‘Communalism does not work in Karnataka’: Muzaffar Assadi

The political scientist says the BJP is suffering from severe internal dissensions in constituencies such as Davanagere, Shivamogga, and Bengaluru.

Published : Apr 23, 2024 13:43 IST - 6 MINS READ

Political scientist Musaffar Assadi addressing a seminar at Kuvempu University in Shankaraghatta near Shivamogga in 2017.

Political scientist Musaffar Assadi addressing a seminar at Kuvempu University in Shankaraghatta near Shivamogga in 2017. | Photo Credit: VAIDYA

Professor Muzaffar Assadi is a Mysuru-based political scientist who has closely observed elections in Karnataka over several decades. He retired earlier this year as Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Mysore. In an interview with Frontline,Assadi shared his views on some of the major themes in this Lok Sabha election in the State, where voting is in two phases, on April 26 and May 7.


You have been observing elections in Karnataka for several decades now. What do you think are some of the important issues for voters?

Usually there is a pattern in Karnataka politics if you study the trend right from the 1970s. Voters focus on national issues during the time of Lok Sabha elections while their focus shifts to State issues in Assembly elections, but I’m discerning a paradigm shift this time around where the narrative is focussed more on State issues. The Congress is picking up State issues such as the five guarantees and the injustice from the Union government.

The BJP is banking on Modi’s charisma and it tried to build a narrative with the issue of the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya but it doesn’t seem to have caught on. In last year’s Assembly election in Karnataka, the BJP ran an aggressive campaign focussed on communal issues but it didn’t work because communal identities cannot take precedence over caste identities here. Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the Congress’ manifesto to that of the Muslim League’s but even that is not resonating in Karnataka. Communalism does not work in Karnataka (except for coastal Karnataka) because of the region’s syncretic culture and history of social movements. Apart from this, the BJP is also on the back foot in Karnataka.

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In what way is the BJP on the back foot in Karnataka?

The BJP is suffering from severe internal dissensions. This is evident in constituencies such as Davanagere, Shivamogga, Dharwad, and even in Bengaluru. In Mysuru, a hardcore Hindutva-vaadi [Pratap Simha] was denied the ticket. Union Minister Shobha Karandlaje was not allowed to contest from her home constituency of Udupi-Chikkamagaluru as there was a pushback from local BJP cadre and she has been foisted upon the voters of Bengaluru North. The BJP is not presenting a united front and these divisions are evident. The party is banking only on Modi. 

Why have BJP MPs such as Pratap Simha, Nalin Kumar Kateel, and Anant Kumar Hegde, all aggressive votaries of Hindutva, not been given a chance in this election?

There are a couple of reasons why BJP has changed these three candidates. First, a singular communal agenda does not work in Karnataka. You cannot have communalism in daily practice. The BJP sensed this after their loss last year. And second, all these MPs have not done any developmental work in their constituencies. Kateel, for instance, spent his entire tenure dealing with a controversy around the construction of a bridge in Mangaluru. And what was his contribution? It was only to further coastal Karnataka’s reputation as a laboratory of Hindutva. He contributed nothing to the capitalist development of Mangaluru. Or, take someone like the four-time parliamentarian Anant Kumar Hegde, who disappeared for five years and emerged only recently making provocative statements against religious minorities and brazenly advocating for a rectification of the Constitution. There was pent-up anger against these leaders for their non-performance.

Apart from a brief period when Kumaraswamy formed a coalition government with Yediyurappa between 2006 and 2008, the JD(S)’ politics has been against the BJP. What were the exigencies that led to the JD(S) entering an alliance with the BJP?

This is a suicidal attempt by the JD(S) to associate with a national party like the BJP. The BJP’s political game is clear as they have brazenly decimated and absorbed or succeeded in marginalising regional parties. There are many examples from all over the country.

The JD(S) identifies with the peasantry and the Vokkaligas, and there is an overlap between these two blocs in the Old Mysore region of Karnataka. The BJP needs the JD(S) to open paths in Old Mysore where the BJP does not have a sufficiently strong presence. The BJP made strong attempts in the past to breach Old Mysore but failed, so the JD(S) becomes important for them in this exercise. The BJP’s traditional social coalition rests on two castes which I refer to as LIBRA (Lingayats plus Brahmins). In coastal Karnataka, it is BBB (Bunts, Billavas, and Brahmins). If they add Vokkaligas to this, then they will succeed in building up a pre-1970s social coalition in Karnataka consisting of the dominant castes which will be unbeatable. This is their long-term plan.

In last year’s Legislative Assembly election, the JD(S) suffered an identity crisis because its support base was hugely dented. Congress Deputy Chief Minister D.K. Shivakumar is also emerging as an alternative leader of the Vokkaligas and is a major threat to H.D. Kumaraswamy. Thus, the JD(S) entered into an alliance with the BJP, but this also means that it can lose its identity and become a spent force by the time of the next Assembly election in Karnataka.

Do you see any chinks in the Lingayat support base for the BJP? I ask this specifically because in Dharwad a Lingayat pontiff called Fakir Dingaleshwar is contesting as an independent because he feels that Union Minister Pralhad Joshi (a Brahmin) has marginalised the Lingayats. 

The BJP will certainly be concerned about Dharwad because Fakir Dingaleshwar has pitched his candidature using the argument of discrimination. Dingaleshwar is a Lingayat pontiff and mutts have a disproportionate level of influence on people’s minds. But I don’t think this will dent the BJP’s loyal Lingayat support base in constituencies in north and central Karnataka where Lingayats play a decisive role. 

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The BJP-JD (S) alliance has given tickets to three Brahmins, nine Lingayats, six Vokkaligas, three candidates from the Backward Castes and seven from the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes. The Congress on the other hand has given its ticket to five Lingayats, eight Vokkaligas, six from the Backward Castes, eight from the Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes, and one Muslim. What do you think of this?

There is nothing surprising in this as this reflects the social base of the parties. The Congress has solid support among the consolidated social agglomeration known as the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Religious Minorities, Backward Castes, and Dalits), while the BJP has greater support among Lingayats and Brahmins. That explains the higher number of Backward Caste candidates in the Congress.

It is unfortunate that the Congress has given its ticket to only one Muslim as the community rallied en masse behind the Congress during last year’s Assembly election. Rahul Gandhi has been emphasising that representation would be given on the proportionate share of population of various communities. He even coined the slogan “Jiski Jitni Bhaagidaari, Uski Utni Hissedaari” but what happened to this idea when it came to Muslims in Karnataka? They should have been given at least one more seat to contest.

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