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A Punjabi living in Bangalore explains why BJP should not win Karnataka elections

Modi's campaign, aimed at baser instincts, was more than mere distraction or even disruption; it was hijacking the platform.

 |   Long-form |   11-05-2018
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Two decades ago, at JP Nagar Bar, a dear friend said to me, "You will always be an outsider here." Bengaluru was then called Bangalore but I had known it only through Mysore Sandal soap and from my school friends hailing from militancy-ridden Punjab, who had escaped to Karnataka to study engineering and medicine by paying capitation fee.

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By late 1990s, Bangalore was a fast-developing software city and I was trying to find feet in it. "What does that mean?" I asked my friend. "For example," he said, "you will never become chief minister of Karnataka".

Outlandish examples are a part of being pretty drunk in your early twenties. "Is it because I was not born here? I don't know Kannada?" He patted my back. "You can't help being born. You can learn Kannada."

On the streets, at the bus stops, something else surprised me. All destinations were mentioned in Kannada script. I wondered if this was not all that militancy in Punjab had achieved after 15 bloody years. How easily, simply, without fuss, Kannadigas had already done it.

I found jobs, I bought a house. I made Bangalore home. In the park right opposite my house, I see the Karnataka flag fluttering proudly. Another example of regionalism versus nationalism, smoothly handled. This is also when right wing forces tried to turn the Baba Budangiri shrine near Chikmagalur into the Ayodhya of the south. Having seen communalism up and close through my life, I watched with dread.

The moment passed but since then the right wing has been a major presence in the coastal belt. Within five years of our talk, a Rajput, born in Bidar, the very north of Karnataka, became the chief minister. I went back to my friend. He said, "Come on Dharam Singh is Kannadiga." "Then I will have to wait until my kids grow up," I joked.

Over the past many years, the influx of lakhs of people into Bengaluru has caused issues related to infrastructure, traffic, ecology, garbage and so on. Worse, it has widened the gap between the city and the state's agrarian base.

Though since the time of the Britishers, Bengaluru has been an anglicised city, it is now come to a point where one-third population of the city - the Kannadigas - face an identity crisis.

This implies that outsiders like me, who choose to make home here, play a role by assimilating through food, customs, and language. At the same time we need to notice that Karnataka is a conglomeration of six different regions. It has more languages than just Kannada and I hear morning walkers in my local park speak them.

What defines Karnataka to me and endears me to it - as evidenced by the language and flag incidents - is that its normally polite, humble and firm people know how to negotiate regionalism with nationalism and do not easily come under the sway of outsiders. Its identity assertion is not the chest-thumping variety. It does not assert itself as violently as those on the north of Narmada.

Through the decades, elections have come and gone, some parties performed well, some did not, and some did not even complete their term in office. The political governance has at best remained patchy. Yet, the 2018 elections taking place on May 12 drew the nation's interest.

With the right wing now in power in 21 out of 29 states, the states are experiencing communalism like never before - over food habits, over faith, over caste and gender issues.

Using its thumping majority in the Lok Sabha, the central dispensation has forced the nation to go through unnecessary jolts such as demonetisation, a patchy GST implementation, policy failure. The country's growth and development indices are falling but the blame has been shifted to the previous governments.

It is for this reason that it would be interesting to see if the BJP juggernaut, which believes in the idea of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan, can be stopped from entering south India. The election would also give us an idea about what could happen in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Despite the fact that the election is poised to have national ramifications, local issues should not be ignored. Parties should have focused on what the state wants and needs during their campaigns.

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It belies my understanding that if these elections are communalism versus secularism, why did the Janata Dal Secular and Congress not align. Given the poll predictions so far, Karnataka is going to be a neck and neck fight and throw up a hung Assembly.

Would it not have made sense to get all forces wanting to stop the saffron spread to come together, like we saw in Bihar?

Did Congress and JDS decide to contest separately because they did not want a repeat of Lok Sabha 2014 where the contest was between communalism and corruption? We don't know.

The JDS does not seem to have a unique agenda but hopes to emerge as the kingmaker. There is a possibility that the party would extend support to the BJP once results are out. They would then perhaps call themselves Sanghi and not Secular.

The Congress has behaved like a local party, with minimal interference from the central command even in ticket distribution or agendas. It is fighting the elections on the basis of its track record and promise of stability, which it delivered.

After a sluggish start, owing to chief minister's illness, loss of son and a severe drought, the Congress claims to have fulfilled two-thirds of the promises it made in its 2013 manifesto.

In keeping with his socialist background, Siddaramaiah ushered in a number of "Bhagya" schemes, catered to the AHINDA (Kannada acronym for Dalits and backward castes) vote bank, and started Indira canteens.

He partially waived off farmer loans, fulfilled a long pending demand of the Lingayat community by declaring them a separate religion, recognised Karnataka's flag and opposed the imposition of Hindi. He took on the BJP-led Centre for not helping with grants and its unwillingness to solve the Mahadeyi river issue.

His called out the Finance Commission's alleged bias in allocation of funds. He asked if the southern states are being penalised for controlling their population and why should they subsidise the northern states - a step toward greater federalism.

There were also blunders under the Congress' watch. Plans for a steel flyover and proposed trifurcation of Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike were withdrawn after they were opposed by citizens, the delay in solving urban and rural infrastructure issues, the unsolved murders of DK Ravi, Gauri Lankesh, MM Kalburgi, and as usual allegations of graft.

These were issues that should have been debated and discussed during the poll campaign. Yet, that did not happen.

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Upon not finding a suitable candidate, the BJP projected Yeddyurappa as its chief ministerial candidate. As per BJP's own age-limit claim, Yeddyurappa should join the party's Margdarak Mandal. It goes to point that either they have no credible leadership or they have to bend to accommodate Yeddyurappa who had defected in 2014. 

The party central command controlled the ticket distribution process, doling them out to Bellary brothers tainted in the iron ore scam and to legislators found watching pornography in the state Assembly.

In their campaign, led by the prime minister Modi, they unleashed a battery of campaigners from outside the state telling us Kannadigas how to vote. Modi's campaign, aimed at baser instincts, was more than mere distraction or even disruption; it was hijacking the platform. Because neither he, nor the BJP came down to discussing real issues or plans for the state.

Even an untrained but unbiased eye would notice how by lying, by individual attacks, by misleading people, Modi compromised the integrity of the chair he occupies.

In fact, while Modi was on campaign trail, the Supreme Court rebuked him for not paying attention to the Cauvery plan, a long pending issue between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, a cause for much unrest. Yet, he was only interested in being the cheerleader of hate, not a nation's PM. That is why there is no wave in this election. The campaign has corroded the election.

In this election of truth versus hype, I hope we will once again be able to centre ourselves, be able to winnow the chaff from the millet. We will focus on what suits us as a region, which has known how to cultivate our diversity and maintain our identity. We will remain head on shoulders and notice that communal forces violate the principles of democracy to risk the very entity we know as our nation.

We all know power corrupts, we all know our systems are broken, but we must ask ourselves in whose regime will we be able to protest and who does not listen to our voice. Democracy is, after all, eternal vigilance and in the absence of real ideology we need to watch and avoid the ideology that breeds the greater lumpen and rowdies. Sadly, our democracy has once again come down to basics.

PS: It is ironical for me to write this piece because I, being a Sikh and belonging to Punjab, have been the victim of communalism of a particular party. It is my effort to seek justice but our hate for one party must not blind us from seeing how communalism has risen in the last few decades and now risks the very entity we know as our nation.

Also read: Karnataka Assembly election: What the numbers actually tell us

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