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Gauri Lankesh murder: Siddaramaiah’s next move

By Saarthak Anand

Political tensions are running high in Karnataka following the murder of journalist and activist Gauri Lankesh. The assassination of the editor of Lankesh Patrike—known for its criticism of right-wing forces—has seen political parties scrambling to lay the blame on each other. While the Congress calls the incident symptomatic of intolerant Hindutva forces under the Narendra Modi regime, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) have been quick to paint the murder as an episode of law-and-order failure on the part of the Congress-run Karnataka government.

All eyes are now on Chief Minister Siddaramaiah, who enjoyed a good rapport with Lankesh; he was a close friend of her father P. Lankesh.  With Assembly elections less than six months away, it remains to be seen what effect the murder will have on the electoral prospects of the Congress.

A clean image and social engineering

The Karnataka CM has earned the reputation of presiding over a corruption-free and efficient administration after taking over the state from an unstable BJP regime, which saw three Chief Ministers over its five-year term. The present government has remained free of corruption charges thus far.

In addition, the CM, over the course of his term, has championed the cause of “social justice”. Besides wasting no opportunity to highlight his own backwards-caste background, he has doubled the budget allocated towards schemes for the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities. In a state where politics has historically been dominated by the upper-caste Lingayats and Vokkaligas—traditional supporters of the BJP and the JD(S) respectively—Siddaramaiah has been carefully nurturing an AHINDA (minorities, backward castes, and Dalit) rainbow coalition, comprising sixty-five percent of Karnataka’s population.  He has also tried to wean a significant chunk of the Lingayats away from the BJP by supporting the cause of recognition as a separate religion for them—a demand of a sizable section of the community. B.S. Yeddyurappa, president of Karnataka BJP and the tallest Lingayat leader in the state, has opposed this demand.

Dealing the Kannada hand

Siddaramaiah has also prudently whipped up Kannada sentiment in his favour. His government has dropped Hindi announcements and signboards from the new Metro network and made the teaching of Kannada and singing of the state anthem mandatory in all schools. He went a step further in July, with the state government setting up a committee to look into the possibility of having a separate state flag.

Through such measures, the CM has made the BJP play right into his hands. Conscious of its nationalistic image, the saffron party has had little choice but to announce its opposition to such demands. Siddaramaiah has thus been able to portray the BJP as anti-Kannada and Hindi-centric, shoring up enormous support in the Kannada community for himself in the process.

Siddaramaiah has managed to create an independent space for himself at a time the Congress is in a nationwide free fall. Pleased by his performance, the Congress brass declared him as the CM candidate for the upcoming Assembly polls—a step it rarely takes. The party hopes to pull off a repeat of the recent Punjab election, where it managed to romp home on the back of the popularity of its regional leader Amarinder Singh.

Law and order: A raw nerve

The deteriorating law-and-order situation has turned into a sore point for the state government. Karnataka has seen the murder of at least ten members of BJP and RSS in the last two years. Moreover, a number of state administration officials have died under suspicious circumstances during Siddaramaiah’s tenure.

The assassination of rationalist M.M. Kalburgi in 2015 received nationwide attention; thus far the investigation has shown little progress.

High stakes

With the polls only a few months away, the pressure on the CM to avoid a replay of the Kalburgi case and offer something by way of a breakthrough is intense. Meanwhile, the BJP has acquired the opportunity to slam the state administration where it is most vulnerable. Both parties have a lot of skin in the game. While the Congress is desperate to hold on to one of the few remaining states in its power, the saffron party aspires to make a comeback in the only southern state where it has held office. The outcome hinges in no small part on how the Gauri Lankesh murder probe unfolds.

Featured Image Source: Livemint via AFP

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