TO LAND IN coastal Karnataka in poll season is to enter a climate of frustration. In the sweltering heat made worse by brief spells of rain, political pugilists are preparing to win or to go down swinging—anything but a breathless draw. The 19 coastal constituencies from Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Uttara Kannada districts are among the most keenly contested in the elections to Karnataka’s 224-member Assembly scheduled for May 12th. They are a matter of pride and honour for the BJP, whose taproot of Hindutva runs deep here. Despite the Sangh Parivar’s machinations ahead of the 2013 elections, and perhaps as a result of them, the party won only one Assembly segment each in the three districts, a snub that has festered like a wound. The Parivar has since stepped up the game, making Hindutva an irreducible reality in these parts and forcing Congress leaders to visit temples, give out doles for religious places and poojas, and react to allegations of cow theft, ‘love jihad’, ‘land jihad’ and communal killings. The fight this time, says V Sunil Kumar, BJP MLA from Karkala in Udupi district, is between Allah and Ram. “I had made a statement that in Bantval constituency, it is Ram versus Allah, not BJP candidate Rajesh Naik versus Congress Minister B Ramanath Rai. But I can say this is true in all constituencies in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi,” says Kumar, who has a shot at retaining the Karkala seat. “The Congress has systematically cheated Hindus over the past five years and we are telling them not to remain quiet about it.” Thirty-five per cent of Bantval’s population is Muslim, and the BJP’s best efforts to wrest it from Rai, district in-charge minister and Minister for Forests, Environment and Ecology who has won the seat six times, may not prove effective. Three other Congress MLAs from Dakshina Kannada—Minister for Food and Public Distribution UT Khader (Mangalore, formerly Ullal), K Abhyachandra Jain (Moodbidri) and K Vasantha Bangera (Belthangady)—have won from their respective constituencies several times in a row. The BJP also lost Mangalore City North in 2013 to BA Mohiuddin Bava, Mangalore City South to former bureaucrat JR Lobo and Puttur to Shakunthala T Shetty. Halady Srinivas Shetty, who won as an independent from Kundapura in Udupi district, was inducted into the BJP earlier this year and will contest under the party banner despite murmurs of discord among partymen.
The gulch between Hindu and Muslim society is widening. Beary Muslims have traditionally enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Mogaveeras, a fishing community and an OBC that is among the most populous in Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, with the boat-owners and retailers being Hindus and Muslims controlling the wholesale fish trade. Mogaveeras and Billavas (traditionally, toddy tappers) are the footsoldiers of the RSS and Bajrang Dal, which form the BJP’s backbone in coastal Karnataka. With elections approaching, the communities, on edge, are clinging to a thin film of civility. On a visit to the house of slain RSS worker Sharath Madiwala in Kandur, a hamlet with dirt roads located in Sajipa Muda gram panchayat near Bantval, our driver for the day, a young Muslim from Mangalore with an iPhone and a diploma in safety engineering, gives a fake Hindu name. Madiwala’s father, 68-year-old Thaniyappa, who owns a laundry store on BC Road at a stone’s throw from the BJP’s Bantval office, is sympathetic to both Muslims and Hindus who have lost their sons to the sanguinary politics of the region, but our friend does not want to take any chances. “I was a fan of Ramanath Rai’s son Deepu, an icon for Muslim youth in my college. But I have been reading about how politicians are orchestrating revenge murders of Hindus and Muslims and creating tension in society. I am wary now,” he would later tell us. What he left unsaid was that violence had become so endemic to Mangalore that it didn’t take much for even the most innocuous relationships to go pear-shaped. Sharath, a 28-year-old RSS worker, was knifed outside the laundry shop in July 2017 by a group with ties to the radical Muslim organisation Popular Front of India (PFI). He succumbed to his injuries. In the polarised atmosphere of Bantval, his murder was interpreted as retaliation for the killing of Ashraf Kalayi, a 35-year-old leader of the Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI), an offshoot of the PFI, barely two weeks ago.
“Go through the list of promises that I made to you in the last election and tell me if I have failed you anywhere. If I haven’t, then hire me again. I am confident about my performance” - Pramod Madhwaraj, Karnataka minister for Sports and Youth Affairs
Thaniyappa, bare-chested and sweaty from supervising work at the washing house, settles into an armchair by the window, where he spends much of his time these days. He tries not to dwell on the conniving opportunism of politicians. “We knew Sharath was into social work, but only when 10,000 people turned up at his funeral did we realise how many lives he had touched,” Thaniyappa says. “This is what I think about now.” While he is angry at the Congress government’s “indifference”, especially Ramanath Rai’s, whose household has been a customer for years, his elder daughter Mallika Kunder, 35, who is visiting from Pune, is offended by the BJP’s appropriation of Sharath for its Jan Suraksha Yatra earlier this year. “BJP leaders including Yeddyurappa and Nalin Kumar Kateel have shared in our grief and we appreciate their support, but it was insensitive to take out a procession with Sharath’s picture displayed in an open truck. It may be an important poll issue for them, but did they pause to think how we must have felt?” she asks. Sharath’s motorbike and Maruti Omni, the rear glass imprinted with the words ‘Chandan hai iss desh ki maati (the soil of this country is like sandal)’, are still parked at the Madiwala residence, but Thaniyappa uses his autorickshaw to ferry laundry to the shop and back. “Sharath wanted me to retire and live in peace,” he says. “But he did not know what a dangerous environment prevails here.”
“AS FAR AS the coastal districts are concerned, Hindutva is the only election issue this time,” says PS Prakash, CEO of Hosa Diganta, an RSS mouthpiece published in Kannada. “It is a head-on fight between the Congress and the BJP. The high percentage of minority votes is a problem for the BJP, which cannot hope to attract them. But what it has done this time is consolidate the Hindu vote by awakening the Hindu consciousness,” says Prakash. The paper’s Mangalore edition has carried reports of over 100 cows gone missing from coastal districts over the past few months. The theft of a cow from a gaushala in Kairangala, near Konaje, run by controversial Swami Raghaveshwara Bharati of Ramachandrapura Math, snowballed earlier this month, with BJP MP from Dakshina Kannada Nalin Kumar Kateel and RSS strongman Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat delivering charged speeches at the ashram. The seer had been accused of rape in 2014 and the case took several dramatic turns, including five High Court judges recusing themselves, before he was acquitted. “The Congress government is guilty of pedalling soft Hindutva in the Mangalore belt. It has not been able to give the Muslims a sense of security. It looks the other way when Kalladka Bhat or Raghaveshwara Swami is involved because it cannot afford to alienate Hindus,” says BV Seetaram, who owns and manages Karavali Ale, an irreverent Mangalore daily. “There is no single leader in active politics who can tour the entire coastal belt and pull crowds. In the absence of Oscar Fernandes and with Veerappa Moily falling off the radar, there are fringe leaders from Dakshina Kannada dictating strategy for the entire coastal belt,” he says.
“To uphold law and order and the rights of Hindus is the main thing and that is how we are consolidating our vote. There is a saying in Kannada: ‘You don’t need a mirror to see your own palm.’ Here, everything is out in the open” - Rajesh Naik, BJP candidate from Bantval, Dakshina Kannada
Like Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde who represents Uttara Kannada in the Lok Sabha, this constituency’s two-time MP Nalin Kumar Kateel has gained credence by rhapsodising on Hindutva. “I talk about the ideology I believe in. I am not making hate speeches,” he says, surrounded by fawning admirers at the party office in Mangalore where silver-haired RSS veterans are to be felicitated today for their struggle against the Emergency. A waspish orator, Kateel, who beat veteran Congressman Janardhan Poojary twice in a row, outsells all other BJP leaders from the district. “The candidate would not have mattered. It is our sangathan shakti and the development focus of our national leadership that win elections for us,” Kateel says. “We have been improving our performance in local body polls, and thanks to Modiji’s rallies and the Congress’ divisive politics, Hindus are stronger now and capable of defending themselves.” The Parivar is known to reward smug petulance with a chance to contest the polls, but in Bantval, it is again fielding political greenhorn U Rajesh Naik, an award-winning organic farmer who lost to Ramanath Rai in 2013. “That was during the state BJP’s worst period. Now there are real issues. To uphold law and order and the rights of Hindus is the main thing—and that is how we are consolidating our vote. There is a saying in Kannada that ‘You don’t need a mirror to see your own palm’. Here, everything is out in the open,” says Naik. He has just shaken hands with half a dozen Congress workers who have switched over to the BJP. “There are other issues—sand mining, the potential for tourism along the Netravati, and proper sanitation. And with the SDPI further splitting Congress votes, we stand a good chance.” Naik’s name, say sources, was floated by Kalladka Prabhakar Bhat.
BJP workers in Dakshina Kannada claim that without the ‘Doctor’, as Prabhakar Bhat is known here, the party cannot organise itself and rout the Congress from one of its last remaining bastions. “He knows every taluk in these parts like the back of his hand. He is always travelling, energising Hindus.” K Krishnappa, the manager of Prabhakar Bhat’s school in Kalladka, a small town that lies south of the Netravati river in southern Karnataka, has an unenviable task. He has to convince Muslims to vote for the BJP. A ‘page pramukh’, Krishnappa is in charge of canvassing among 30 voters who take up one page of the Election Commission’s list for Balthila, booth No 154. “Seventeen of them are Muslim,” says the VHP taluk president for Bantval, laughing at the irony. “If I can get three to five, it will be a big deal.” A Muslim-majority town that witnessed a slew of communal acts last year claiming three lives, including that of Jaleel Karopady, a gram panchayat vice- president, Kalladka is home to a school, a pre-university college and a degree college run by Bhat’s trust. Perched on a tree-lined road with an unbroken string of saffron streamers, the green environs of Sri Rama Vidya Kendra make top party leaders like chief minister candidate BS Yeddyurappa and BJP MP from Udupi- Chikmagalur Shobha Karandlaje, flock like migrant butterflies. For young Sangh Parivar politicians hoping to hustle their way up the ranks, stooging about in the campus could determine the course of their career.
“IN COASTAL KARNATAKA, Prabhakar Bhat is the man with the remote. He presses the button when convenient,” says Mangalore-based rationalist Narendra Nayak, whose security was recently enhanced in apprehension of an attack on him. Nayak and other activists in Mangalore have been demanding justice for Vinayak Baliga, a BJP worker and RTI activist who was murdered in front of his house in Kodialbail on March 21st, 2016. The prime accused in the case, Naresh Shenoy, founder of the Yuva Brigade, is said to be close to the RSS and a senior BJP leader from the district. Baliga’s photograph featured in Karandlaje’s now-famous letter to Rajnath Singh demanding a probe into the ‘murders’ of 23 Hindus in Karnataka since the last Assembly elections, some of whom are alive or died natural deaths. Baliga’s name, however, was missing from the list. “The BJP wants people to forget the case where their own man was targeted and killed for exposing the irregularities in the accounts of a Hindu math. This is the scary reality of the Sangh Parivar,” Nayak says. “I doubt voters will be fooled by it.”
“Only when 10,000 people turned up at his funeral did we realise how many lives Sharath had touched. He wanted me to retire and live in peace, but he did not know what a dangerous environment prevails here” - Thaniyappa, Madiwala, father of slain RSS worker Sharath
Dakshina Kannada, however, has continued to keep its appointments with blood-soaked horror. On January 3rd, Deepak Rao, a BJP worker, was murdered in Katipalla, near Surathkal, triggering a reprisal in which a Muslim youth from the area lost his life. “My constituency is a Hindu majority area, and I have been extra vigilant. This incident has been the one black mark on my entire term,” says BA Mohiuddin Bava, the Congress MLA from Mangalore City North, who had issued a statement saying he prayed the courts would award death to the accused. At his busy office in Surathkal, Bava launches into a publicity spiel about the projects commissioned by him in the past five years, but he knows full well that religion is the flavour of the season. He recently came under attack for retrofitting the tune of a popular Ayyappa bhajan with a campaign song—an inadvertent mistake, he says.
IN THE NEIGHBOURING district of Udupi, the tone of campaigning is less pungent. At Minister for Sports and Youth Affairs Pramod Madhwaraj’s resort-home tucked away in Kolaligiri, across the Suvarna River from Udupi, a bevy of petitioners sit slumped in plush chairs in an air-conditioned room, waiting to be ushered into an inner chamber with an arched wood ceiling and plusher sofas. Madhwaraj emerges in a green kurta toting gigantic finger rings and an aristocratic smile. The darbar begins: a cancer patient’s mother trying to acquire cheap land to build a home, a student who needs medical aid, a party worker who wants to shake his hands, they all get assurances and advice. The minister scarfs down a handful of pills handed to him by a secretary before he heads out in a Land Rover to 20 booth-level engagements over the course of the day. Among his people, he is no longer the patrician but a man who touches elders’ feet and poses for selfies. At an intimate gathering in the shade of a porch in Handadi, with no more than 40 people in attendance, he likens himself to a sincere agricultural worker who deserves to be hired again. “Go through the list of promises that I made to you in the last election and tell me if I have failed you anywhere. If I haven’t, then hire me again,” he says. A shapeshifter who nearly defected to the BJP, Madhwaraj is confident his performance has earned him enough goodwill to last another term.
“We are not leaving anything to chance,” says Jagadish Shetty, 47, a BJP worker from Boloor, a Mogaveera-majority neighbourhood on the outskirts of Mangalore where a team of volunteers is wrapping up its door-to-door outreach, moving like a swarm of bees on a hot, listless day. It is a taxonomic exercise to identify “our” votes, and occasionally, to try and turn the others by ventriloquising Amit Shah and Narendra Modi. They do not brandish caustic sentences or affect a pose of superiority. This is good old friendly banter. “There are 1,039 votes in this booth—No 81 of ward No 27—and we know each one. We have never collected this much data. We even have phone numbers from each house, and since we know which way they lean, we plan to add the supporters among them to WhatsApp groups,” says Shetty, a ghazal singer with close-cropped afro hair who runs a not-for-profit school. The Congress’ ground level campaign may seem attenuated in comparison, but with the Siddaramaiah wave cresting at the right time, the party is not overly worried about anti-incumbency even as the BJP gets busy at the Hindutva switchboard, flipping everything on.