The emergence of the BJP as the single-largest party in the recently concluded Assembly elections in Karnataka has led to several analyses that have tried to identify the reasons behind the party’s success. Like all other elections, the success of the BJP needs to be understood as an outcome of several long-term and short-term factors.
The immediate triggers can obviously be located in the political strategies deployed by the Central and the state-level BJP functionaries, the consolidation of dominant castes against the Congress and the failure of the Congress to weave together a winning social coalition ahead of the polls. The popularity of the BJP in this region, however, needs to be understood through the lens of a longer time frame and by locating it outside the electoral realm.
This is especially important because in most regions of the country, the Sangh Parivar operates as an ecosystem that pervades every conceivable sphere of society and a comprehensive understanding of the political outfit necessitates an unpacking of this ecosystem.
The ideology of Hindutva is the life-force of the Parivar and, therefore, the RSS swayamsevaks invest considerable time and energy in nurturing and proliferating it by conducting shakhas, delivering seva (service) and undertaking cultural projects that prepare the ground for its electoral success.
The Azim Premji University-Lokniti Survey on ‘Politics Between Elections 2017’ found that more than three-quarters of respondents in Karnataka adopted a majoritarian position on nationalism. What explains this trend? Obviously, political stances are not adopted overnight; they are cultivated and built through life experiences, an exposure to mass media and civil society institutions that one engages with.
An analysis of the evolution of Hindutva in Karnataka sheds light on how this ideology made an entry in a southern Indian state where the rhetoric of Ram and Ayodhya may not make a dent in the ways in which it does in the Hindi heartland.
Evolution of the Sangh in Karnataka
Even though the BJP started making strident progress in Karnataka since the 1994 State Assembly elections, the ideology of Hindutva planted itself in the region as early as 1935, with the establishment of the first RSS shakha by Dadarao Paramarth, a Sangh pracharak (propagator), in Chikkodi, a small town in Belagavi district.
Since then, swayamsevaks of the RSS have been working slowly and assiduously towards building a strong foundation for the ideology of Hindutva. Interestingly, Belagavi forms part of the Mumbai Karnataka region, which has gradually evolved as a BJP bastion in the past few decades, partly due to the fact it is a Lingayat stronghold. the Lingayat community has been successfully mobilised by the BJP, and poll after poll, we have seen the community vote for the party. In the 2018 elections, the BJP won 30 of the 50 seats in this region.
It was the relentless efforts of Yadav Rao Joshi, another pracharak, that led to the strengthening of the RSS Karnataka. In January 1948, the Sangh achieved an important breakthrough when it organised a mega youth camp in Bengaluru, which was attended by over 10,000 swayamsevaks from across the country. This euphoria, however, was short-lived because, after a few days, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by an ex-RSS man, following which the organization was banned by the Central government.
In 1949, after the ban was lifted, the second sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar visited Bengaluru and Hubbali, along with Yadav Rao Joshi, to take stock of the situation. They adopted a conscious effort to downplay the organisation’s paramilitary nature and to focus on social and cultural work instead.
From the 1960s, Yadav Rao Joshi concentrated his efforts on establishing the Sangh as a larger social movement that immersed itself in community development. He became instrumental in establishing several Sangh affiliates dedicated to seva such as the Rashtrotthana Parishat (1965), Hindu Seva Pratishthana (1980) and the Jana Seva Vidya Kendra (1972). These organizations continue to conduct seva activities in the realm of health, education and community development, and promote Sanskrit across the state.
According to a 2014 report published by the Rashtriya Sewa Bharati, there were 7,646 seva projects operational in Karnataka. In addition to service-oriented organizations, Joshi also started publications such as Jagran Prakashan (1971), Pungava Jagran newspaper (1979) and Balagokulam of Kerala (1974).
The efforts of Yadav Rao Joshi in popularising Hindutva in this region paid rich dividends as several dedicated swayamsevaks who drew inspiration from him started taking the work of the Sangh forward. Like its neighbouring state of Maharashtra, Karnataka has produced several RSS leaders who have occupied senior ranks in the organization. Just two months before the Karnataka elections, a full-timer Mukund CR was appointed as the Joint General Secretary of the RSS. Other prominent leaders include ex-Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa, KS Eshwarappa, Dattatreya Hosabale, the late KS Sudarshan and the late HV Sheshadri.
Expansion of RSS affiliates
Apart from the work of the RSS, other affiliates of the Sangh Parivar also acquired a footing in this region since pre-Independence days. In 1944, VD Savarkar, accompanied by Nathuram Godse, visited Shivamogga to address a state-level Hindu Mahasabha conference which was organized to instill ‘love’ and ‘pride’ amongst Hindus. The fact that the BJP won 6 out of 7 seats here in the last election is a testimony to the continued popularity of the party in this region.
In the political realm, however, the Hindutva tasted success here only from the mid-1980s onward as Shivamogga had emerged as a big centre of socialist politics too, post-Independence.
The political affiliate of the Sangh Parivar also started building a base in Karnataka from the early 1960s. In 1968, the Bharatiya Jan Sangh won the civic body elections in Udupi; apparently, the first occasion when the party came to power in an elected body in south India.
When the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was formed in 1964, Dadasaheb Apte found an ally in the Mysuru Maharaja, Sri Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, who agreed to lead the Parishad as one of its Conveners. The VHP held its third national executive meeting on May 27-28, 1965, in the royal palace of the Mysuru Maharaja. The head of the Pejavurmatha in Udupi, Vishweshateertha Swami, an associate of BS Golwalkar, was another founder member of the VHP from this region who played an influential role in promoting Hindutva in coastal Karnataka in the early years.
In 1969, he organised the first state-level conference of the VHP and invited Golwalkar to be the chief guest in the event. According to RSS veteran leader MG Vaidya, the approval for allowing ‘gharwapsi’ in Hinduism was first given by the Swami in Sri Krishna Math, Udupi, in 1969. An ardent supporter of the VHP, his matha collaborated on several social welfare activities with the VHP, especially for poor tribals. He was also one of the primary leaders of the Ramjanamabhoomi movement and even met Prime Minister Modi in July 2014 after he assumed office.
The VHP’s popularity grew during the years of the Emergency, and gradually expanded to other regions of the state such as such as Hubbali, Dharwad, Raichur and Bagalakote. From the end of the 1970s, however, more extremist and militant groups such as the Hindu Yuva Sene, and, at a later stage (in the 1990s), the Hindu Jagarana Vedike, the Bajrang Dal and Sri Ram Sene unleashed a more virulent form of Hindutva in the state.
Consolidation in coastal Karnataka
Reports in the press indicate that over 50,000 RSS swayamsevaks relentlessly campaigned for the BJP at the grassroots level in the months leading up to the elections, a fact that was also acknowledged by the General Secretary of the BJP, Ram Madhav. An analysis of the growth of the Sangh Parivar in this region helps situate the fact that the party won 18 of the 21 seats better.
Muzaffar Assadi has argued that Sangh-affiliated bodies were particularly successful in consolidating Hindus in coastal Karnataka due to the religious demography of these districts (large Muslim concentrations), the economic prosperity of the Gulf-returned Muslims (disliked by the Hindus) and the displacement of a sense of identity of the dominant caste Hindus after the breakdown of the zamindari system since the 1970s.
The organization of ‘Hindu Samajotsavas’ and Ganesha festivals have been useful strategies to mobilize the Hindu masses here. Coastal Karnataka was further polarised after it experienced communal riots in the towns of Bhatkal,Dharawad, and Shivamogga during the Ramjanambhoomi movement in 1989. Another communally sensitive spot that has proven fertile for the spread of Hindutva is Hubbali, which has seen communal violence since 1972 and has witnessed over 30 communal incidents since then, owing to the disputed Idgah maidan property.
Soft Hindutva turn of the Congress
The popularity of Hindutva today, not only in Karnataka but even elsewhere in the country, can be gauged from the fact that even its biggest detractor, the Congress party, habitually indulges in what analysts have termed as ‘soft Hindutva’.
While in the run-up to the Gujarat state elections in 2017, Rahul Gandhi was seen visiting several temples including the famous Somnath temple; in Karnataka, ex-Chief Minister Siddaramaiah followed suit by visiting several temples and mathas before the state elections. Siddaramaiah also drew the attention of the media when he made public statements, seeking to establish his Hindu identity, a few months before the elections.
Several analysts have viewed this ‘soft Hindutva’ stance as a ploy to woo Hindu voters before the elections, especially since the BJP had begun accusing the Congress of being anti-Hindu in its campaign. However, what is important to acknowledge here is the appropriation of a certain discourse that is gradually being seen as legitimate and even essential to win elections.
An analysis of the Hindutva’s experiment in Karnataka reveals that it has come a long way.
Though this ideology laid a footing in the Karnataka region as early as 1935, it could not create a significant impact in the beginning, perhaps owing to its unpopularity after the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 by one of its previous members. Over a period of over 60 years, however, the Sangh Parivar had managed to establish a strong foothold in civil society by expanding its activities in the domains of seva, religion and politics. These activities were nurtured through the efforts of a variety of affiliates of the Sangh Parivar.
Finally, the electoral success of the BJP, especially after it emerged as the single largest party in 2004 elections, provided a solid footing for the ideology to consolidate itself politically. The emergence of the BJP as the single-largest party again in the recent elections in Karnataka, even though it failed to form the government, is a testimony of and a tribute to the phenomenal contribution of the Parivar in bolstering the fortunes of its political affiliate.
Views expressed are author’s own
Malini Bhattacharjee is an Assistant Professor at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.