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HomeOpinionIn coastal Karnataka, 76-year-old RSS veteran is the BJP's 'commander-in-chief'

In coastal Karnataka, 76-year-old RSS veteran is the BJP’s ‘commander-in-chief’

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In this region, the real issues – farmer distress, fear of areca nut-ban, joblessness, diversion of river water, illegal sand mining – are forgotten.

That Udupi featured on the first day of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s blitzkrieg in Karnataka should be no surprise. In 1968, the relatively unknown Jana Sangh had hoisted its first victory flag in the Udupi Municipal Council, and L.K. Advani had predicted it as the seat of the party’s future power in the south. Today, the same coastal Karnataka (Karavali), with a substantial Muslim population and famous for its hotels, banking and entrepreneurship, is an important BJP bastion.

Earlier, the party enjoyed support mainly of the Bunts and Saraswat Brahmins, but today most of the areca nut, coconut, bank and district cooperatives witness a BJP sweep. It won all three parliamentary constituencies in 2014, and saw a peak vote share of over 40 per cent in 2004. The Congress made a comeback in the 2013 assembly polls, winning 14 of 19 seats.

Land reforms ushered by Devaraja Urs in the 1970s created a new space for the landless and backward castes to reclaim political and economic space. The dominant Billavas of coastal Karnataka, who were into toddy tapping, became businessmen, traders, politicians, and hoteliers. The Muslim community (especially the Nawayaths), who were into petty trading, were economically empowered with burgeoning employment opportunities in the Gulf, and many took to timber, granite, fisheries, and hospital businesses.

This clash of competing interests and fears of an economic takeover by the ‘other’ has fanned communal tensions in the region. The atmosphere was vitiated post the demolition of the Babri Masjid, with widespread communal clashes. The turning point was the brutal murder in 1996 of Dr U. Chittaranjan, an MLA from Bhatkal. A staunch RSS man and a genial doctor, he was a darling of all communities and helped lay a strong foundation for the BJP in the region. That someone like him could be murdered sent out waves of sympathy and anger and Hindu consolidation. Within three months, his protégé and associate Anant Kumar Hegde was elected MP from Uttara Kannada. Bhatkal has since remained the frightening face of jihadi terror, with the likes of Yasin and Riyaz Bhatkal hailing from here.

The murders of 24 persons affiliated to Hindu groups, allegedly by jihadi outfits, and the blind eye that the state government has turned to them, have polarised matters further. The murders of Sharat Madivala of the RSS in July 2017 and 19-year-old Paresh Mesta became a rallying point for the RSS-BJP, which is also raising issues of ‘love jihad’, like in the adjacent Kerala.

Whether it was the Sangh or outfits such as the PFI (Popular Front of India), the Campus Front of India (CFI) and the Social Democratic Party of India, who fanned tensions first is quite a chicken-and-egg problem. While rabid statements from BJP leaders in support of Hindu organisations make headlines, tacit support to Islamic outfits by the Congress have gone unnoticed. Videos and photographs of Congress MLA Ramanath Rai allegedly pressurising the police to foist cases against RSS leaders, and minister U.T. Khader lunching with a supposed associate of the murderer of Bajrang Dal activist Deepak Rao went viral.

The virulent counter-attack is led by leaders such as 76-year-old RSS veteran Prabhakar Bhat Kalladka, who has been called a virtual ‘commander-in-chief’ and ‘kingpin’ of Karavali. He makes explosive and provocative speeches (for which he was booked), and in his defence, Yeddyurappa had said that the state would burn if he was arrested. For the first time, Kalladka has been involved in assembly elections, with massive mobilisation of people and door-to-door campaigns. This polarised atmosphere spurred the BJP’s Sanjay Patil to paint the assembly polls as a fight between Hindus and Muslims.

The issues the BJP raises in Karavali are different from the rest of the state, transcending caste-politics and retaining a pan-Hindu ideological consolidation — paint the Congress and especially Siddaramaiah as an anti-Hindu leader who practices appeasement politics by repealing the anti-cow slaughter bill; preferential monetary aid to only Urdu schools; withdrawing cases against Muslim accused; hounding Sangh karyakartas; and celebrating “genocidal” kings such as Tipu Sultan.

In March 2018, the BJP led its massive ‘Karnataka Suraksha Yatre’ simultaneously from Ankola and Kushalnagara in Kodagu to highlight the Karavali communal violence. Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath addressed a rally in Mangaluru. Interestingly, Yogi is a key player in the influential Kadali Yogeshwara (Jogi) Matha in Mangaluru, which had erupted in celebrations when he became CM. There are quite a few Jogis in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts that have nurtured the Natha Sampradaya since the times of its pioneer saints Matsyendranath and Gorakhnath.

The Congress has hardly a counter-narrative except for widespread temple hopping by Rahul Gandhi, and Siddaramaiah’s certificates on who is a true Hindu.

In all the communal conflicts, the real issues facing Karavali have sadly got drowned — farmer distress due to the falling prices of areca nut and pepper; fears of an areca nut ban in view of the gutka ban; rising unemployment following Gulf layoffs; diversion of Nethravathi water to Kolar and Chikkaballapura; rampant illegal sand mining; threats to biodiversity in the iconic Western Ghats; and lack of tourism development.

The Billavas, who form 30 per cent of the population in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada and follow saint Narayana Guru, are upset with their token seat-representation by both BJP and Congress, with the lion’s share going to the other dominant Bunt community. They have launched active social media campaigns to highlight their grouses, as have Mogaveeras, Kulals and Devadigas.

CFore, Karvy, CVoter and VMR Opinion Polls indicate that as of April-end, Karavali was poised for a tight neck-and-neck contest. BJP held an edge of 0.99 per cent with an estimated vote share of 42.73 per cent, while the Congress’s share was predicted to be 41.72 per cent. The JD(S) trailed with 7.81 per cent.

It is here that the BJP hopes that the Modi-magic, coupled with the campaigns by Amit Shah, Anant Kumar Hegde and Shobha Karandlaje will see them through in Karavali.

Dr Vikram Sampath is a Bengaluru-based award-winning author/historian and political commentator.

This is the second essay in a series by the author on the upcoming Karnataka elections. Read the first part here.

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