A competitive display of identity politics is on in the poll-bound Karnataka where both the Congress and BJP are guilty of playing the communal card. The campaign has hit a new low with the major contenders for power trading personal charges. The predominant question seems to be who is a better Hindu as Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and his Uttar Pradesh counterpart Yogi Adityanath, who has emerged as the face of BJP and star campaigner in crucial states, are locked in a bitter war of words. The poll atmosphere has been vitiated as communal and divisive agendas are dominating the debate. The real pressing issues like Bengaluru’s pathetic infrastructure and deepening agrarian crisis have been relegated to the background as communal narrative is driving the campaign. The Chief Minister has termed the electioneering as a fight between two ideologies—communalism and secularism. However, the ongoing campaign is seen more as a battle of perception than a debate on public issues. The southern state offers a big challenge to the saffron party which is keen to stage a comeback as part of its Congress-mukt Bharat agenda. It is ironical that Karnataka, one of the high-growth and progressive states, is witnessing a divisive campaign based on identity instead of debate over development issues. While BJP has been harping on nationalist Hindutva narrative, Siddaramaiah, who has virtually turned the Congress into a regional party, is countering it with Kannada identity and caste assertion. After being given a free hand in running the state affairs, the Chief Minister has crafted an aggressive strategy that is a clever mix of regional and caste identities.
Along with highlighting a string of populist schemes such as ‘Baghya’ scheme, providing rice and milk which has benefited over 3 crore families, a strong regional identity is being sought to be created through a separate flag and anthem for the State. The Chief Minister has also thrown his weight behind the long-standing demand of Lingayats, a dominant community comprising the Opposition BJP’s main social support base, to be recognised as a separate religious group. A subtext of this demand is that Lingayats, who run a number of profitable educational institutions in Karnataka, would benefit a great deal by getting recognised as a minority. The Congress’ friendly overture to Lingayat community is being seen as an expansionist attempt at social engineering while the BJP continues to rely on an overarching theme of Hindutva and has been focusing on the targeted killings of right wing activists. Senior BJP leader and Union Minister of State for Skill Development Anant Kumar Hegde has landed himself and his party in trouble by making some uncharitable remarks against the constitution and the pivotal place that secularism occupies in it.