Can Hindutva push beyond its traditional bastion to deliver results for the BJP in Karnataka?

Karnataka saw an intense communal campaign between January and June, 2022, and its larger electoral implications are yet to be known

April 22, 2023 08:17 pm | Updated April 23, 2023 12:34 pm IST - BENGALURU

Former Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddiyurappa with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. File

Former Karnataka Chief Minister B S Yeddiyurappa with Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai. File | Photo Credit: Sushakara Jain

When the BJP pushed through a change of guard in its government in Karnataka in July 2021, from B.S. Yediyurappa to Basavaraj Bommai, it also marked a change in the tone of both the party and its government in the State. It kicked off an experiment to push “hardline Hindutva”, and whether it will yield dividends for the BJP is to be seen in the upcoming elections.

Communal polarisation

On the one hand, the government passed laws like The Karnataka Protection of Right to Freedom of Religion Act, 2021, (better known as the anti-conversion law), ostensibly to fight “love jihad”, and The Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Act (KPSPCA), 2020, (the cow slaughter ban law), with stringent clauses. On the other hand, the State saw intense communal polarisation, especially in the first half of 2022, an unprecedented campaign that started with banning Muslim girlsfrom wearing hijab in classrooms in Udupi and which soon extended to calls for banning halal meat and the azaan or Muslim call to prayer, and even for a boycott of Muslim traders in temple fairs. 

However, that communal campaign slowed down by June 2022. “There was a realisation within the party that it had gone too far and taking the narrative any further may backfire. So the volume was reduced,” a senior strategist for the BJP said.

Interestingly, the demand for slowing down came from the party’s leaders in coastal Karnataka, a region considered to be Hindutva’s laboratory in the State, sources said. This is the region where the murder of a BJP worker, Praveen Nattaru, has come to haunt the party as the workers are angry at the leaders for “doing little” for their safety and cause. The ban on radical Muslim organisation, the Popular Front of India (PFI), was an attempt to assuage this anger, sources said.  However, the BJP has now fielded leaders like Yashpal Suvarna, a Hindutva hardliner who was the face of the hijab campaign and was earlier accused of cow vigilantism. 

Beyond its traditional pockets

What was different about last year’s Hindutva push was that it went beyond the traditional ideological pockets of coastal Karnataka and the Mumbai Karnataka or Kittur Karnataka regions. The hijab protests spread even to Mandya, part of the Vokkaliga heartland; the Ram Navami celebrations of 2022 saw communal flare-ups in several parts of the Kalyana Karnataka region, besides the Kolar and Chikkaballapur districts.

The BJP has tried to revive the Idgah Maidan dispute in Bengaluru, promised a Ram Mandir — on the lines of the one being built in Ayodhya — in Ramanagara, and is developing Anjanadri temple, said to be the “birthplace of Hanuman” in Koppal. The party tried to push a theory that two Vokkaliga chieftains, Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda, killed 19th century Muslim ruler Tipu Sultan for his alleged atrocities against Hindus. This narrative against the king, who died in the Fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799, had to beat an unforeseen retreat, as a section of Vokkaligas perceived it as an attempt to brand their community as “traitors” who killed a man who is still regarded a “hero.”

While the BJP is making an aggressive pitch in the region, a senior party leader said that it was unlikely they would break into Vokkaliga votes at least this election season, given that both Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee president D. K. Shivakumar and Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former Chief Minister H.D. Kumaraswamy are fighting hard for this bloc. “But we have hopes of making inroads into the community in the future. We have seen signs that the community is receptive to Hindutva,” a senior BJP leader said. 

Internal power struggle

The Hindutva push across the State is also a struggle within the BJP, with hardliners trying to wrest control over the State unit of the party, and to reduce its dependence on caste vote banks or a mass leader like B.S. Yediyurappa. The former Chief Minister brought the BJP to power, for the first time in South India, with the help of lateral entrants and engineered defections, snatching a share of the erstwhile Janata Party votebase and Lingayat support.

“We have made a lot of compromises to bring the party to power and now that we are in numero uno position across the country, it is time to convert the party in the State into a more ideologically cohesive and committed unit. The high command’s keenness on the project is evident in the change of guard in the State,” a party leader said. 

However, leaders from the other faction argue that the “ideological project” was only a cover for the individual ambition of leaders. “As long as the politics of the party in the State is dependent on mass politics and caste alliances, several of these hardline Hindutva leaders can never dream of becoming Chief Ministers. But if the party vote base is made to vote on Hindutva, caste questions will be subsumed and anybody can become leaders. The high command is also keen on this outcome as they do not want regional satraps,” said a senior BJP leader. 

Lingayat rebellion

The recent rebellion of Jagadish Shettar, Laxman Savadi and Ayanur Manjunath — all Lingayats — who were denied tickets and joined the Congress and JD(S), echoes the rebellion by their fellow Lingayat Mr. Yediyurappa back in 2012 when he briefly floated his own party. It shows that the community’s relationship with the BJP, even of those leaders from the RSS stables, does not negate their caste loyalties. Mr. Shettar has blamed B.L. Santosh, the BJP’s national general secretary for organisation, and Union Minister Prahlad Joshi — both Brahmins — for the sidelining of Lingayats in the party. 

Though Karnataka is the first State in South India captured by the BJP, the party base here is unlike that of northern States. The party banks on the caste base of Veerashaiva-Lingayats, Valmikis and SC (Left). Whether the BJP is able to subsume these caste identities in the larger Hindutva basket, and woo new communities on the Hindutva plank, is the key question.

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