A multi-layered analysis looks at why religious polarisation did not give the party a clean sweep in Coastal Karnataka.
In January, a small section of a speech made by Dakshina Kannada MP and Karnataka BJP president Nalin Kumar Kateel went viral on social media platforms. He asked the people of Karnataka to prioritise “larger” issues such as love jehad over “minor” issues such as roads, infrastructure, and development. The statement, months before the Karnataka Assembly election, gave one an insight into an important part of the BJP’s electoral strategy: the Hindu-Muslim card. Issues such as the hijab and halal controversies, the series of communal violence-linked murders in Coastal Karnataka in July 2022, and the recent debate around reservation for Muslims, all underscored the potential importance of religious identity.
Now that the results are out, one can make a nuanced analysis of whether religious identity had any salience. While in Coastal Karnataka, religious identity did significantly help the BJP, the same impact was not seen in other parts of the State. Here, the AHINDA social coalition emerged stronger. At a broader level, the results highlight the limitations of the Hindu-Muslim binary in Karnataka.
In 1983, when the BJP first contested Assembly elections in Karnataka, the party won a total of 18 seats. Of these, nine came from the coastal belt. Since then, the BJP has converted the region into a fortress. Since 1991, the BJP has won the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency every single time. It has also won the Uttara Kannada seat in every election since 1996, barring 1999. Before the implementation of the new delimitation commission’s recommendations, the BJP won the Udupi Lok Sabha seat in 1998 and 2004. The party won the newly created Udupi-Chikkamagaluru constituency in 2009, 2014, and 2019 (Congress won a byelection in 2012).
The BJP’s strong presence across Coastal Karnataka is linked to historical factors. Organisationally, Hindu religious mobilisation in the region goes back to the late 1880s, when the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj established their presence. By the late 1920s and early 1930s, the first RSS shakas were also set up. As a result, Hindu religious mobilisation has a well-established organisational base in the district, which the BJP has benefited from since its formation despite the poor performance of the Jana Sangh.
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In 2018, the BJP pocketed 16 of the 19 Assembly seats across Coastal Karnataka. In Dakshina Kannada district, all of the BJP’s seven victories came with a margin of over 15,000 votes. The years leading up to the election witnessed significant communal tensions. Between 2015 and 2017, there were a series of politically motivated murders of youths working for Hindu and Muslim organisations. These attacks often caused a chain of retaliatory and counter-retaliatory killings. In 2017, one saw among the worst cycles of violence with the highly publicised murders of the Social Democratic Party of India worker Ashraf Kalayi and the RSS worker Sharath Madiwala. As expected, these killings became a political issue in the run-up to the 2018 election. The BJP launched the Jana Suraksha Yatre, which culminated with a mega rally in Mangaluru. Through this march, BJP leaders said that Hindus in Coastal Karnataka were increasingly “unsafe” because of the rise of groups such as the Popular Front of India (PFI). The BJP attacked the Congress for going soft on the PFI. The BJP’s campaign eventually worked, with the party sweeping all but three seats in the region. Importantly, the large margins of victory indicated the presence of a strong wave in the party’s favour
The hijab issue
The build-up to the 2023 election was equally volatile across Coastal Karnataka. Tensions began to rise in early 2022 with the hijab issue. In January, reports emerged that six students from a pre-university college in Udupi were told their hijabs were non-compliant with the school uniform. The college management denied the girls entry into the classroom unless they removed the hijab. The issue snowballed into a much larger communal issue across Karnataka. Educational institutions across the State placed restrictions on the wearing of the hijab in classrooms. Groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal mobilised students to support this action, while among Muslims, the Campus Front of India and the PFI played an important role in the protests launched against it. The situation became so volatile that the government, in early February, shut down all educational institutions for a few days, until the High Court passed an interim order.
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Politically, the battle lines were clearly drawn. The BJP stood by the decision of the college administration. Karnataka Education Minister B.C. Nagesh suggested that the whole issue was politically motivated and that the PFI was influencing the six girls in question. Nagesh added that all forms of religious practice should be barred from classrooms. The Congress came out in defence of the six girls, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed everyone the right to freely practise their religion. Siddaramaiah, Congress leader and Leader of the Opposition, argued that the action taken by the college management violated the fundamental rights of citizens.
The hijab issue was quickly followed by a controversy around halal meat. In April 2022, the Sri Rama Sene and the Bajrang Dal started an agitation to boycott halal meat, which, they argued, was prepared keeping in mind Muslim religious practices. Hindus, therefore, should stop buying meat from Muslim butchers, they said. BJP leader C.T. Ravi supported the agitation, terming Muslims buying halal meat as “economic” jehad.
Then, towards the end of July 2022, a chain of communally motivated murders threatened to escalate tensions further. A Muslim youth was killed following a scuffle in Sullia (Dakshina Kannada). In response, Praveen Nettaru, a BJP Yuva Morcha leader, was killed on July 27. A day later, on July 28, a Muslim man named Mohammad Fazil was stabbed outside a clothing store in Surathkal. The murders had eerie similarities to the communally motivated killings witnessed between 2015 and 2017.
Polarisation as tactic
Given this build-up, communal polarisation was a key issue on which the 2023 election was fought in Coastal Karnataka. The stage was set for a sweep similar to what the BJP managed in 2018. The results, however, were a mixed bag. The best news for the BJP came from Udupi district, where the party held on to the five seats it won in 2018. In Dakshina Kannada, apart from Mangaluru (Ullal), which is a Congress stronghold, the BJP additionally lost Puttur, a defeat largely due to infighting during ticket distribution. But the real setback for the party came in Uttara Kannada, where it lost four of the district’s six seats to the Congress; of these Karwar, Bhatkal, and Sirsi are seats the party won in 2018. Overall, the BJP won 13 of the 19 seats in Coastal Karnataka. Taken out of context, this performance could be interpreted as a major success. If one keeps in mind the sweep the BJP achieved in 2018, the numbers represent a significant dent.
The results demonstrate both the strengths and weaknesses of communal polarisation in Coastal Karnataka. On the one hand, in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, the tack helped the BJP retain almost all the seats it won in 2018. And had it not been for infighting, it would have won Puttur too. On the other hand, communal strife could not replicate the sweep it saw in 2018.
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What are the two key limitations of communal politics? Firstly, the 2018 campaign focussed on how the increasing popularity of organisations such as the PFI made Hindus “unsafe”. At that time, being an opposition party, the BJP could put the blame on the incumbent Congress government. This time, the BJP itself was the incumbent. Therefore, a campaign built around narratives of Hindu victimhood proved ineffective and even counterproductive.
Secondly, religious identity cannot trump intra-organisational disgruntlement. Unhappiness over ticket distribution cost the BJP the Puttur seat, where it finished third. Importantly, after the killing of Praveen Nettaru, the unhappiness among the BJP cadres was clearly visible. Yuva Morcha party workers blocked BJP state president Kateel’s vehicle when he was on his way to meet Nettaru’s family. The party was unable to get past these internal divisions.
- Playing the Hindu-Muslim card, for example the hijab and halal issues, was an important part of the BJP’s electoral strategy.
- Coastal Karnataka has been the BJP’s bastion for several decades, and religious identity did help the party there, but the same impact was not seen in other parts of the State.
- This election results showed that the Hindu-Muslim equation is too simplistic a binary to be replicated across Karnataka, highlighting the limitations of the tactic.
The pan-Karnataka picture does not look very encouraging for the BJP. In Kittur Karnataka (Bombay-Karnataka), Kalyana Karnataka (Hyderabad-Karnataka), and Central Karnataka, the party lost a lot of ground to the Congress. While the narratives of “double engine” sarkar and nepotism were key to the BJP’s campaign, from the perspective of communal politics two issues stood out. First was the move by the BJP to remove the 4 per cent reservation given to backward classes among Muslims and distribute it among Lingayats and Vokkaligas. The BJP hoped this would bring the Hindu-Muslim binary into regions with Vokkaliga and Lingayat concentrations. It did not.
Second, when the Congress manifesto promised to impose a ban on the Bajrang Dal and the PFI in the latter stages of its campaign, the BJP pounced on that, arguing that the proposed ban on the Bajrang Dal was an assault on Bajrang Bali, or Hanuman himself. This did not work either. Across Karnataka, neither of these religious issues helped the BJP mobilise votes. The results from Kittur Karnataka and Central Karnataka suggest that the BJP actually lost a significant chunk of Lingayat votes to the Congress.
Firstly, this election has shown the power of the AHINDA social coalition: the Congress increased its vote share among backward classes and Dalits, which alongside Muslim consolidation helped the party. The BJP’s Hindu-Muslim binary failed to break the AHINDA coalition.
“This time, the BJP was the incumbent. Therefore, a campaign built around Hindu victimhood proved ineffective. ”
Secondly, religious identity failed to overcome larger organisational issues within the BJP. In an Assembly election, where the narratives need to focus on local issues, the party’s campaign focussed excessively on a pan-India narrative. Additionally, the BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka, B.S. Yeddyurappa, announced his retirement from electoral politics before the election. Although Basavaraj Bommai is also a Lingayat leader, he does not have Yeddyurappa’s stature or mass appeal. The BJP ended up with a weak State-level leadership and relied heavily on central leaders such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, and BJP president J.P. Nadda, whose messages of communal polarisation and threats to withdraw “double engine growth” did not resonate with the people.
Thirdly, the Hindu-Muslim equation is too simplistic a binary to replicate across Karnataka, which has various layers of overlapping identities. For example, when the cut in reservation for backward class Muslim groups was announced, the strongest protest did not come from Muslims but from Banjaras, a Hindu group. They were concerned that the changes would place them at a disadvantage. A move used to create Hindu-Muslim fissures got entangled in complex caste and identity structures.
Many nuances at play
Ultimately, understanding the role of Hindu-Muslim polarisation in this election requires a nuanced and layered analysis. If one looks at it only from the lens of Coastal Karnataka, one can say that religious polarisation allowed the BJP to largely keep the numbers it had, but it could not gain new numbers and even lost a few.
At the broader Karnataka level, religious polarisation faced much more serious challenges. The BJP began by scrapping the Muslim reservation quota. Next, its central leadership invoked communal issues: Modi began and ended all his speeches with the “ Jai Bajrang Bali” slogan; Shah said the Congress believed in the Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan; and BJP MP Tejasvi Surya called Karnataka the land of Bajrang Bali, but the BJP failed to consolidate Hindu votes.
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In a wider context, these results have important lessons to offer vis-a-vis communal polarisation. While the tactic may prove useful in some areas, such as Coastal Karnataka, it has serious limitations in other regions that have different caste and class equations. Communal politics and creating a Hindu-Muslim binary alone will not help the BJP make significant inroads into the State.
During ticket distribution, the BJP had indirectly indicated that it was looking for a change of guard and that a new State-level leadership would emerge. The party now needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with a fresh strategy for Karnataka. It needs to focus on building its organisational base and creating a social coalition that keeps Karnataka’s complexities in mind.
Sanjal Shastri is an independent researcher who recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Auckland. He did his master’s in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.