identity is more important than communal identity in Karnataka.

Karnataka does not have a history of communalism, it is a recent phenomenon of 1980s. We don’t have memories of communalism and violence in Karnataka. That is why BJP finds it difficult to get a foothold here. The history of social reform movements, particularly Sufism and the Lingayat movement have prevented Karnataka from turning into a communal state. Lingayats who vote for BJP don’t vote en masse for it because they are communal but because they see the party as an alternative to the Congress.

Also read: What is Lingayata? A Brief Look Into the Evolution of a Term Favoured by Media But Grasped by Few

They are also divided on caste lines. This time two caste groups among Lingyats, Ganiga and Banajigas would definitely drift away from BJP to support Congress to avenge the humiliation meted to Lingayat leaders.

It is also true that the caste groups have divided on the basis of local cultural practices and follow a diverse Hindu pantheon. More than Ram and Hanuman they worship local deities, all of which comes in the way of transforming caste identity – initially into Hindu identity and then – to Hindutva identity. 

Similarly, in south Karnataka, large parts of which was under Mysore princely state, has a history of inclusiveness. In fact, inclusion was the hallmark of the Mysore princely state. Muslims were accommodated through reservations in jobs and education by the Mysore state much before the recommendations of different Backward class commissions.

When Shah says that there will be communal violence in Karnataka if Congress comes to power, one wonders who the perpetrators of the violence will be. There has been hardly any backlash from the Muslim side to Hindutva in the state. This became explicitly clear when issues of hijab, halal, azaan, Uri-Gowda and Nanje Gowda, and Tipu’s death were raked up.

Muslims in the state are not “silenced minorities” but are broadly a “silent minority”. 

So, you say that Hindutva has not succeeded here?

I believe Hindutva has some distinct phases.

First, Hindutva has to recognise different caste groups or identities and transform them into part of the larger Hindu identity.

Second, there has to be a transfer of the Hindu identity into Hindutva identity. The transformation takes place in a phased manner, but sometime it happens simultaneously. It is not simply a political project wherein it encounters losses and victory to capture political power. More than the political project, Hindutva is a cultural project. Most of the time, it uses cultural means to construct Hindutva identity and uses it in daily practices.

In Karnataka, Hindutva is still in the first stage – the stage of infancy. The Sangh Parivar has struggled to overcome the caste identities of groups here. That is why elections are transformed into a caste battle. Even in coastal Karnataka, which is said to be a Hidnutva laboratory, you don’t see massive communal violence. In between Muslim definitely has become “a problem”, but they have not transformed into intense hate and violence

In north Karnataka, Lingayats have built a social coalition with Brahmins, what I call ‘LI-BRA’. They are facing an ideological crisis and want to be at par with the ‘upper’ caste groups. The idea of social and economic domination has brought the Lingayats and ‘upper’ caste groups together under the fold of BJP.

Also read: Sons of BJP Bigwigs on Frontline as Factional Wars Sweep Karnataka BJP Ahead of Polls

In coastal Karnataka, the social coalition that the BJP has built is 3Bs comprising Bunts, Billavas, and Brahmins. In Coorg, the social coalition supporting the BJP is ‘COBLI’ comprising Coorgis, Brahmins and Lingayats. They have failed to stitch up a similar coalition in Old Mysore districts, which is why the BJP is the weakest in the region.These are fragile coalition. Given the humiliation, the LIBRA social coalition would witness the divide – Ganigas and Banajigas of Lingayats would drift away from BJP.

Here, mutts revered by communities exercise a lot of influence, although only in certain pockets. They act as spokespersons between the state and communities. Recently, the BJP quietly buried its “Uri Gowda, Nanje Gowda” campaign on the intervention of the Vokkaliga mutt which did not approve of such a hate campaign. 

But one thing that can be said is that the BJP is no more a Brahmin-Bania party. And that explains the party’s success in Karnataka. Yet, till date, it has never been able to capture power with the influence of its political ideology. In fact, the 2023 elections also exposed the internal conflicts of Hindutva forces, as many Hindutva leaders have rebelled against BJP and are contesting on their own. 

How do you see BJP’s prospects in this election?

The exit of Laxman Savdi and Jagdish Shettar, both Lingayat leaders, may prove to be costly for the BJP. The herd psyche of Lingayats that benefitted the BJP earlier may turn against it in the 2023 assembly polls. Its performance depends a lot on how the BJP is going to contain the losses. At the moment, it lacks a convincing political narrative, and is entirely banking on the prime minister Narendra Modi’s popularity. The latest narrative of Modi  about 85% government of Rajiv Gandhi, to counter forty per cent government, came too late to reduce the anti-incumbency trend.

On the other hand, Congress appears to have consolidated its AHINDA votes (OBCs, Dalits, Minorities), and has successfully constructed the “40% sarkara” (40% commission government) narrative. Siddaramaiah has also emerged as the leader of subaltern sections. In fact, more than any other leader, he represents subalternity here. That factor may also help the Congress.