No innocents here: Both BJP and Congress are culpable for intensifying identity-based politics

By Saarthak Anand

Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah provoked a massive outrage on 10 January when he likened the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological mentor Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to terrorists. “They are themselves like terrorists in a way. BJP, RSS and Bajrang Dal also have terrorists within,” he had said in response to being described by the BJP as anti-Hindu. After his comments kicked up a storm, Siddaramaiah tried to make a clarification by saying that “BJP and RSS are Hindutva terrorists.” Clearly, this was anything but an improvement.

An attempt at polarisation

The saffron party latched on to the opportunity, saying that the CM’s remarks “emphasise the Congress’s hatred towards Hindus.”  The southern state, which goes to polls early this year, has witnessed a rise in religious rhetoric in recent months, most of it coming from the BJP’s side. Earlier, the BJP had fielded Uttar Pradesh’s  controversial CM Yogi Adityanath—often accused of being insensitive towards the minorities—in the election campaign. Adityanath questioned the Hindu credentials of his Karnataka counterpart. Speaking at the last leg of the party’s Parivatan rally, he remarked, “If Siddaramaiah is a Hindu, then let him ban cow slaughter in the state. The BJP government had previously brought in an effective piece of legislation to ban cow slaughter… Soon after coming to power, the Congress government retracted it.” He also mentioned the alleged murders of 22 Sangh Parivar workers in the state.

The CM’s AHINDA card

Part of the reason for the BJP to make use of this particular strategy is Siddaramaiah’s careful nurturing of the AHINDA (minorities, backward classes, and Dalits) vote bank. The Karnataka government has been extending large allocations to these groups through successive budgets. The leaked details of a caste census, which is yet to be formally released, reveal that population shares of the traditionally dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities have fallen. At the same time, the share of Dalits has risen. This could allow the CM to increase caste-based reservation from the current 50 percent.

The Gujarat campaign

This, however, is not the first occasion when the saffron party has taken recourse to its tried-and-tested strategy in response to its rivals’ attempt at caste polarisation. The recently held Gujarat elections saw Congress joining hands with caste leaders Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakore, and Jignesh Mevani in order to try and breach the BJP’s fortress. Hardik has been leading a campaign for educational and professional reservation for the Patidar community, while Alpesh and Jignesh are leaders of the OBC and Dalit community, respectively. The formidable challenge posed by this alliance led the BJP to stir the religious pot. This was evident in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches, in which he even accused his predecessor Manmohan Singh of colluding with Pakistan to make Ahmed Patel—a Muslim—the state’s CM. The communal discourse was naked, and it was of a scale hardly ever seen in the past. At the end of the day, it is widely believed that it was the PM’s intense campaign which allowed his party to narrowly hold on to power in Gujarat.

The blame is to be shared

Both parties are guilty of doublespeak. Caste is an ugly reality of Indian politics. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ticket distribution of the various parties. Candidates are selected more on the basis of caste, and less on the basis of efforts and performance. Even while allocating ministerial portfolios, caste representation is given a much higher weight than ability. On the other hand, the Congress cannot escape the charge of religion-based politics, either. While it has often been accused of minority appeasement in the past, the party most visibly deviated from its “secular” standards in the run-up to the Gujarat polls, when its then vice-president Rahul Gandhi paid a visit to more than a dozen temples. Furthermore, his party’s spokespersons—in a sharp departure from the past—openly claimed that Rahul is a “janeu-dhari Hindu”, that is, one who wears the sacred thread.

Amidst all the hyperbole, it is the real issues which are put on the back-burner. In the Gujarat campaign, the much-touted Gujarat model—often used by the BJP in other campaigns—was largely absent from the discourse. Such a political atmosphere, in addition to promoting social conflicts, ends up coming in the way of an enlightened discussion on governance and policy.

Photo credit: Al Jazeera English on Visual Hunt /CC BY-SA