Battleground karnataka: The coast cries – Give peace a chance

The land of Yakshagana and Kambala, the land of the wealthy Bunts whose business acumen is envied across the country, is now reverberating to a different beat. The banners and buntings of religious events are enough to prove that Udupi and Dakshina Kannada districts in Karnataka’s coast are slowly but steadily waking up to the Assembly polls. And like many polls  of the past, it’s religion or to be blunt, communal politics which carries the day in this region. Once a bastion of the Congress, the scales later tilted in favour of the BJP which knows that it has to play the Hindu card to the hilt to garner  maximum votes, while the Congress is doing what it does best – keep the minorities in good stead. What is proving to be a headache for the ruling party this time is the spree of political murders in Surathkal and Bantwal with the Opposition parties crying hoarse that the law and order situation has completely collapsed. Will this be enough to turn the tide in favour of the BJP or will the Congress, riding on the plethora of welfare schemes launched by the Siddaramaiah government, win the maximum seats here again. Gururaj A. Paniyadi takes a close look at the political scene in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada and finds out if it will be religious issues which make all the difference between victory and defeat.

Sunanda a housewife, who keeps a tab on political and social developments in the coastal belt, says it all when she remarks that all people are looking forward to is good governance so that they can get on with their lives in peace. “The BJP promised good governance in the run-up to the 2008 polls but their five-year rule was scarred by corruption and infighting leaving people insecure. There was moral policing, attacks on religious places and open attacks on youth. People have never forgiven bad governance, they have always voted for change. It happened in 2004 when unhappy with corruption and bad governance of the S.M. Krishna government, they supported the BJP. The same thing happened in 2008 but the BJP failed to fulfil their promises and provide safety to people. So in 2013, it was time for a change and people threw the BJP out of power.”

A peep into history reveals that the coast was  a bastion of the Congress even before Udupi and Dakshina Kannada were included in Mysore state. Parties like Praja Socialist Party (PSP) and Swatantra Party had won some seats in the region. The Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the predecessor of the BJP too existed in the coastal belt from its inception due to the strong presence of the Sangh Parivar. Probably Udupi and DK are the only two districts where all branches of the Sangh Parivar- right from RSS to Durga Vahini are vibrantly active. Jana Sangh leaders contested in Mangaluru, Puttur, and Mulki right from the first general election in 1951. The first success came in 1967 when Jana Sangh candidate B.R. Shetty won the Karkala seat with the numbers increasing in the 1978 election under the Janata Party banner.

“For the BJP a strong foundation was laid by people like V.S. Acharya (Udupi), Ram Bhat (Puttur) and Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat (Bantwal). When Gandhiji died, a group in Mangaluru celebrated by distributing sweets. Over the years they have become strong by encashing on Hindu sentiments,” says Karnataka Komu Sauhardha Vedike district president Suresh Bhat.

Though the Jana Sangh succeeded in winning Udupi Municipality in 1968, it was only after the formation of the BJP in 1983 that the party made its presence felt. It won 8 of the 15 seats in the two districts and the Congress had to be content with 3. A new party had definitely emerged but those who won the election did not live up to expectations and in the next election, held within two years, the BJP tally was down to one seat!

It was in the Nineties that the party received a big boost after the Ayodhya row exploded. Communal clashes in Surathkal and Mangaluru and parts of Ullal in 1992 (about 200 cases were filed in Panambur alone) made way for new saffron faces especially in minority strongholds. Kumble Sundar Rao won Surathkal, Jayaram Shetty won Ullal and N Yogish Bhat (then a corporator) in Mangaluru apart from D.V. Sadananda Gowda in Puttur and S Angara in Sullia. It was the first sign of a consolidation of Hindu votes which has continued since then to the embarrassment of the Congress.

But have communal incidents really helped the saffron outfit perform better than others? It may not be the case which was proved false in 1998-99 when the  party performed badly despite communal incidents in Surathkal and Mangaluru. Sundar Rao of the BJP lost to the Congress and in Ullal, Jayaram Shetty was defeated. The BJP tally fell to five and the Congress increased its seats to 9.
The year 2004 was a watershed moment for the BJP which won 11 seats while the Congress was left with only three. Stalwarts like Ramanath Rai (Bantwal), U.R. Sabhapathi (Udupi), Vasanth Salian (Kaup) and Gopal Bhandary (Karkala) lost as people were unhappy with the performance of these leaders with the BJP gaining an extra edge by painting leaders like Rai and Salian as anti-Hindu. But when new leaders like Nagaraj Shetty, Sunil Kumar and Lalaji R Mendon too failed to deliver, all these constituencies returned to the Congress. In 2013, the Congress grabbed all seats except Karkala and Sullia.

What could however prove to be a major stumbling block for the Congress is the charge of minority appeasement. The party ensured that atleast two from the Muslim community in DK district and one from the  Christian community were fielded in the assembly elections. The Jain community too got representation with Abhayachandra Jain winning from Moodabidri.

The patterns in Dakshina Kannada and Uudpi are classic examples of how people vote in highly polarised societies. Communal politics may have played a crucial role but they come to the forefront only when people are angry with the ruling party, its corruption and bad governance. Highlighting political murders in the coastal districts and playing the Hindutva card may help the BJP keep its votes intact and make sure its supporters are not attracted by other parties but whether it will help the party tilt the scales and wrest the majority of seats from the Congress, remains to be seen.

Communal issues have also thrown up new leaders in the saffron party- Sunil Kumar and C.T. Ravi became popular with the Datta Peetha issue while Ananth Kumar Hegde became famous after the Bhatkal and Hubballi incidents. Similarly Nalin Kumar Kateel emerged as a leader in Mangaluru by taking up religious issues.

Maybe it could be the absence of major issues pertaining to drinking water, food, health facilities, education and transport which makes the poll campaign veer to communal issues. Most facilities are provided by private players who have ensured the best transportation facilities, good hospitals and educational institutions. Though lack of good employment was a problem, people from the coastal region went to places like Mumbai and the Arab countries and it never became an election issue. As for the caste system, it is not so strong compared to North Karnataka or the Old Mysuru region.

Does caste play a  role in candidate selection? Though Bunts and Billavas are the major communities and garner the major share of seats, caste does not play a pivotal role like it does in other parts of the state. “As there is hardly any other issue to speak about, political parties have resorted to communal issues here,” says Suresh Bhat.

“The lines have been clearly drawn in these districts where the minorities are in good numbers, the Congress wants to strengthen its base by appeasing the minorities while the BJP, by polarising society, wants to keep its flock together,” said a retired officer. “Let me make one point clear: people of DK and Udupi are not communal. Some forces may be trying to polarise them. But it has to be noted that whenever there was communal violence, it was the Congress which benefitted,” says KPCC general secretary P.V. Mohan. “People of the coastal region may have voted for the BJP in the past, swayed by national issues like Ram Mandir. But when the people here felt that the activities of saffron outfits were affecting them adversally (attacks on religious places and moral policing) they voted them out. BJP leaders know this but in the absence of any other issue to project, keep harping on the communal divide,” says Mohan.

“People here are aware about their right and democracy. They also closely watch developmental works. Communal incidents may grab attention but if a political party works on a developmental agenda, they are likely to have an edge. The 2013 election is the best example, the communal incidents of moral policing and attacks on religious places never worked for the BJP,” he says.

The strongman of Congress politics, in the region, the burly Ramanath Rai will be at centrestage again this time. “The BJP tried its best to denigrate Rai for appeasing Muslims. But Rai has been winning all elections except in 2004. In the past 6 months, he has undertaken so many developmental works that the opposition has nothing much to complain about,” admitted a leader.

So which way is the wind blowing in the coast this time? Will the Congress be able to hold on to the 10 seats it won in 2013? Or will it be advantage BJP, riding on the popularity of PM Modi and the law and order problems which have not gone down with the people?   As the coast warms up to yet another poll,  voters of Mangaluru and Udupi will only be hoping that there is no more blood-letting.
All they seem to be asking for is peace and a stop to attempts to tarnish them by painting the coast as a strife-torn  piece of land, wracked by communal violence.

Key players: (clockwise from top left) Ramanath Rai, Halady Srinivas Shetty, Sunil Kumar, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, U.T. Khader and Ivan D'souza. (Photo: DC)Key players: (clockwise from top left) Ramanath Rai, Halady Srinivas Shetty, Sunil Kumar, Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat, U.T. Khader and Ivan D’souza. (Photo: DC)

Will history repeat for BJP this time?
Do communal clashes in coastal districts dent the image of BJP and cost the party dear in Assembly elections? With the exception of a good performance in 1994, when the party won seven of the 11 seats, post communal violence, the BJP has registered a poor performance in polls preceded by communal skirmishes.

In 1998, clashes were witnessed in Suratkal-Mangaluru, but the BJP could muster only five seats against nine won by Congress. In 2004, the party raced home with 11 of the 14 seats. Two years later, communal clashes rocked Mangaluru and Ullal, and the impact was felt in 2008, when the BJP won eight out of 13 seats. The worst phase in recent times: attack on churches, home stay, incidents of moral policing and the attack on a pub in Mangaluru in 2009, led to a major setback for the party in polls in 2013, with Congress candidates emerging victorious in ten seats. BJP candidates managed to win only two seats. Will history repeat itself for BJP in forthcoming Assembly polls?

Communal incidents divert attention from everything else: Prof P.L. Dharma, Dept of Political Science, Mangaluru University
To the question whether communal incidents play an importance role in politics in the region and DK in particular, the answer is both yes and no. If all communal incidents are politically orchestrated and planned, then it is true that they play a major role.

Once a communal incident happens, political parties bank on it and interpret it for their benefit. The best examples are the recent incidents in DK. These incidents have destroyed the longstanding social bonds and  trust among people. Our society lacks trust and respect for each other. Therefore we have no politics here, we have only conflicts based on caste and religion. This development is anti-democratic, anti-constitutional and anti-human.

We have built artificial walls between people of different religious groups. We fight not for our rights but for religion. Communal incidents have made us think not to think about anything else. It has made us blind, dumb, deaf and unsympathetic.  The beneficiaries are religious institutions. They are rich powerful, influential and able to change things the way they want.


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