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Tipu Sultan is back & reigning over Karnataka politics. Why BJP has resurrected him

As election approaches, BJP pits ‘unpatriotic’ Tipu against ‘patriotic’ Savarkar. It's an attempt to corner Hindu votes & divert attention from governance issues, say analysts.

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Bengaluru: Last week, Karnataka’s higher education minister, C.N. Ashwath Narayan, made a controversial statement when he asked the public to “finish off” former Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah like the 18th-century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan.  

“Siddaramaiah will come to the place of Tipu Sultan. Do you want Veer Savarkar or Tipu Sultan? You have to decide. You know what Uri Gowda and Nanje Gowda (apparently  soldiers who fought Tipu) did to Tipu Sultan. Likewise, he (Siddaramaiah) should be finished off,” Narayan said at a public rally Tuesday. 

The remarks sparked outrage and protests from the Congress, forcing the minister to retract his statement.

But Narayan’s comments are just one more addition to the ‘Tipu Sultan versus Savarkar’ pitch that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been making in the run-up to assembly election later this year. 

Why Tipu Sultan? It’s because of his association with the brutal killing of Kodavas in Karnataka and the Nairs in Kerala and how this supplements the BJP’s larger narrative of ‘Hindu khatre mein hai that is, the perceived threat to Hinduism from radical Islam — experts that ThePrint spoke to said.

From allegations of forced conversions to the ‘demolition’ of Hindu temples, Tipu Sultan is the BJP’s preferred enemy in Karnataka, just as the Mughals are in the rest of India, the experts say. The motive is the same for both — mobilising and cornering Hindu votes.  

“There are so many things in history about Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan, and earlier, the Mughals. But since these people (the Congress) hail him (Tipu) as a freedom fighter, they (the BJP) want to attack him. That’s the cause and effect theory,” Suresh Moona, a historian and founder of AARAMBH (An Association for Reviving Awareness about the Monuments of Bangalore Heritage), told ThePrint.

Political analysts, meanwhile, see Tipu Sultan’s resurrection as a tool to divert attention from larger issues — such as corruption allegations against the Bommai government and a perception that it lacks substantial achievements. 

Karnataka is likely to see assembly elections in May this year.

Also Read: Tipu Sultan is hot button in India’s culture war. New exhibition adds East India Company to it

Why Tipu Sultan

Tipu Sultan was born in 1750 in Devanahalli, a stone’s throw away from what is now the Bengaluru airport. His father, Hyder Ali, started as a soldier in the army of Krishnaraja Wodeyar II but eventually rose through the ranks to first become a commander and eventually the ruler — a feat he achieved by overthrowing the king and imprisoning him.

Tipu has been a controversial figure in the state. While some historians frequently paint him as an able administrator and a national hero who valiantly fought against British rule in India, there are many who call this a selective reading of history and point to instances of brutality, especially against Hindus, Christians, and Kodavas, under his rule. 

These differences over how to view him have spilled into politics as well, with the BJP accusing its chief rival in the state, the Congress, of glorifying Tipu Sultan. It is to this end that the party attacks the Congress, and by extension, its biggest leader in the state, Siddaramaiah.  

Indeed, one of the earliest controversies on the subject that the state saw was in 2015, when Siddaramaiah, then the chief minister of Karnataka, ordered Tipu Jayanti celebrations across the state to mark the birth of the 18th-century ruler. 

The announcement led to clashes in the southern district of Kodagu, where the ruler has been accused of mass murders and forcible conversions. A Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) worker was among the two who were killed in the clashes. 

Since then, Tipu Jayanti has been a controversial subject in the state, with the BJP government, under then chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa, cancelling the event in 2019.     

‘Politics of emotions’ 

Tipu Sultan, who died fighting the East India Company in 1799, is increasingly becoming the mainstay of Karnataka’s politics.   

Experts believe that his latest resurrection — just like the recent communal rows in the state over the hijab, the anti-conversion law, and halal meat — is an attempt to divert attention away from pressing issues on the governance front.

 “Either they feel there is not enough to highlight or they feel that the issues (achievements) which they will highlight will not be enough to gain electoral votes,” Sandeep Shastri, a psephologist and political analyst, told ThePrint. “So the attempt is very clear to see if a polarisation on religious lines is possible.”

Since January this year, Tipu Sultan has been an important part of speeches made by several central and state leaders.

A BJP leader, who did not wish to be named, put it this way: “You (political parties) are setting a narrative. Elections are not fought on developmental issues even though people talk about them. Elections are fought on emotional issues.”

One strategy is to pit the 18th-century Mysore ruler against another, equally controversial leader — Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. 

A day before Ashwath Narayan made his controversial statement, BJP state president Nalin Kumar Kateel had said that the elections were an issue between “Tipu” and “Savarkar”. 

“I think the central leadership on which they (BJP) are going to bank a lot for support is waiting and watching and seeing as to what strategy in their campaign they will need to develop,” Shastri said. 

In addition to this, the BJP is also depending on  tried-and-tested methods to draw the Hindu vote bank. The party has already announced a ‘Ratha Yatra’ in the state from 1 March, which experts say brings to mind BJP veteran L.K. Advani’s efforts to mobilise Hindu support for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya in the early 1990s.

A BJP leader admits that the yatra is an effort to mobilise Hindu votes. “When Siddaramaiah openly starts talking about minorities and things like that, how (else) do we hold onto the Hindutva vote base,” the leader told ThePrint.

‘Corruption allegations have lost their sheen’ 

Karnataka’s BJP campaign is now inundated with central leaders, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah making frequent trips to the state. Political observers believe that this strategy of bringing in more central leaders and, in effect, sidelining Basavaraj Bommai, is deliberately aimed at masking the Bommai government’s poor performance. 

In addition, the BJP government also faces corruption allegations, not only from outside but also from its own MLAs, such as Basanagouda Patil (Yatnal), A.H. Vishwanath, and Goolihatti Shekhar.

Meanwhile, the Congress has stepped up its campaign against the Bommai government, accusing it of accepting commissions for government tenders. 

Political analysts like A. Narayana, a Bengaluru-based political analyst and faculty member at Azim Premji University’s School of Policy and Governance, say these allegations make it that much harder for the BJP to convince voters to give it another term. 

Since the early 80s, no party has successfully got a second term in Karnataka. 

“Whatever the public opinion has been, there are attempts to cover this up with Modi’s presence and more importantly to bring to the fore communalism and mask public opinion and forget the rest,” Narayana told ThePrint, adding that what’s significant about the current situation is that the graft allegations are from within the BJP.

But the BJP leader quoted earlier says the Congress’s corruption allegations have lost their sheen. 

“Nothing is going well for the Congress even though we (BJP) have not done extremely well nor do they have any major issues…People are sick of listening to 40 per cent commission. It has limited time (shelf life) and won’t be an issue during elections.” 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: After furore over dropping Tipu Sultan from textbooks, Karnataka govt puts decision on hold


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