How Congress does a BJP in Karnataka

In Karnataka, the Congress does to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) what is done to the Congress by the BJP elsewhere. The BJP is kept off balance on issues it monopolises in other parts of India.

On the issue of nationalism, it has been made to squirm by the Congress in Karnataka. On March 8, the Congress government here decided to release a flag for the state. This came after the ‘recommendation’ of a committee (there was no popular demand for a flag) set up by the government. No other state, except of course Jammu and Kashmir, has a flag and it’s unclear what the thing is meant to do. What it did do is show up the BJP as being anti-Kannadiga in some way.
When the Congress proposed the flag last year, the BJP predictably opposed it as an “anti-national act” and pushed for “one nation, one flag”. This comes essentially from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) fears of a united India being only possible with a strong Centre and weak and homogenised states.

However, this did not wash, for there exists in the state a Kannada nationalism which is natural, given its water war with Tamil Nadu, its historical geography and the huge recent migrations into Bengaluru. When the flag was actually released this month, the BJP did not react and the Congress pounced.

“Lacking in #KannadaSwabhimana, @BJP4Karnataka maintains pindrop silence on #KarnatakaStateFlag,” the Congress’s Karnataka unit said in a tweet. “Will BJP MPs and Shri Yeddyurappa put pressure on the Union BJP Government to quickly grant the necessary approvals?” it asked.

The flag, called the Naada Dhwaja is, in case you’re curious, in yellow and red and features the gandaberunda, a mythic two-headed bird, the insignia of the Mysore kings and now the state emblem.

Then on the issue of language also, the BJP has been sent running for cover. In July last year, the Congress informed the Centre that it was removing Hindi from the boards in Bengaluru’s Namma Metro stations days after it was inaugurated. The justification, sent to Union Housing and Urban Affairs minister Narendra Singh Tomar, read: “It started as a campaign in the social media followed by protests and submission of memoranda... Presently it has begun to take a violent turn with activists trying to deface the Metro name boards/signages.” The note struck balanced and reasonable tones: “Although the state government has strictly dealt with those who defaced the signages and maintained law and order around Metro stations... you would agree that in the face of a continued agitation... it is counter-productive to insist on use of three languages, including Hindi.”

The state was therefore “compelled” to ask the Metro authorities to “temporarily re-design the signages” without using Hindi. Objections to the use of Hindi signs in the Metro stations had flared online in June around a campaign called #NammaMetroHindiBeda or “We don’t want Hindi in our Metro”. It need not be explained here what Hindi means to those of us in the South. So why was Hindi there in the first instance?

On December 9, 2016, the Union Ministry of Urban Development ordered that all Metro stations in India’s non-Hindi speaking areas must have signboards in Hindi. This was after instructions from the Joint Hindi Advisory Committee (formed by the Narendra Modi government in May 2016).

Illustration by Binay Sinha

The newspapers and local channels had material to run for days, while the local BJP went missing.

Even on the issue of religion, and particularly the Hindu faith, the Congress has kept the BJP busy with its mischief. This week, on March 14, the Congress government met to take a decision on giving one of the state’s largest Hindu communities minority status. This was deferred because some wanted only the Lingayats to be a minority, while others wanted a splinter sect, the Veerashaivas to be included. The Lingayat/Veerashaiva community is the primary vote bank of the BJP and former chief minister B S Yeddyurappa comes from it.

The 1871 census by the Mysore kingdom defined Lingayats as a separate religion, but there was no strong recent demand from within the community for this minority status, which will bring benefits linked to educational institutions, among other things. The momentum was built after a committee set up by the state government recommended that minority status be given.

The BJP is caught in a pincer here. It can hardly bring itself to support any fracturing of ‘Hinduism’, as the RSS knows and pushes it. But it cannot also ignore its most powerful vote bank, large parts of which are now enthused by the idea of benefits. The brilliance of the Congress move can be seen in the fact that the current impasse is not over whether the minority status should be given, but whether it should be given to a part or the whole. On this the Congress dominates the debate and the BJP is nowhere to be heard or seen.

When we say that ‘Congress’ does all of this, we should accept that it is actually just the chief minister, Siddaramaiah. He is an interesting man, a Lohiaite intellectual, a Janata Dal man from the caste of Kuruba shepherds, who joined the Congress only a decade or so ago. Just as the BJP does with its “anti-national”, “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”, “gaumata” and other issues elsewhere in India, it is Mr Siddaramaiah who sets the news agenda in the state regularly.

Of course it is true that all this is being done with politics and elections in mind. Of course this is not the sort of thing that political parties should be focussed on. And of course columnists mustn’t praise or advocate such things in a nation whose urgent problems lie elsewhere. But all that is not the point. The point is that this is how politics are done on the sub-continent.

Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi said this month at a conclave something that was interesting. She said: “The BJP has managed to, I don’t say brainwash because that is a rude word, but it has managed to convince people, to persuade people that the Congress party is a Muslim party. In my party, the great majority is Hindu. Yes, there are Muslims too. So I fail to understand this branding us as a Muslim party.”

It is true, particularly in those parts of our nation, like Gujarat, which have been deliberately polarised by Hindutva, that the Congress is seen this way. But the definition is not inelastic. It is not set in stone and there is space and freedom for the Congress to expand it.

If they choose to play the way the game is played in India, Mr Siddaramaiah shows them how to do it.

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