The sweep of the canvas is breath-taking – from the Epics Mahabharata and Ramayana to the still evolving science of meta-data theft and manipulation of the human psyche, or soul, making peaceful people thirst for the blood of their neighbour. The battle ground is as strategic as Kurukshetra, even if it is Karnataka, the Mysore of old, famed for the aromatic Sandalwood soap, the sweet Pak, the geo-marked coffee, and the grandest Dussehra in the world.
The state is going to the polls to elect a new legislature. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress see it as the penultimate bout before the General elections due anytime from this winter to the spring of 2019. Both have primed themselves, reinvented themselves one could say, shedding the moral burden of half a century or more of their history, and want to test if it will work in the age of the WhatsApp, Tweeter and the good old rumour mill.
Perhaps the test is the more crucial for the Congress, even though many think it has got used to serial defeat in recent years, and therefore is psychologically more inured to injury.
For Congress watchers, the critical change is not in the Presidentship of the party, radical though it seems. There have been major transitions in the party leadership since Independence and the death of Mahatma Gandhi at the hands of a Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh assassin, Godse, now the icon of a growing number of people. Indira Gandhi had become party president while her father Jawaharlal Nehru was alive, and prime minister. She benefited from the continuum in policy and the affection of the people. She continued with the umbrella that the party had become to all caste and regional groups, all major religions, and all economic strata. Barring the tycoons she lumped together with the right wing of her own party in a bedroll she labelled The Syndicate, bringing an immediate identification with murderers, gambling and other criminal groups out to rob the people of the hard-earned fruits of freedom. The symbol of the mother cow licking her calf in love and assurance was an apt replacement of the two bullocks yoked to a plough which had dragged the country to freedom.
The transfer from a sign of the peasantry and its main economic activity to a white and green revolution itself would not last long in fights in the election commission with dissidents, and eventually the Palm, its fate line not very clear, emerged as a derivative from the Mudra of protection and assurance to a stop sign to those who would drive without brakes over her political landscape. Indira propped up others in the party office, among them Dev Kant Barooah, but it was clear that she was the boss.
Indira lost the Sikh vote, with fatal consequences to herself and long lasting thrust to her descendants. But twice, in life and in death, she saw a near absolute consolidation of the people behind her, especially the absolute consolidation of the Hindu population. She defeated and divided Pakistan in 1971, helping in the birth of Bangladesh, and was called the Devi Durga by the leading light of the Hindu right, Atal Behari Vajpayee.
And when she was assassinated by her Sikh guards, the RSS, which had seen Khalistani terror against Hindus in North India, put its entire strength behind Rajiv Gandhi’s election. His victory was historic, the number of seats unprecedented, and the feat never perhaps to be repeated.
Rajiv’s assassination perhaps saw the only period of incertitude for the Grand Old Party when pygmies with no grassroots base or real mass appeal in a stardom sense, came to head the party, the most abysmal being Sita Ram Kesri.
Sonia Gandhi’s ascendency brought a serenity to the star-tossed party on the brink of dissolving in the many petty gang fights and ego clashes. They did not like her. But they could not do without her if the party and their self-interest was to survive.
Sonia did indeed save the party, but at a serious cost to its ideology, and its core competence in assuring the country’s half a billion poor that they had someone to listen to their woes, to empathise with their pain. The cost was rapid and unchecked liberalisation. PV Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, most left-leaning economists agree, paid, or was made to pay, heed to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Dr Manmohan Singh, as a bureaucrat at first and rapidly metamorphosing as Finance Minister and then as Prime Minister, was not so much Sonia Gandhi finding someone because she did not want herself, an Italian born citizen, to be the prime minister. There are too many with first-hand knowledge who will confirm that Dr Manmohan Singh was truly autonomous in his economic policy, and lend a keen ear to the upper caste coteries that had always dominated the PMO and the Party Headquarters. Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council succeed in pushing through the Right to Information law, but little else.
Sonia Gandhi’s transferring political power to son Rahul, and not to the wildly popular Priyanka, is often attributed to her bowing to patriarchal forces, but may also be a more cold-blooded analysis of the vulnerability of the daughter whose husband Robert Vadra faces a perpetual Damoclean sword of arrest and incarceration by the BJP government, and has more enemies than friends within the Congress party rank and file.
Sonia Gandhi has hoped that Rahul will shed his public image of a pussyfooting, western trained auburn-haired and scatter-brained softie who fumbled through his first major television interview in 2014. Many will say the man, no longer very young as he creeps towards the half century mark, is no dummy Pappu as the BJP-RSS trolling machine paints him. He comes across as a well-bred, educated, sharp witted and conically savvy professional who is perhaps still grappling with the burden of being a scion of the Nehru Gandhi family and the hope of a billion people, as they say.
He will fit the shoes that are now his. That is not in doubt, given sufficient time. What is critical is the tectonic shift the transition has caused in the core ideology of the Congress. Much as the army going into the Golden Temple alienated the Sikh masses for eternity – they forget nothing, as a visit to any gurudwara will show you – the Opening of the locks of the Babri Masjid, which incrementally led to its demolition and a new era of bloodshed and competitive violence. This alienated the majority chunk of the Muslim community who have had to shift allegiance to various caste-based parties, or petty warlords of their own faith. They have risked alienation at a time when a global islamophobia in the wake of the Islamic State mayhem in West Asia has leaked also into India.
Instead of trying to bring them back into the protective and nurturing shade of the old umbrella, the Congress is perhaps under Rahul arguing that it will compete for the vote bank of the BJP-RSS, in other words cater to the feelings and demands of the majority Hindu community.
Sonia Gandhi was honest in admitting that their actions in the past had given them an image in the eyes of the majority community that the Congress was a Muslim, or a Muslim-appeasing party led by a Catholic and cared not one whit for the needs and the feelings, real and imagined, of the huge Hindu population.
The course correction that Sonia and Rahul have tried seems to be for the party leadership to become visibly Hindu. Rahul wears the sacred thread, vests temples, and kow-tows to every seer there is in the country barring Baba Ramdev and Sri Sri. Not that he abuses these two. This seemed to have helped in the election in Gujarat where in the rural belt he beat Narendra Modi and Amit Shah on their home turf. But for the upper strata of the four major cities in the state, the Congress could well have unseated the BJP where Modi was chief minister for more than decade before becoming prime minister.
The temple going has not stopped in Karnataka, a state no less in piety than any in the north. The attempts at compensating that the pro Hindu or soft-Hindutva swing does not alienate every Muslim, there has been a doffing of the cap to Tipu Sultan, darling of civil society for his throwing back the British, but an anathema to the Hindus and the Catholicism of the Konkan coast.
But perhaps the master stroke of Rahul – and one must find out the brains which thought of it – is to get the state government recognise the Lingayats, a 12th century sect, as a religion much like Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs, born of reformist zeal from the larger Hindu conglomerate. The Lingayats have been demanding a separate identity and status for more than a century. And while the BJP says the Congress is stooping to divide the ancient Hindu faith for its political gain, there is little doubt that Narendra Modi and Shah have been caught napping. Their chief ministerial hopeful, Yeduyarappa is a Lingayat and claims the solid backing of his community. He, in an earlier avatar, had in fact made common cause with the Congress in seeking a separate religion status for his faith. He is, however, now obeying the party line. The Lingayats are 17 per cent of the Hindu population in the state, and can propel the Congress passed the post, giving its second term in the state assembly. A tantalising thought.
But for civil society and the minorities, there will always be the doubt in the back of their mind if the Congress is now a soft Hindutva party. No denying this.
Similarly, for the BJP, the target is how to colour the nation in saffron. The south remains the only block. The party has entered Karnataka in the past, and is more keen than ever to gain entry to the Deccan plateau through Karnataka, which will make it easier to strike into Tamil Nadu in time where there is a political vacuum in the state after the death of Jayaram Jayalalithaa. It will also help win a seat or two in neighbouring Kerala. And as important, it will send a strong signal to its allies in Andhra and Telangana that their days of independent existence as regional parties are numbered.
Like the Congress, the BJP is also willing and eager to make compromises. Major ones, as we saw in the North-East. Members of the BJP and their supporters can eat beef, the meat of a cow, in the states of Nagaland and Meghalaya, where the party helped form governments, marking its sweep of this final frontier. “A ban on cow slaughter like the one in Uttar Pradesh won’t take effect if our party comes to power next year. The reality here is very different and our central leaders are aware of that,” Nagaland BJP chief Visasolie Lhoungu told Hindustan Times. Elsewhere in the country, members of the BJP have been arrested together with others of the larger Rashtriya Swayam Sewak Sangh family for lynching Muslims and Dalits on the suspicion that the hapless victims had either butchered a cow, bought its meat, or on the mere suspicion they may have eaten beef.
That marks the difference between the BJP which claims overwhelming victory in the north east of India and the BJP that has ruled India since May 2014 on a platform of development, employment and a pure form of Hindutva in which the cow is holy and the building of a temple to Ram in the town of Ayodhya the paramount priority.
In the gloating and the jubilation in party headquarters in New Delhi and the RSS headquarters in Nagpur, what has been underplayed, and in fact hidden from public gaze, is the sort of compromises the party has had to make to come to power, by itself or in alliances, in states such as Goa, first, Jammu and Kashmir, second, and now in the north east to be able to lay claim to a pan-Indian sweep.
Giving up core values of Hindutva has been one policy change, so to say. Overlooking and compromising with the rampant corruption in these states, is the second. The third has been that the winning candidates are not dyed in the wool RSS or BJP cadres but persons, mostly men, weaned away from the Congress en-masse or from regional parties. This was visible in Goa, and is now so very apparent in Tripura where the massive victory of the BJP with 42 seats in a house of 60, throwing away a 20 year Marxist rule, has sent shock waves through the political spectrum and the media. But this is not like throwing away the Marxists from Kerala. The winning candidates came mostly from the Congress.
But amassing the north east is not a game of numbers, important though they may seem. It is a question of perceptions. The north East, barring the massive state of Assam, contributes a little less than one per cent to the polity of India in terms of seats in Parliament or the state legislatures. Delhi with 7 Lok Sabha seats as a Union territory is bigger than six of the seven north eastern states in its parliamentary presence.
The North East provides little of the nation’s gross domestic product with its mineral resources difficult to extract and its forests covering perhaps some of the most inhospitable and difficult terrain in the continent.
Its main impact on the rest of the nation has been in terms of the security environment. Adjoining China, Burma and Bangladesh, and connected to the Indian mainland with a narrow strip of land called Chicken’s neck, it is the vulnerable part of India, and has the second largest military presence after the state of Jammu and Kashmir which has an emergency-sapping bloody militancy and Pakistan inspired terrorism. The North East has, in turn, been host to the most complex, multiplexed 70-year-old insurgency that has only now started to abate. In effect, it has needed tremendous national resources to keep it happy and calm. In turn, the state governments and the legislators have found it lucrative to play cozy with the central government which is the solitary font of funding. Massive corruption ensures a personal stake for each legislator.
The North East’s “Christian” image is also a myth. In the sprawling and populous Assam, the Christian population is less than 2 per cent, less than the national average, and it is not politically important in Tripura. It is a minor force in Arunachal in recent years, and among the Naga tribes of Manipur, but these Nagas have never ruled Imphal and remain a sulking force. It is therefore in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram that Christians constitute a majority, though in absolute terms, the total does not contribute much to the religion’s figures in the national population. The Christians are also bitterly divided on fractures of tribal identity and denominational differences with Catholic-Baptist spats more the norm than the exception.
Nevertheless, the Christians as a group had for fifty years been branded by the BJP as an anti-national group set to create a Kingdom of Christ in the Hindu homeland. They were accused of fomenting terrorism, smuggling arms, and providing passage to international terrorists and weapons. Establishing a BJP “nationalistic” political presence was therefore almost as important as a military project. This has been achieved and only Mizoram now remains outside the BJP’s capture – till the end of the year when elections are due.
And staying with optics, for the first time in history, the map of India looks saffron from east to West, even if the from North to south, the color stops at the doorsteps of the five southern states of Telangana, Andhra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala.
As far as trying to find out why Christians, battered by the RSS in Orissa and Chhattisgarh, would want to vote for the RSS baked BJP in Goa and the North east, it does not reflect very well on people with ambition. The late Purno Sangma, a former Speaker of the Lok Sabha who wanted to be Prime Minister or President of India, was asked why he was playing footsie with the BJP-Sangh about whose violent anti minority past he knew so well. He said he would change the party from the inside, a statement that HT Sangliana repeated when he in turn joined the BJP after a distinguished career in the police. Both failed to change the BJP, but both gained in personal ambitions coming true. Sangma’s son Conrad is today the chief minister of Meghalaya, and Sangliana served in the Lok Sabha and as vice chair of the National Minorities Commission long after his peers in the police had gone to grass.
Karnataka is, therefore, seeing two parties which would be unrecognizable to a voter of the early years of the republic.
It is an existential fight for both.
Alas the people may well be like the grass in the arena where two elephants fight. The trampling does not help create more jobs, the most serious issue that will face the nation in the next ten years. Not just the development goals, but national peace itself will depend on how the hundreds of millions of unemployed and new entrants to the work force will react. Social engineering is not a magic wand, both parties will discover. Hopefully, in time.
(Published on 26th March 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 13)