Can the BJP’s strategy succeed in Karnataka?

To stop the communalism project, spontaneous bits of local resistance need to influence larger political processes

April 26, 2022 01:12 pm | Updated 04:59 pm IST

College students under the banner Mangalore University Students’ Coordination Committee staged a protest on March 25, 2022 near the Clock Tower in Mangaluru alleging that some colleges and the State government are misusing the verdict of Karnataka High Court by not allowing the Hijab clad students into the class rooms.

College students under the banner Mangalore University Students’ Coordination Committee staged a protest on March 25, 2022 near the Clock Tower in Mangaluru alleging that some colleges and the State government are misusing the verdict of Karnataka High Court by not allowing the Hijab clad students into the class rooms. | Photo Credit: MANJUNATH HS

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Karnataka has launched an anti-Muslim project of extreme proportions in the State. It has thrown the entire weight of state power behind this exercise, interpreting the law in a way that extends this project.

Points of departure

This attack on Muslims is unprecedented. It is not that Karnataka has been without its share of communal strife. The last few decades saw several instances of extreme communal violence across the State, including, and especially, in its ‘cosmopolitan’ capital, Bengaluru. But the current initiative of the State’s ruling party marks a major departure from the past in at least two important ways.

First, the current wave of communalism is clearly planned. In the past there had been incidents that led to communal anger. While these incidents did have their tragic consequences, the intensity of the conflict tended to die down after reaching an angry peak. In the present case, the BJP has a series of issues lined up, and follows through on them one after another. The effort is evidently to consistently keep communal tensions at a high, possibly till the State elections due next year.

Watch | Karnataka's hijab controversy explained

The second point of departure is in the nature of the issues that are being raised. The righteousness that went with the anger in previous communal conflicts came from a sense of victimhood. Each community made a case that it was the victim of a particular set of events. In the present round, the claim of being victims has often receded into the background. Hindus are in no way affected by what Muslim girls wear to school, but that has not stopped the BJP and its government from making the wearing of the hijab an issue for concerted state action.

An element of desperation

The extent to which the BJP in Karnataka is willing to go in its communalism project suggests an element of desperation in its political strategy. Even as the State is touted as the BJP’s fortress in the South, the party’s political influence in Karnataka has been somewhat tenuous. In the 2013 Assembly elections after B.S. Yediyurappa left the party, the BJP was left competing for second place with the Janata Dal (Secular). The return of Mr. Yediyurappa certainly boosted the party’s fortunes in 2018, but it still fell short of a majority.

When it did come to power in 2019, it was due to defections from the Congress and the JD(S), which had cobbled together a coalition government in 2018. While the defectors got their pounds of flesh in terms of ministries and other perks, the party’s ability to control its other MLAs eroded. Among the consequences of this lack of control was rampant corruption, with the contractors’ association claiming that they are expected to pay 40% as commission. With performance clearly not its administration’s strong point, the BJP has fallen back on communal strife as its route to power in the next elections.

A meek opposition

The BJP has been substantially helped in this project by the abject ideological surrender of opposition parties in Karnataka. The Congress has been largely silent. Former Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been challenging the government on communalism, but he is clearly fighting a lone battle. The silence of Congress leaders in the State is deafening. Indeed, even the JD(S) has been more vocal in its criticism of the BJP’s communalism project in recent weeks. But as a party that has allied with the BJP in the past, the JD(S) has been known to swing between challenging communalism and trying to benefit from it.

Popular fightback

With opposition political parties deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, people have been left to their own devices. And in terms of challenging the BJP’s project they have done a better job than the opposition parties. First, they have defended their syncretic traditions. Bengaluru’s largest festival, the centuries-old Karaga, was resumed in full form this month after a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisers made it clear that this would include the traditional visit to the major mosque in the area. The 900-year-old Chennakesava temple in Belur also followed its traditional practice of having a Moulvi recite from the Koran at the launch of its festival.

A more widespread public resistance to the communalism project was in response to the BJP’s campaign against halal meat this year. This was a poorly disguised move to hurt the livelihood of Muslim butchers. Hindu customers of halal meat refused to simply fall in line with the campaign. They did not want to be told what meat they should consume, especially by a group that was seen to be predominantly vegetarian.

To stop the communalism project, these spontaneous bits of local resistance need to influence larger political processes. This is not impossible. The path of extreme communal conflict is not necessarily in the interests of all of those who were responsible for the rise of the BJP in Karnataka. A major component of Mr. Yeddiyurappa’s strategy for the party was the mobilisation of Lingayat mathas. These institutions have, sometimes over centuries, built their own spheres of influence. As the BJP shifts to extreme communalism, the influence of the RSS becomes more visible. In the process at least some of the mathas may be pushed to the background. The head of one matha has even publicly stated that the matha had to pay a 30% commission to get the funds allotted to it released by the State government.

It is also possible that the party would have to decide on the negative international fallout of the communalism project on investments in Bengaluru. Most foreign investors would have to take into account the costs of investing in a city that is being led by the government to a path of communal conflict. This is a concern that the head of Biocon, Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, has voiced. What is interesting though, is that the IT industry has not come out openly in support of her. On the contrary, some individuals associated with the IT industry have joined the communalism campaign on social media. They evidently believe they have more to gain by lining up behind the government in its extreme communalism campaign than by worrying about investors in Bengaluru. If their own investments are hit, they can join the flight of capital out of the city into greener pastures in other States in India or even abroad.

The political fate of the BJP’s extreme communalism project thus hangs in the balance. The party perhaps thinks it can generate sufficient hate for Muslims to fuel a Hindu consolidation at the time of the next elections. But it is not clear that the people of Karnataka will simply give up all syncretic traditions. What must cause concern though is that the campaign itself will extract its costs, including widespread social and economic damage which may not be confined to Muslims.

(Narendar Pani is Professor and Dean, School of Social Sciences, Head, Inequality and Human Development Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru)

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