Karnataka’s Hindutva hate politics: Blame it on a weak CM and an edgy Opposition

BJP insiders say that the government has had little control over how these events targeting minorities have unravelled and in most cases, has played catch-up.
Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai addressing a gathering
Karnataka CM Basavaraj Bommai addressing a gathering
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For almost a year now, without a break, Karnataka had been witnessing the roll out of Hindutva projects one after another. A pattern has emerged in how minorities are first targeted with hate speech, then Hindu groups go on a rampage, taking law into their own hands often and then comes the state sanction, sometimes even culminating in a policy change. But are these projects, much like in states like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, by the design of the state government?

BJP insiders say that the government has had little control over how these events unravelled and in most cases, has played catch-up. Despite BJP snatching power from the JD(S)-Congress combine in July 2019, it took Basavaraj Bommai to be appointed the Chief Minister for the state to become another active lab for ‘Hindutva experiments’. 

Bommai’s electoral deficiency has been on display several times after he became the CM. Despite Amit Shah’s endorsement, hardly anybody in the party concedes that he can be the mass leader who can help the BJP win the next Assembly election or even influence pockets where voters of his own caste, the Lingayats, are in large concentration. To neutralise his lack of leadership skills, Bommai has found it easier to be dragged along by the non-state actors, who are setting the agenda for governance.

Sugata Srinivasaraju says Bommai’s predecessor Yediyurappa used caste primarily to build support for the BJP; Hindutva was secondary to him. “When Yediyurappa was in power too there were communal incidents but their proportion and intensity varied. Immediately after he came to power in 2008, there were attacks on churches and on women. But the difference is that he could shout at his own people and stop the attacks,” says Sugata Srinivasaraju, a journalist and author, who has covered Karnataka politics for over two decades. “Yediyurappa could manage this because he was the BJP’s mass face, and also because he felt responsible. He was not ideologically drunk. Bommai is neither a mass face nor does he feel responsible for anything. He is a very cold person,” he alleges. 

Be it in the case of the anti-conversion Bill, where Hindu organisations pressured the state government into drafting and tabling the legislation or in the hijab row, where in response to six young women asserting their right to wear hijab thousands of students from right-wing organisations were mobilised in protest, to the latest flash point over Halal meat, the state government followed a reactive approach.

Professor Muzzafar Assadi says such issues are blowing up in the state because of an ‘invisible CM’, who is not seen as containing communalism. He says that Bommai is not from the same social and ideological background and is new to the BJP culture. He has not had any real training because of his background in the Janata Parivar rather than the RSS, he adds. “Because of his social background, of being a lingayat, he became an accidental CM. Mostly, he remains silent and speaks after pressure by non-state actors from within the Sangh Parivar ambit,” says Assadi,  a political scientist and the Chairperson of Departments of Political Science and Public Administration, University of Mysore.

Legislators who were not very well known beyond their own constituencies or region have started speaking out more vehemently against minorities in the state. One prime example is how Goolihatti Shekhar, the legislators of Hosadurga spearheaded the campaign for the anti-conversion Bill. A source in the BJP told TNM that this is happening more frequently because legislators now feel that they don’t have a mass leader like Yediyurappa to fall back on to help them win elections. And to fend for themselves, they have taken to such tactics. 

“PM Modi will still be a factor in the Assembly elections but it alone cannot help the party win the state. Even in Uttar Pradesh, it was the combination of Yogi Adityanath and Modi which helped them win elections. And in Karnataka, Bommai cannot be the support act,” the source said.   

Another BJP leader said that CM Bommai hopes to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor and mentor Yediyurappa with anti-minority policies. In the absence of any real vision for the government or state and with only his political survival in mind, Bommai has been buttressing the anti-minority policies in the state. He says that many within the BJP too believe that all this is just noise and may not materialise into votes come 2023 Assembly elections. But in the absence of a strong vision for governance, there is nothing else for BJP leaders to harp on. 

“Knowing well that price rise is a big issue, that development has taken a backseat and corruption is high, there is a need for the party to divert attention,” says Prof Assadi. “Look at how Harsha’s murder was dealt with. Just before his murder, Eshwarappa was being cornered for his remark on unfurling the saffron flag on Red Fort. The murder then became the only talking point in the media,” he adds. 

Prof Assadi feels that the current political atmosphere in Karnataka is not just a bid to win elections but for ideological conversion of people. “The first process is the mobilisation on the basis of caste identity. Second is to merge it with the Hindu identity, which is homogenous. The third step is to convert that into Hindutva, which is a political conversion,” says Assadi. 

He however feels the process is not easy in Karnataka, where people haven’t experienced the trauma of the 1947 partition directly. “There is no mediaeval history of rampant conversion or pillage. So in the absence of history, it is difficult for Hindutva to root itself, which is why they have to invent new trajectories,” he observes.

They need to keep up the tempo of certain incidents to project a particular community as monsters, as outsiders and as others, he says. “Their politics is about majority versus minority, the us versus them. So they need to construct a perception that the majority community is under threat,” Prof Assadi adds.   

Sugata Srinivasaraju says that Bommai is a nominee of certain factions within the BJP and RSS and it is obvious that he is trying to appease them. “He has no control over the party organisation and is not a mass leader either. Therefore, he cannot stand up to anyone. But there is a method to the madness that has been unleashed in Karnataka. BJP does not want to make caste central to its mobilisation of votes anymore. Post-Yeddyurappa, it wants to create a universal Hindutva electorate. This would be more in alignment with their national agenda,” he says. 

Meanwhile, the Opposition, particularly Congress, has been on the backfoot on these issues for months now. Across Karnataka, when the hijab row had polarised colleges and universities, and student protests were being led on one side by the Campus Front of India(CFI) and by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) on the other, Congress was conspicuously missing on ground. Even in the state Assembly, the party chose to cause ruckus over senior Minister Eshwarappa’s comment on the Saffron flag to be hoisted over the Red Fort rather than take up the hijab issue seriously. When the BJP brought Shivamogga to standstill, mobilising public opinion over the murder of Hindu activist Harsha, Congress leaders were busy with Mekedatu Padayatra and barely were seen countering the BJP. 

Sources in the Congress say the party is averse to taking up these issues directly mostly because of the fear of politically alienating the majority population. “Initially, party leaders were asked not to go for a direct confrontation as it could have an adverse bearing on the Uttar Pradesh elections,” a party source told TNM. “Later it just became a matter of not deciding the party’s stand clearly,” the source added. 

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