Contrary to expectations of 'Kannada pride' dominating the outcome of Karnataka elections, it is the issue of Hindutva that is fast becoming the weapon of choice for both the Congress and the BJP.
In September 2016, when violence broke out over the Cauvery water dispute in Karnataka, political circles were abuzz over how the issue of ‘Kannada identity’ and ‘Kannadiga pride’ would dominate the outcome of the elections two years down the line. Reminiscent of the 1991 anti-Tamil violence in the state, riots broke out over the water-sharing dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu with a massive loss to public property and infrastructure.
In what came across as a carefully thought out strategy of the Congress government in the state to attract votes, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah responded in 2017 by setting up a committee that would look into the legal aspects of a state flag. The objective was clear – to strike at the core of what was until now seen as the biggest issue in the upcoming elections, Kannadiga pride.
Cut to 2018 when the euphoria over the upcoming Assembly elections later this year is nearing its peak, Hindutva appears to have overtaken all other issues that until now appeared most important. Issues like potholed roads, development and allegations of minority appeasement by the BJP suddenly seem to have been put on the backburner.
Instead, it is the debate over ‘my Hindutva’ vs ‘your Hindutva’ that has taken the spotlight. And while Hindutva is an ideology that the BJP has been known to associate itself with, especially around the elections, the Congress too is now keen on ditching its pro-minority image in a bid to attract Hindu votes.
- If the demands of the state Congress unit are any indication, Congress president Rahul Gandhi is expected to visit major Hindu temples and seers in the course of his campaign for the party in the state.
- In a first, CM Siddaramaiah has openly begun to identify himself as a Hindu. “BJP has not taken a contract of Hindutva, they are misguiding people. No other party has as many Hindus as the Congress,” he said in an interview to Mint.
- Congress leaders, who until now talked of secularism and welfare of minorities, now openly declare that their image of being anti-Hindu couldn’t be further from reality.
So what brought about this change?
To some, the Congress’ decent run in the Gujarat election could be behind the apparent shift in stance. Rahul Gandhi’s Gujarat campaign also saw similar temple-hopping as part of the Congress’ plan to woo Hindu voters. The Congress even went to the extent of declaring Rahul a devout ‘Shiv Bhakt’ and a “Janeudhari Brahmin”. Though the Congress did not win Gujarat despite the anti-incumbency, it did give the BJP a run for its money.
To the more politically aware, it is the entry of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath into Karnataka as the BJP’s star campaigner ahead of the polls. Since his arrival in Karnataka, Adityanath has questioned Siddaramaiah’s Hindu credentials, targetted the Congress for not banning cow-slaughter and alleged that the law and order situation in the state has deteriorated in the previous years.
To his credit, the firebrand BJP leader has managed to shift the narrative to Hindutva and has forced the Congress to respond on the lines that the BJP would like the Congress to. History has it that the BJP benefits every time the narrative shifts to religious undertones. Though the issue of Hindutva has been simmering in the southern state – what with the killing of many who opposed the hardline right-wing ideology, Gauri Lankesh and MM Kalburgi to name a few – it is the manner in which the BJP has brought it back to the table, forcing the Congress to toe its line that makes it significant.
In the current scenario, one wouldn’t be surprised if the issue of Hindutva turns into the biggest factor deciding the political outcome in Karnataka a few months down the line.