In the century-old trajectory of the growth of Hindutva in India, Karnataka has been a crucial outpost and is heralded as BJP’s “gateway” to south India. When Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, some members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh were arrested in coastal Karnataka showing the early popular support Hindu communalism had in the Kannada-speaking region.
The saffron party has had a stranglehold on coastal Karnataka where its communal ideology has deeply anchored itself over many decades. In other parts of the State, mainly parts of north-west Karnataka (Kittur Karnataka) and central Karnataka, the BJP has entrenched itself as a dominant party riding on support from the politically influential Lingayat community. Commencing from this Lingayat base and the support of the Brahmin caste, the BJP has also successfully constructed a social coalition that includes sections of the backward castes, Dalits, and tribal people. Over the past two decades, the party has also been more popular than the opposition in urban centres across the State, including Bengaluru.
The saffron party has frequently emerged with the most number of seats in the Assembly if not the largest vote share, and despite not having a simple majority, it has gone on to form governments twice (2008 and 2019) by luring MLAs from opposition parties through “Operation Kamala”, which it pioneered in Karnataka. In parliamentary elections, Karnataka has favoured the BJP in the past four occasions (since 2004) with the party’s vote share reaching 51.7 per cent in 2019. Why has Karnataka bucked the trend in keeping the saffron forces at bay and remained an outlier in south India?
Events demonstrating saffronisation
Many readers of a prominent Kannada newspaper in Bengaluru were struck by its reportage of three events that took place on December 25 last year in different parts of Karnataka. These reports are a good point to begin an inquiry into making sense of the long-term process of saffronisation that has taken place in Karnataka. The broadsheet had thematically grouped this reportage on the same page as they all marked Hindu religious processions and suddenly, when seen together, the surfeit of saffron in the accompanying pictures clearly displayed the tremendous pervasion of Hindutva in Karnataka. Significantly, each of these events in geographically disparate locations was a manifestation and culmination of the BJP’s decades-long efforts, along with those of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, to saffronise Karnataka.
The first event was the Datta Jayanti held at the historic shrine of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in the hills of Chikkamagaluru district. The shrine was famed over the past few centuries for its splendorous representation of syncretism as it was patronised by both Hindus and Muslims. Purveyors of Hindutva, who began to make strident claims on the shrine from the 1980s alongside the national movement for the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, have ensured that the heterogenous nature of the shrine has been substantially altered with the annual Datta Jayanti becoming a space to demonstrate Islamophobic Hindu triumphalism.
In the 1990s, when the movement to “liberate” the Bababudan shrine picked up, most of the Hindu right-wing cadre were drawn from coastal Karnataka, from developed hinterland around cities like Mangaluru and Udupi to lend support to a slew of programmes intended to shore up support for this “Ayodhya of the South”. Why coastal Karnataka? That was the period when the foundation for communal polarisation had been laid in that region and a charged Hindu cadre was ready to be unleashed. Their availability for such activity would soon engender a support base for the BJP in the western hill districts such as Shivamogga and Chikkamagaluru.
Development of communalism
To understand the background for the development of communalism in coastal Karnataka, one must survey the political and economic developments in the region from the 1970s onwards. The success of land redistribution laws and the linkages of national and international capital because of the high migration from the region caused a churn in social relations. The economic liberalisation of the 1990s caused the forces of communalism and capitalism to blend seamlessly, deepening the inter-religious fractures in the region. Things have reached such a troubled state now that its high development indices notwithstanding, coastal Karnataka is often in the news for stories of moral policing and aggressive cow vigilantism. More recent instances of Hindutva bullying such as the ban on hijabs in classrooms and the boycott of Muslim businesses also had their provenance in this region.
The second event took place in Srirangapatna, Tipu Sultan’s capital during his reign of Mysore in the late 18th century. Tipu’s legacy has become enmeshed in polarising debates regarding his perceived approach to religion. As part of a move to demonise Tipu, there is also an allegation that the Masjid-e-Ala in Srirangapatna was built by Tipu after demolishing a temple. There have been attempts to storm the mosque in the past, and on December 25 last year, during a Sankeertana Yatra, Hindu devotees lingered in front of the mosque where they sang bhajans in praise of Ram.
The undercurrent of vituperative hostility against Tipu in Karnataka led by the Kodava community has always been there, but the celebration of Tipu’s birthday as a State event by Chief Minister Siddaramaiah (in his previous term) from 2015 onwards galvanised the BJP and its allied organisations to convert this geographically restricted malice into a Statewide movement. Several unsubstantiated claims by amateur historians began to be bandied about as proof of Tipu’s bigotry, leading to an explosive ascendance of saffron power in Karnataka. The entire kerfuffle also led to the branding of Siddaramaiah as a Muslim partisan and set the stage for the Congress’ defeat in the 2018 Assembly election.
- Commencing from its Lingayat base and dominant caste support in Karnataka, the BJP has also successfully constructed a social coalition that includes sections of the backward castes, Dalits, and tribal people.
- Three events in disparate locations was a manifestation and culmination of the BJP’s decades-long efforts, along with those of the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, to saffronise the State.
- The greatest advantage for the BJP is past voter behaviour in the State, which, over the past four Lok Sabha elections, has disproportionately favoured the BJP despite the party’s below par performance in the Assembly elections.
Expanding the BJP’s social base
While the first two events had a straightforward and zealous anti-Muslim sentiment, the third event—again a religious procession—which took place atop the Hanuman hill temple in Anegundi across the Vijayanagara-era capital of Hampi on December 25, portrayed the BJP’s use of religious emotion to expand its social base.
According to local lore, the temple was built on the site of the birthplace of Hanuman, and this claim has been buttressed by BJP leaders who have linked it to the burgeoning tourism industry of sites associated with the life of Ram. Located at the centre of a wide swathe of territory dominated by Scheduled Tribes who have become the largest demographic bloc among the worshippers at this temple, the glitzy transformation of this hitherto low-profile temple has been accompanied by the political expansion of the BJP in a former Congress belt. The larger lesson from this example is how the BJP astutely managed to periodically rejig its social support base leading to it emerging as a powerful force in Karnataka politics.
The party has always been ready to take advantage of political and policy developments to expand its social base. The exemplar of this strategy was not even consciously done by the BJP but it continues to reap benefits from this: the story goes back to 1990 when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, in a display of the Congress high command’s haughty authority, removed Veerendra Patil, a Lingayat, as Chief Minister. Chafing at this insult, the Lingayats moved away from the Congress and supported Ramakrishna Hegde initially, and after his death, B.S. Yediyurappa, bolstering the rise of the BJP in the State. And so, the community, which, with its radical 12th century creed of anti-caste egalitarianism, could have challenged the Vedic and Brahminical roots of Hindutva, was co-opted by the BJP.
The BJP also managed to extend its base among a section of Dalits when it supported the demand of the Madigas (an agglomeration of Dalits who are relatively more backward than the Holeyas) to implement internal reservation before the 2018 Assembly election. The party has also lured a section of the backward castes and tribal people through the proliferation of mutts with their Sanskritisation tendencies that have prepared the ground for the acceptance of the idea of a monolithic body of Hindu followers. This powerful religious appeal that is espoused directly or indirectly by the national BJP leadership has captivated a large chunk of the intermediate and backward castes in Karnataka with its promise of upward social mobility.
Past voter behaviour is advantageous
These three recent events capture the BJP’s strategic long-term success that was cooked with a primary layer of religion and topped by carefully measured ingredients drawn from the cultural and social sphere, leading to political gains. As the country heads towards the Lok Sabha election, tentatively set to take place in April, how does the BJP stand in Karnataka? The greatest advantage for the BJP is past voter behaviour in the State, which, over the past four Lok Sabha elections, has disproportionately favoured the BJP despite the party’s below par performance in the Assembly elections. If we rely on past voting patterns, it is possible that the Congress will not secure the almost 43 per cent vote share that it secured in the 2023 Assembly election leading to its landslide victory, while the BJP may well emerge as the party that walks away with the largest chunk of votes in Karnataka. For the Congress, the challenge will be to retain most of its support and to win more than 10 of the 28 seats in the coming Lok Sabha election. In 2019, the party won just one seat.
With the appointment of Yediyurappa’s son, B.Y. Vijayendra, as the BJP State president, and Yediyurappa’s follower, R. Ashoka, as Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly, the party’s brief flirtation with aggressive Hindutva, seen during former Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai’s tenure, has been rolled back.
Interestingly, Yediyurappa is the only BJP leader from the pre-Narendra Modi era who continues to remain influential in any State in India. Yediyurappa remains relevant even though he is not a bellicose Hindutva ideologue because the formidable barrier of caste still impedes the thorough saffronisation of Karnataka, and the BJP needs a tall Lingayat leader like him to remain relevant in the State.
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The support of the Janata Dal (Secular)—a party left in an existential crisis after its dismal performance in 2023—for the NDA will be certain to make a difference in the saffron alliance’s performance in the State. The BJP’s 2023 performance showed that the party had clawed its way into the core Vokkaliga heartland of the JD(S) in parts of south Karnataka. The JD(S) alliance with the BJP throws up interesting questions: What does this mean for the “Secular” part in the JD(S) name itself? In 2007, the BJP-JD(S) coalition government collapsed when H.D. Kumaraswamy withdrew his support. Reports at that time suggested that former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s stern rebuke forced Kumaraswamy to end his alliance. But this time around, Deve Gowda has blessed the alliance. Does this merely reflect the opportunistic politics of the JD(S) or does it also signify that saffron forces have become so overwhelming that there is no space for a secular regional outfit in Karnataka?
The answer to this question will depend on the Lok Sabha results later this year but there is no doubt that Karnataka’s saffronisation has proceeded at a steady pace over the past 50 years. It has received a fillip from the national mobilisation in favour of Hindutva, but it has also used local affairs, modelled on templates used in other parts of the country, to embed itself permanently in its southern outpost.