Bengaluru: Karnataka MP Anantkumar Hegde, a serial rabble-rouser, triggered another controversy over the weekend.
Addressing a rally in bypoll-bound Yellapur, he suggested that the BJP had deliberately installed a fragile government in Maharashtra last month, which lasted just about 80 hours, to transfer back central funds to the tune of Rs 40,000 crore lying in the state exchequer.
The funds, he claimed, would have been misused by the Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress dispensation if it had been sworn in as scheduled on 23 November.
Former Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, the man at the centre of the BJP’s shock bid for power, at once denied the allegation.
Hegde has earlier equated the Kerala government’s handling of the Sabarimala controversy with “rape” and called for Islam to be “uprooted”.
However, the BJP’s reaction to his proclivity for controversy remains mixed. While some wish he would show restraint, others say everyone deserves a chance to speak their mind. His penchant for provocation, the latter suggest, is often an asset.
Karnataka BJP spokesperson S. Prakash said that, as a responsible parliamentarian, Hegde “should be extremely cautious and not be influenced by messages on social media platforms”.
“He should refrain from putting the government in such a spot,” he added. “People expect different standards from people of his stature and I hope he will be more cautious in the coming days.”
Another BJP spokesperson, Vaman Acharya, disagreed. He said the BJP should not be a monolithic party. Everybody, he added, should be given a chance to speak their mind, even Hegde.
“Hegde appeals to one section of young BJP voters and also those who like to react strongly to issues,” he said.
“There may be times when the BJP may feel some statements should not be made, but if you look at the overall results, it is good. We don’t intend to curb anybody’s individual freedom.”
Who is Anantkumar Hegde?
A five-time MP from the Uttara Kannada (Karnataka) constituency, Hegde has been a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) since a young age.
By 28, he was representing the BJP in the Lok Sabha, after gaining their attention through his hardline approach to Hindutva.
Born on 20 May 1968 to a Brahmin family in Sirsi, he joined the RSS after completing his graduation. He is known to have an interest in martial arts and is trained in Tae Kwon Do.
Extremely popular in his constituency, he is known to have a deep connect with grassroots workers.
His popularity can be judged by his victory margins — he won the 2019 Lok Sabha polls by a margin of over 4 lakh votes.
Hegde was first noticed by the BJP in 1996, during the year-long clashes that followed the brutal murder of Karnataka MLA U. Chittaranjan. The murder took place in the coastal town of Bhatkal, represented by Muslims before Chittaranjan won. The murder thus triggered communal tensions and 17 people died in the ensuing clashes.
Hegde, then a young member of the Hindu Jagran Vedike, the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), became quite popular with provocative addresses about the killing of his “leader” Chittaranjan.
In 1994, Hegde, then a lanky young radical, and a few friends had raised the Tricolour at the disputed Idgah Maidan in communally-sensitive Hubli in violation of prohibitory orders.
In 1992, he is believed to have participated in mob violence that followed the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
Local BJP leaders in Bhatkal say Hegde would tour along Karwar, Sirsi, Bhatkal and the surrounding areas, and soon became a household name locally.
In the late 1990s, he commissioned a documentary “on his achievements”, which he titled ‘The Real Hindu’. Among other things, he explains in the film how he managed to “bring back (ghar wapsi)” 300 families who “were forcibly converted to Christianity”.
After Chittaranjan’s death, Hegde became the RSS’ best bet for Uttara Kannada, which is known to be communally-sensitive.
In 1996, he defeated Congress member Margaret Alva, who would go on to serve as Rajasthan governor, and became the Lok Sabha MP for North Kannada. His stronghold over the constituency has helped the BJP retain the seat for 20 years.
‘A popular leader’
Speaking to ThePrint, RSS spokesperson Rajesh Padmar said Hegde was a smart strategist and an able administrator, which is why he was popular.
“His popularity has not waned over the years as he is known to be an accessible person for his voters, and a thinker,” he added.
“We are a very big organisation and, like many others, he, too, is a karyakarta… but he also plays an important role in keeping Uttara Kannada our stronghold,” Padmar said.
In a video dating back to 2016, Hegde reportedly said, “As long as there is Islam in the world, there will be terrorism. Until we uproot Islam, we can’t remove terrorism.” While the statement did trigger outrage, local leaders say “voters seem to agree with his thoughts”.
The BJP’s Uttara Kannada district in-charge, N.S. Hegde, said the MP’s “uninhibited statements make him even more popular, especially among the Hindus”.
“I have seen him grow as a political leader and parliamentarian in the last two decades,” he added. “It is Anantkumar Hegde who has ensured that the Uttara Kannada district remains a BJP stronghold. He may be called called a rabble-rouser, but that’s what people love about him. He keeps projecting the Muslims as an enemy, and that seems to hit the right chord each time,” said N.S. Hegde.
Local Congress leaders agree that Hegde has been a tough candidate to beat. “He always plays with the emotions of people. In the last election, he asked his voters not to vote for him. He said, ‘vote for Modi’,” said Santosh Gurumath, the state secretary of the Congress affiliate Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC).
“People thought Modi will bring major changes to them, bring them employment and other opportunities. But as usual, he has cheated them with false promises,” he added.
Hegde’s past statements too have embarrassed the BJP — he has a reputation of being unabashedly Islamophobic and misogynistic, sometimes even imprudent.
In 2017, a video showing Hegde assaulting doctors at a private hospital in Sirsi had gone viral. He accused the doctors of not giving proper treatment to his mother, but later apologised for his behaviour.
In December 2017, Hegde, at an event in Karnataka’s Koppal district, said while he respects the Constitution, “it will be changed in the days to come. We are here for that and that is why we have come”. The statement rocked both Houses of Parliament for days.
Last year, at the height of the Sabarimala controversy, Hegde said the Kerala government’s handling of the protests against women’s entry was akin to “daylight rape” of Hindus.
In January 2019, while speaking at an event in Kodagu district, he stoked another controversy when he said that a hand that touches a Hindu girl “should not exist”.
Even the Taj Mahal didn’t escape Hegde’s Islamophobia. In January 2019, he voiced the controversial Right-wing opinion that the Taj Mahal was actually a Shiva temple called Tejo Mahalaya, built by King Paramatheertha.
“If we keep sleeping like this, most of our houses will also be renamed as masjids. In future, Lord Ram will be called Jahanpanah and Sita will become Bibi,” he had remarked.
Another example of Hegde’s penchant for controversial remarks was his diatribe against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi — at a public meeting on the Lok Sabha campaign trail in March, he called Gandhi a “hybrid born to a Muslim and a Christian”, and mocked him for asking the BJP for proof of the Balakot air strikes.
“Now they (Congress) want proof of our air strikes against Pakistan conducted by the Indian Air Force? How did the son of a Muslim become a Brahmin named Gandhi?” Hegde questioned. “What proof do they have? He was born to a Muslim father and Christian mother. How does he become a Brahmin?”
Hegde’s polemic did not end there. He engaged in a Twitter spat with Karnataka Congress chief Dinesh Gundu Rao over his wife Tabu Rao after he questioned his contribution as a Union minister.
“I shall definitely answer this guy Dinesh Gundu Rao’s queries, before which could he please reveal himself as to who he is along with his achievements?” Hegde tweeted. “I only know him as a guy who ran behind a Muslim lady.”