Identity matters as BJP, Cong. prep for Karnataka polls

Identity matters as BJP, Congress prepare for Karnataka Assembly polls
With Assembly elections due in early 2018 in Karnataka, the Congress and the BJP are busy sharpening their narratives. If the Congress manages to retain power, it will give a big boost to the party across India, as it has been routed in other big states. For the Congress, this election is a matter of prestige. Chief minister Siddaramaiah is wooing the backward-classes and upholding Kannada pride, aware that populist policies centred around food security alone won't help him retain power. The elections are crucial for the BJP as it looks to expand its presence in south India. It is banking on Hindutva and aggressive nationalism to leverage the anti-incumbency sentiment. A third significant player, the JD(S), is also trying to build a strategy in the context of these narratives.

Ahinda vs Hindutva

Siddaramaiah's love of Ahinda (Kannada acronym for minorities, backward classes and Dalit) politics is evident in many of his decisions. Siddaramaiah, who hails from the backward Kuruba caste, has been championing the cause of Dalits, backward classes and minorities since his exit from JD(S). He believes the Ahinda vote bank can help him retain his chief ministership. He has argued Ahinda politics keeps youth away from organisations such as the Bajrang Dal, and fosters healthy relationships and equality among castes. If reports about a caste census are true, Lingayats constitute only 9.8 percent and Vokkaligas 8.2 percent of the total population. The government hasn’t made the findings of the census public. If the dominant castes feel cornered, both the BJP and the JD(S) will try to tap into their frustration. Aware of the limitations of Ahinda politics, Siddaramaiah also identified himself as a Hindu recently. Reports suggest Congress has internal dissent over Siddaramaiah’s bias for Dalits, minorities and backward classes. Will Siddaramaiah go after the Ahinda vote at the cost of antagonising other communities?

The induction of aggressive pro-Hindutva leader Anant Kumar Hegde into the Central minister indicates how BJP is reviving its Hindutva politics in Karnataka. Remarks by MP Pratap Simha and party general secretary CT Ravi, in the wake of the Hanuman Jayanti controversy, also indicate that the BJP plans to bank on the Hindutva discourse. The BJP believes Siddaramaiah's position on Ahinda will alienate other communities. With the demand for a separate Lingayat religion gathering momentum, Yeddyurappa’s support base is dented. A re-grouping of non-Ahinda communities looks imminent

Amit Shah's recent visit to the Adichunchunagiri mutt indicates how the party is trying to consolidate Hindu votes.  The BJP's attempt to woo the Vokkaligas may erode the support base of Vokkaliga strongmen like H D Deve Gowda and his son H D Kumaraswamy. The party is is also using the Congress government's stand on Tipu Jayanti, and the murders of BJP workers, to counter the Congress.

Kannada pride Vs Hindu nationalism

The government’s move to get official status for the state flag shows how the Congress is banking on Kannada pride. The government has also backed anti-Hindi imposition campaigns, and made Kannada mandatory in schools.  While the state BJP is silent on the flag move, its national leaders have denounced it as a move against national integrity. By raising questions of Kannada identity, culture and language, Siddaramaiah is trying to set a new agenda for the elections.

What is coming up this time is a big fight with identity questions playing a major role.

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