By Vipin Pubby
The ensuing Assembly elections in the Congress-ruled Karnataka are obviously critical for both the Congress and the BJP during the run up to the general elections but their desperation to win the elections, the two main rivals are taking extreme steps which have dangerous portents for the society and the nation.
While the Congress has sought to divide the society on religious grounds by raking up the issue of Lingayats and seeking minority status for the community, the BJP has gone ahead and announced its chief ministerial candidate who was earlier removed by it on charges of corruption and irregularities. Evidently the Congress is trying to torpedo the BJP agenda while the BJP is compromising with what it had been campaigning against.
Congress chief minister and the party’s chief ministerial candidate Siddaramaiah has, obviously with an eye on the election, recommended that the Lingayat community be declared a minority. It is undoubtedly an astute move as the Lingayats, who constitute 17 per cent of the voters, and are known to be BJP supporters.
Accepting recommendations of the State Minority Commission, the Siddaramaiah Government sent a communication to the Ministry of Home Affairs on March 23 seeking recognition of Lingayats and Veerashaivas, who follow Basavanna’s teachings, as a religious minority under section 2(c) of the National Commission of Minorities Act, 1992. Lingayats, who are considered a Hindu sect because they share several beliefs with Hindu religion, have been demanding a minority status as they don’t believe in the authority of the Vedas, the caste system and the Hindu concepts of reincarnation and karma.
If Lingayats are given the status of a minority, several others like the Arya Samaj, Radhaswami, Vaishnava and other sects of the Hinduism which do not adhere to typical Brahminical Hinduism, would also demand minority status. That militates against the Hindutva agenda of the BJP which has been trying to consolidate Hindus and associating nationalism and patriotism with it.
It was a clever political move by the Congress to have thrown the ball in BJP’s court. The BJP president Amit Shah has now responded that his party would oppose the move but it is clear that the party has been put on the back foot over the issue. Since the minority status can only be granted by the central government, the blame or otherwise would be squarely with the BJP. Although it is unlikely to take such a call before the Assembly elections, it has emerged as a major issue in the state. The Lingayats are believed to be an important factor in about 100 of the 232 Assembly constituencies.
Besides the stirring of the controversy relating to Lingayats, the Congress is also trying to strengthen its own “Hindutva agenda”. Party president Rahul Gandhi has been feverishly visiting mitts and temples across the state, as he did in Gujarat, to prove to be more loyal than the King.
On the other hand, BJP has declared a former chief minister B S Yediyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. He is the same person who was removed as chief minister by the BJP on alleged charges of corruption. Slighted by the BJP he had floated his own party called Karnataka Janata Party which bagged 9.79 per cent votes in the 2013 Assembly elections. These votes would have otherwise gone to the BJP but the shift of votes was enough to damage the BJP and had helped Congress to regain power.
Although all elections, whether to Lok Sabha, Assemblies and civic bodies, have their own dynamics, the nation’s eyes are now fixed on the Karnataka elections because of the high stakes involved. The contest is all the most exciting as the ruling Congress and the challenger BJP are believed to be evenly placed.
For the Congress, which had virtually given up even before the race began in the north eastern states or even Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand before that, there is a ray of hope for retaining power and that is translating into a spirited fight. This determination and effort was last seen during the Gujarat Assembly elections where the party was able to give a scare to the well-entrenched BJP.
Karnataka is the largest of the three states in the country that currently has a Congress flag fluttering. A loss here would be virtually the last nail in its coffin. The other comparatively big state in its kitty, Punjab, is there despite the central leadership of the party. The new party president Rahul Gandhi had made only a half-hearted attempt in elections in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland. Instead he has been concentrating on Karnataka and has extensively toured the state, including numerous temples and mutts.
So has BJP chief Amit Shah, the chief architect of his party’s “ashwamedh yagya” in three main regions of the country. The party already has significant presence in the state. It is the only southern state which the party had ever won – that was in the 2008 Assembly elections – with the help of independents.
But what must cause concern for the Congress is the fact that the state has not returned the ruling party to power since 1985. Also the fact that the BJP has done exceedingly well in 2014 Lok Sabha elections winning 17 of the 28 seats from the state and cornering 43.37 per cent of the vote share. It had managed to score more votes in 132 of the 224 Assembly segments which was much ahead of the half way figure of 113 seats needed to win Assembly elections.
Significantly, the Congress too had not fared badly as far as vote percentage was concerned. It had also bagged 41.15 per cent of vote share although it won only nine seats. It is also important to point out here that the party had never won less than 35 per cent votes in any elections in the state.
Thus the two main rivals are evenly poised and the run up to the elections is likely to be eventful and a game of nerves.
Wresting power in Karnataka would be a big morale booster for the BJP ahead of the Assembly elections in the major states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh held by it. A victory can open for it the gateway to the South, which together accounts for 131 Lok Sabha seats, and make it a pan India party. After a string of losses in by elections to Lok Sabha, and despite victory in north eastern states recently, it has a rough task ahead in Karnataka. The anxiety of the party to win in Karnataka is reflected in the way one of its leaders rushed to announce the date of election even before the Election Commission has done so. Both the rivals need to keep restraint during the election campaign.
Whoever wins Karnataka, the one unmistakable fact emerging is that politics is back to its old ways. The BJP’s endorsement of a person it once accused of corruption suggests that ‘real politik’ has forced it to abandon its lofty mission while Congress has brought back divide and divide further to gain power. The Karnataka election is bringing standards crashing down and divisions in the nation are further deepening.