Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Congress President Rahul Gandhi on a roadshow in Ankola, Uttar Kannada district. Photo: Deepak Kumar Shenvi
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah and Congress President Rahul Gandhi on a roadshow in Ankola, Uttar Kannada district. Photo: Deepak Kumar Shenvi

Ahead of state elections, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has adopted a two-pronged strategy in the communally volatile, coastal-belt in India’s southern state of Karnataka to appease both Hindu and Muslim voters.

Siddaramaiah accompanied All India Congress Committee (AICC) President Rahul Gandhi on his two-day election campaign tour in the coastal Uttara Kannada district. The chief minister openly played the Hindu card by calling himself a true Hindu, but pointed out that a true Hindu would always live in harmony with others.

Throughout the 120-kilometer tour, Gandhi singled out Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his “misrule,” criticizing him for making false promises and pushing the country to the verge of ruin by adopting the wrong economic policies. But Siddaramaiah took a different approach, helped by local knowledge.

Siddaramaiah was in the port city of Karwar in December when the mysterious death of a fisherman sparked a riot, which spread to other parts of the district. The rampaging mob burned several shops, places of worship, houses and businesses and attacked a car carrying the inspector general of police in Kumta. The shockwaves from the riots have continued to divide the district along communal lines.

Hindu organizations allege police filed false cases against more than 500 youths under stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code. “Many were sent to jail. Many people including the students and women were booked for forwarding provocative messages on the social media,” said Rajesh Nayak, a spokesperson for the district’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “The high-handed behavior of the police and the government is now haunting the Congress party.”

Rahul heckled, Siddaramaiah side-steps

The anger was palpable during Gandhi’s visit. In Honavar town, several young men shouting pro-Modi slogans forced Gandhi to end his speech after less than three minutes. Siddaramaiah, however, adopted a different strategy, better tailored to the demography of the area.

In Hindu-dominated areas, he avoided attacking the BJP except to say it was a corrupt party controlled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Siddaramaiah instead focused on the achievements of his five-year-old government, especially its populist Bhagya welfare schemes.

He did not utter a word about the BJP’s communal politics, nor did he criticize Anant Kumar Hegde, the union minister and member of parliament for Uttara Kannada, in any of the five major rallies and corner meetings he held in the region. In fact, Siddaramaiah did not even refer to the communal riots, speaking solely about developmental issues.

But the tenor of his speeches changed once he entered the coastal town of Bhatkal, a Muslim-dominated area. He launched a blistering attack on the BJP’s Hindutva plank and criticized prime minister Modi and Hegde in a public meeting. He called Hegde a “gutter-mouthed person who is unfit to become the member of even a gram panchayat (or local self-government organization)” and was applauded by an audience with a large presence of Muslim youth. Bhatkal constituency has about 50,000 Muslim voters.

Muslim body declares its support

Majlise-Islah-Wa-Tanzeem, the supreme Muslim religious body in Bhatkal town, has openly declared its support for Congress and forced all other Muslim candidates out of the fray from Bhatkal constituency to consolidate the community’s votes behind one candidate.

“The decision to support Congress was not my individual decision. Jamat people sat together to discuss whose candidature will benefit the community. Looking at the development work that Siddaramaiah had undertaken, we decided to support the Congress candidate,” said K M Muzammil, president of Majlise-Islah-Wa-Tanzeem. Muzammil is also a Congress party member.

Tanzeem had refused to support Janata Dal (Secular) candidate Inayat-Ulla-Shabandri, who later decided to drop out of the race.

JD(S) fielded S Amjad, another Muslim candidate, but Tanzeem members forced him to withdraw the candidature. Now JD(S) has no candidate in Bhatkal assembly constituency.

However, Tanzeem is not supporting Congress to defeat the BJP, but because of their faith in the Congress candidate and leadership, said Muzammil.

“We did not back the JDS candidate (who has now withdrawn his nomination) because we did not see them campaigning and they lacked confidence in themselves. Also, backing a candidate is not based on which religion the candidate belongs to. For us, it was all about who can do better work for the community,” he addd.

‘Congress sent Hindu youths to jail’

Congress and the BJP interpreted CM Siddaramaiah’s speech in different ways. “Bhatkal has borne the brunt of the politics of communalism played by both the minority and majority community groups in the past,” said Vishnu Dev, a taluk panchayat (rural administrative division) member and office bearer of the Bhatkal branch of Congress.

“There were not only Muslims in Thursday’s Congress rally in Bhatkal town. A large number of Hindus were also present there. Our candidate for Bhatkal constituency is Mankal Vaidya, a Hindu. So, the allegation of the chief minister playing the Muslim card in Muslim-dominated Bhatkal constituency and playing the developmental and secular card in Hindu-dominated areas is false.”

However, the BJP would have none of this. “Congress is an anti-Hindu party which sent hundreds of innocent Hindu youths to jail on the pretext of communal violence and even women were not spared,” said Rajesh Nayak, a district spokesperson for the BJP. “The party has lost the moral authority to ask for Hindu votes.

“So the chief minister spoke about development in Hindu areas. Once in Bhatkal the Congress leaders have come out with their real color and have begun appeasement politics.”

But not all the Congress leaders are impressed by Siddaramaiah’s dual strategy. “It is difficult to counter the misinformation campaign being carried out by the BJP, which is blatantly playing the communal card,” said a Congress leader from Karwar.

“We will come to know only on the day of vote counting whether th chief minister’s two-fold strategy will yield benefits to the Congress.”

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