Coastal Karnataka

Hindutva influence

Print edition : June 08, 2018

BJP supporters celebrating in Mangalore City South constituency on May 15. Photo: H.S. MANJUNATH

The BJP wins 16 of the 19 seats in coastal Karnataka, where the electorate is polarised on communal lines.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 16 of the 19 Assembly seats in the three communally sensitive coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada, making a big foray into a region that had for long supported the Congress. In recent times, it has come to be considered the laboratory of Hindutva in south India.

In 2013, the Congress won 13 seats in the region while the BJP got three. The rest went to independent candidates. The saffron surge in the coastal districts in the 2018 elections is significant. The BJP won four of the six seats in Uttara Kannada, all the five seats in Udupi and seven of the eight seats in Dakshina Kannada. In 2013, the Congress won three seats in Uttara Kannada, three in Udupi and seven in Dakshina Kannada.

This time round, two independent candidates contested on the Congress ticket and one on the BJP ticket. It was a straight fight between the BJP and the Congress in coastal Karnataka, with the Janata Dal (Secular) having a marginal presence in only one seat, Karwar in Uttara Kannada. The extent of the BJP’s victory in the region can be gauged from the fact that the party won 51.65 per cent of the popular vote. The BJP got 15,61,497 of the 30,23,342 votes cast in the region. (This is calculated on the basis of data available on the Election Commission of India website.) Pramod Madhwaraj and Ramanath Rai, two Ministers in the outgoing Siddaramaiah government, who were considered unbeatable, were defeated by relative newcomers in the BJP.

Coastal Karnataka has acquired a reputation of being religiously polarised owing to a variety of historical factors. These districts have witnessed a high number of communal skirmishes sparked by charges of “love jihad” and illegal cattle transportation. In 2017, as the State was getting ready for the 2018 Assembly elections, the region witnessed a rise in the incidents of communal violence and moral policing compared with the previous two years.

Rajaram Tolpadi, professor of political science at Mangalore University, said: “Communal incidents are used to polarise religious communities and the issue becomes dominant as elections approach.”

The region scores very high on a variety of social indices. The proportion of Muslims in the total population is relatively high in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi compared with other parts of the State. In terms of caste demographics, Billavas and Bunts, the dominant caste groups, are unique to the region.

While the Congress gets its strength at the local level in the region from the presence of prominent party leaders, the BJP does not have a recognisable local face. Its main advantage is the ground work of the committed cadres of Hindutva organisations such as the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, the RSS in-charge of Karnataka, who is based in Dakshina Kannada, is the most important leader for the saffron party in the coastal district. He is known for his vitriolic speeches against religious minorities.

The BJP did not have any agenda in the region other than polarising the electorate on Hindu-Muslim lines. The strategy paid off. “The BJP did not play the role of a constructive opposition at all and did not take up any civic issue during Congress rule. Their focus was on communal issues,” said a Mangaluru-based journalist.

In July last year, Shobha Karandlaje, the BJP Member of Parliament representing the Udupi-Chikmagalur constituency, submitted a letter to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, alleging that 23 members of the RSS and the BJP had been murdered during Congress rule in the State. Journalists have proved this allegation wrong. One person on the list of murdered persons has been found to be alive while some deaths have been attributed to personal rivalry and natural causes. But the BJP tailored its election campaign in the region using this falsehood. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his campaign speech in Mangaluru on May 5, accused the Congress of failing to prevent the murders of “innocent Hindu activists”. In an interview to Frontline during the campaign, BJP Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), Ganesh Karnik, admitted that the murder of Hindutva activists was an emotive issue that would appeal to voters and that the BJP would use it extensively in its campaign. The party even ran a Jan Suraksha Yatra (People’s Protection Rally) for several days in February, covering the coastal districts, to highlight the issue.

On December 6 last year, a scuffle over a trivial issue escalated into a communal flare-up in the town of Honnavar in Uttara Kannada. The riots spread to Sirsi and Kumta towns following the death of a Hindu youth called Paresh Mesta. BJP leaders claimed that the youth was a party cadre, although his father maintained that his son had no political affiliations.

On December 21, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath participated in the BJP’s Parivartana Rally in Hubballi in Dharwad district. According to news reports at the time, he accused Chief Minister Siddaramaiah of trying to convert Karnataka, “the land of Bajrang Bali”, into “a land of worshippers of Tipu Sultan”. Yogi Adityanath added: “It is now left to you to decide whether you want it to be a land where saints, spiritual leaders, and gods and goddesses are worshipped or a land of worshippers of Tipu.”

He was referring to the State government’s decision to mark the 18th century Mysore ruler’s birthday on November 10 as Tipu Jayanti. The celebration of Tipu Jayanti began in 2015. The BJP has since frequently accused Siddaramaiah of pandering to Muslim sentiments. This seems to have had an effect in coastal Karnataka with the BJP becoming highly successful in mobilising Hindu votes.

One of the allegations made against the Congress by secular activists is that it did not use its majority seat strength in coastal Karnataka in the past five years to build some kind of dedicated resistance to the challenge posed by the communal ideology. Apart from this, there were murmurs that the Congress had got its caste arithmetic wrong. It did not give adequate representation to Billavas.

South coastal Karnataka is a commercial hub of the State. While a number of small traders there did complain about the disadvantages of demonetisation and the implementation of goods and services tax, the voting pattern in the just concluded elections clearly shows that the electorate was polarised on religious lines and did not vote on the basis of substantive issues.