Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah | @siddaramaiah
Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah | @siddaramaiah
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His tweets deriding the ‘northern imports’ of the BJP are among attempts to brand himself as a strong southern satrap, following the 7th century Chalukya king Pulikeshi.

In 618 A.D., Immadi Pulikeshi, the Chalukya king, from his capital Badami, stopped the march of Emperor Harshavardhana on the banks of the Narmada. Harshavardhana, who had been invincible till then, was stopped in his tracks, and Pulikeshi earned the title of ‘Dakshinapatheshwara’ or the Lord of the South. His heroic exploits are a favourite of folklore, popular literature and cinema.

The temptation to draw parallels to contemporary politics inspired Siddaramaiah to fashion himself as the modern Pulikeshi who has the wherewithal to halt the Modi juggernaut from reaching the south.

His tweets deriding the “northern imports” of the BJP, or asking Muralidhar Rao of the BJP to tweet in Kannada as he does not understand Hindi, are all attempts to brand himself as a strong southern satrap. These are just a few of several deft and smart moves he has made to invoke regional and linguistic identity and pride, drawing on history and culture.

In a state that was formed as a sum of many parts in 1956, Karnataka has seldom had a party that strongly defines itself by regional or linguistic pride, unlike neighbouring Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, or Telangana.

It was in 1982 that Jnanpith awardee V.K. Gokak started the famous Gokak agitation from Dharwad, demanding making Kannada the official and transaction language of the state and granting it first-language status in state schools. The entry of renowned Kannada actor Dr Rajkumar galvanised this movement, and eventually, chief minister R. Gundu Rao agreeed to the terms of the Gokak report.

Kannada, designated a classical language, has more than 60 million speakers; an active film, television, and music industry; the largest number of Jnanpith award winners; writers who have produced a corpus for more than 1,500 years in a complex grammar conceived in 850 A.D., which was the administrative language of some of the most powerful kingdoms of the country.

Yet, the rapid changes in demographic balance, especially in capital Bengaluru, worries many an average Kannadiga, who feels besieged. The 2001 Census stated that only 41.54 per cent of Bengaluru spoke Kannada. This was followed by Tamil (18.43 per cent), Telugu (15.41 per cent), Urdu (12.90 per cent), Hindi (3.41 per cent), Malayalam (2.95 per cent), Marathi (2.22 per cent) and Konkani (0.71 per cent).

While Bengaluru, which grew around a British Cantonment, has always been a city of migrants, the older migrant communities learnt the local language while retaining their own. This is increasingly not the case, especially with the vast number of migrants in the IT and allied sectors. Just as Marathi or its knowledge is inconsequential to living in Mumbai, Kannada’s redundancy stares one in the face in Bengaluru. Kannada-speaking migrants from all over the state who come to “their” state capital are at sea when they realise their language has so little primacy.

Unlike virulent movements in Maharashtra, with the Shiv Sena or the MNS, or the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu, the agitation space for Kannada has largely been non-violent under old veterans like Vatal Nagaraj, though later entrants such as the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike move perilously close to their counterparts in neighbouring states. Water agitations like Cauvery or Mahadayi spark the identity row.

It is precisely to tap into this sentiment that Siddaramaiah has carefully crafted several moves. Given his own background as the first president of the Kannada Kavalu Samiti, a watchdog committee, for the implementation of Kannada as official language, formed during Ramakrishna Hegde’s tenure, he understands the issue well. Karnataka is the first state to have a well-defined culture policy, drafted by writer Baraguru Ramachandrappa, stressing on promoting language and culture.

Siddaramaiah has been pushing for conducting all central recruitment examinations in banking and railways in Kannada, as also proposing a 100 per cent reservation for locals in D-group employment in the private sector. In 2015, the Kannada Language Learning Act was passed, and based on this, a circular issued in January 2018 instructed all schools in the state to mandatorily introduce Kannada as the first or second language, irrespective of their affiliations, from the academic year 2018-19. The aim is to make it the second language in all CBSE and ICSE schools, including Kendriya Vidyalayas in the state, by 2026-2027. He also got a Kannada chair set up at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Contentious issues such as the Lingayat minority status or Tipu Jayanthi are again aimed at identity politics, drawing upon culture, history and the past.

In July 2017, following popular public sentiment against Hindi signages in Namma Metro in Bengaluru, Siddaramaiah wrote to the Centre and got this revoked. This reinforced his commitment to the sentiment that the BJP-led Centre was pushing Hindi down the throats of south Indians, and that Hindi was not the national language but one among 22 official languages as per the 8th Schedule of May 2008. Article 343 (1) mentions that the official languages of the union government (and not the entire country) are Hindi and English.

In June 2017, Siddaramaiah constituted an expert committee to study the feasibility of a state flag, and coinciding with the election announcement, the cabinet approved the flag as a symbol of regional identity. The proposal is pending before the union home ministry.

In April 2018, Siddaramaiah fashioned himself as the veritable spokesperson for south India when he wrote a lengthy Facebook post opposing the terms of reference of the 15th Finance Commission as being “unfair” to southern states and pushing for more financial autonomy.

“The six states south of the Vindhyas,” he wrote, “contribute more taxes and get less… for every one rupee of tax contributed by UP, that state receives Rs 1.79. For every one rupee of tax contributed by Karnataka, the state receives Rs 0.47.”

As per the 2011 Census, Karnataka has among the lowest unemployment rate in India — 1.5 per cent — against a national rate of 4.9 per cent, a population growth of 15.6 per cent versus all-India 17.7 per cent, and a literacy rate of 75.6 per cent, above the national 74 per cent. His comments immediately won support from all southern states, ruled as they are by non-BJP parties, with talk of a semi-autonomous “Dravida Nadu”.

Kannada litterateurs under the banner of being “progressive” openly support him. In his presidential address at the Akhila Bharata Kannada Sahitya Sammelana in Mysuru in November 2017, writer Chandrashekhar Patil urged people to support a “secular party”.

Several political commentators call this positioning as a masterstroke by Siddaramaiah, to counter the BJP’s Hindu-nationalism narrative. Interestingly, these moves of underlining issues of regional and linguistic identity are being made by a chief minister from a national party.

The issues, nonetheless, are emotive and strike a bipartisan chord among the core Kannadiga voter. But these will not help the government cover up for its governance lapses, and reap electoral dividends out of.

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

This is the eighth essay in a series by the author on the upcoming Karnataka election. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh parts here.

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