There is a reason the Congress leaders in Dakshina Kannada district in coastal Karnataka have a spring in their step. That perhaps also explained the happy faces at the party's city office where corporators were busy posing for a group photograph with the Congress candidate JR Lobo.
It is as if every Congress candidate has ensured a head start before voting starts on 12 May. This the party managed by convincing the political arm of the Popular Front of India (PFI) and the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), not to field candidates along the coast. This, despite the coastal belt being the bastion of the Muslim-focused PFI and SDPI.
A Deal Well Done for Congress
In 2013, the SDPI had contested in seven of the eight seats in Dakshina Kannada, polling close to 24,000 votes. Mohammed Iqbal, the general secretary of the SDPI, does not sound convincing when he says the party decided not to contest as it felt there was no point polling just these few thousand votes.
What he does not agree to is that a deal was struck with the Congress, with the SDPI agreeing to ensure the Muslim vote was not split.
The Congress is more forthright in admitting that it persuaded the SDPI to stay away. Lobo says Muslim leaders did not want a division of the community vote to benefit the BJP. Dakshina Kannada has a 24 percent Muslim and eight percent Christian population, making the minority vote critical to electoral success.
Withdrawal of their candidates will definitely help the Congress. We have succeeded in negotiating this with the SDPIJR Lobo, Congress candidate
Subterfuge or Rumour?
In order to provide it the fig leaf of a no-deal with the Congress, the SDPI is contesting in three seats – Bengaluru, Kalaburgi and Mysuru districts. In the remaining 220 seats, after the countermanding of the election in Jayanagar constituency, the SDPI says it will support either of the secular parties – the Congress or the JDS-BSP combine.
“In these three seats, we are fighting all parties, including the Congress and the JD(S). If there was an alliance, it would have meant that the Congress will not contest in places where the SDPI contests. But that is not the case. The BJP has no agenda and is therefore talking in terms of a conspiracy. They do not focus on development,” says Iqbal. But this is precisely what the doctor ordered for the BJP.
For well over a year, its leaders have been crying hoarse over how the Siddaramaiah government soft pedals acts of violence by the SDPI and PFI cadre. The BJP has accused the SDPI of having a hand in the murders of three of its karyakartas in Dakshina Kannada, a charge Iqbal refutes.
BJP’s Attempts to Protect the Fortress
Coastal Karnataka has been a BJP fortress since the early 90s. The party has won the Mangalore (now Dakshina Kannada) Lok Sabha seat continuously since 1991. Five years back, however, in the 2013 assembly election, the BJP won just one of the eight seats in the district. As it attempts to make a comeback in Karnataka, the coastal belt remains key to its success.
The narrative to connect the Congress with the PFI is also linked to the charge of terror. Both in Kerala and coastal Karnataka, the PFI has been accused of having terror links, with the BJP demanding that the Siddaramaiah government ban the organisation.
An electoral deal between the Congress and the SDPI, therefore, is like manna from heaven, and the BJP is milking it to the maximum.
In the last week, the BJP narrative has been to push the Congress firmly into the Muslim camp, showing the SDPI withdrawal as proof of a marriage of convenience between the two parties. Ganesh Karnik, a BJP MLC, says:
Year after year, the SDPI has been fielding candidates. But they have withdrawn the candidates this time only to help the Congress, because they are all scared that BJP will come to power. So just to save their bastion, they have joined hands.Ganesh Karnik, BJP MLC
The BJP rhetoric over social media is far more sharp. “All along, the Congress has been denying its relationship with the SDPI. Now it is out in the open. So we are asking Hindus to vote for the BJP,'' says Jitendra Kottary, Dakshina Kannada district spokesperson of the BJP.
“Parivar” Comes To Aid
On the ground, the effort is being complemented by the Sangh parivaar outfits. Sharan Pumpwell, who till recently headed the Bajrang Dal and is now the organising secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, dubs the Congress regime as pro-Muslim.
If this government returns, it will be difficult to live. That is why we have decided that only Hindus must win in this election. I appeal to all Hindus. I am heading door to door, knocking the doors of Hindus, asking them to vote for Hindus. Who will protect the cows? Who will protect the Hindus? Who will talk about Hindutva in Mangaluru? I appeal to Hindus to vote for such candidates.Sharan Pumpwell
Mangalureans are critical of both the Congress and the BJP for reducing the election to one about the voter's religious identity. T Rajaram, Professor of Political Science at the University of Mangaluru, blames the Congress of trying to play catch-up by playing the soft Hindutva card. “This soft Hindutva will not help the Congress. They have to actually articulate a much more culturally-anchored secularism than this ambivalent approach to religion,” says Rajaram.
It is unfortunate that this election is not being seen only as a BJP vs Congress battle. The parties have reduced it to a Hindu vs Minorities face-off. With appeasement politics seen as par for the course, whoever wins will only be emboldened to continue with the formula.
(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at @Iamtssudhir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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