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Karnataka Elections: PM Modi Invokes ‘Bajrangbali’; Will it Help BJP Sail its Boat?

Experts say the anti-incumbency in Karnataka is against corruption and price rise, while the BJP is invoking Lord Hanuman.
Narendra Modi road show in K'taka

Supporters during a roadshow of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of Karnataka Assembly elections in Bengaluru Saturday, May 6, 2023. (PTI Photo/Shailendra Bhojak)

New Delhi: Conveniently ignoring to address issues like corruption, price rise, farmers’ woes, education, and unemployment, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is invoking Lord Hanuman by chanting ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’ during his public meetings ahead of the May 10 Assembly elections in Karnataka. Meanwhile, the major factors that have led to anti-incumbency against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have been put on the back burner.

It is seen as part of a strategy of the saffron party to counter the Congress, which in its election manifesto has promised to ban extremist organisations, such as the Bajrang Dal, the Popular Front of India (PFI), etc., irrespective of the religions the outfits belong to.

“We believe that law and Constitution are sacrosanct and cannot be violated by individuals and organisations like Bajrang Dal, PFI or others promoting enmity or hatred, whether among majority or minority communities. We will take decisive action as per law, including imposing a ban on such organisations,” said the grand old party.

It led PM Modi to launch salvos at the Congress, alleging that the party has decided to “lock up Lord Hanuman”. “First, they locked up Prabhu Shri Ram (Lord Ram at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh). Now, they want to lock up people who say ‘Jai Bajrang Bali’,” he said in a series of rallies.

However, locals believe that the clamour against skyrocketing prices, rampant corruption and concerns about jobs and education is so loud and assertive that raking up such emotive issues may not help the BJP much to sail its boat in the rocky water of the state. 

The Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai-led incumbent government is trying hard to secure a second term in office — something that no political party in the state has been able to do since the 1980s.

So, what is the relevance of Lord Hanuman in the Karnataka Assembly elections?

According to some versions of the Ramayana epic, Lord Hanuman (also referred to as Anjaneya) was born to Anjana at Anjanadri Hill at Gangavathi taluk in Koppal district’s Hampi village. However, neighbouring Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra claim that the Anjanadri Hills are located in their respective states.

The Karnataka government had proposed to develop the Anjanadri Hills by constructing 600 residential structures, an information centre and a huge parking lot at the Anjanadri Hill and ensuring airport connectivity and a super speciality hospital in the district at an estimated cost of Rs 140 crore. However, the Congress accused the BJP (currently in power in Karnataka and at the Centre) of indulging in “double speak”.  

“Suddenly reminded of Lord Hanuman, the Prime Minister on one hand says ‘Bajrang Bali Ki Jai’, while on the other hand, his party has denied the birthplace of Lord Hanuman in Karnataka. This exposes the double-speak of the BJP. It is, in fact, an insult to the devotees of Lord Hanuman,” Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera told reporters. 

He said the BJP government could not set up a committee to finalise the dispute between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh over the birthplace of the deity. 

“The party has denied the birthplace of Lord Hanuman in Parliament, which is the temple of democracy and where you are not supposed to say anything untrue. And who did it? It was Mr Karadi Sanganna Amarappa, an MP from Koppal and the then Culture Minister in the central government,” he added.

But locals don’t seem impressed with such political rhetoric. They argue that their discontent is against the issues that impact their day-to-day lives.

Writer RK Hudgi, a retired professor of the Gulbarga Technical University, said seeking votes in the name of Lord Hanuman is not going to help the BJP. 

“It’s just a counter to the Congress’ manifesto. But what is the relation between Lord Hanuman and the Bajrang Dal? The latter is just a religious extremist outfit that enjoys impunity under the BJP regime. This polarisation politics may work among a section of people, especially in coastal regions such as Mangaluru, Udupi, Chikkamagaluru and Shimoga (which is considered the BJP’s stronghold and sends around 33 MLAs to the 224-member house),” he told NewsClick.

But Hudgi claimed the majority of the population there is concerned about their interests and fed up with the corruption and price rise.

Kannada activist Ashok Chandargi said PM Modi is “not touching people’s issues”. 

“Common people are bothered about common issues, not communal ones. Apart from the larger issues of corruption, rising prices, joblessness and farmers’ concerns, castes and communities matter here. BJP’s social engineering does not seem to be working this time. The politically significant Lingayats make up an estimated 17-18% of the state’s population and have been the BJP’s core strength. But they are not wholeheartedly supporting the party after the exit of their two prominent faces — former CM Jagadish Shettar, former deputy CM Laxman Savadi and Koppal MP Kardi Sanganna,” he said.

Despite running a “triple-engine” government (Centre, Karnataka and Goa), he alleged, the Modi government failed to build a consensus on the Hubballi-Mahadayi river water dispute even after the Supreme Court gave its nod in February 2020 for publication of a gazette notification in this regard.

“For years, the Centre did not invite the three states to negotiate and reach an amicable solution. The Union Cabinet approved establishment of the Mahadayi Prawah (Progressive River Authority for Welfare and Harmony) only in February this year in an attempt to hoodwink voters before elections in the state,” he alleged. 

The authority has been tasked with implementing the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal (MWDT)’s final award.

Karnataka demands Mahadayi water be diverted to Malaprabha through its tributaries — Banduri and Kalasa — to supply drinking water to 13 talukas of four districts, including the twin cities of Hubballi-Dharwar. 

Following Goa’s strong objection, the central government in 2010 constituted the MWDT led by former Supreme Court Justice JM Panchal to furnish an opinion. In its final verdict in August 2018, the tribunal awarded 38.74 tmcft of water to Karnataka, Goa and Maharastra.

While Karnataka was allotted 13.46 tmcft (of which 5.4 tmcft is meant for supplying drinking water to Hubballi-Dharwad and Belagavi region), Goa and Maharshtra got 24 tmcft and 1.33 tmcft, respectively.

Goa challenged it in the apex court, where the case is pending.

Chandargi said setting up the authority would weaken Karnataka’s case in the Supreme Court as the court would keep seeking the former’s opinion on all issues.

Similarly, he said, the matter of Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal (KWDT-II), set up for adjudicating disputes between Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Maharashtra, is still sub-judice before the Supreme Court.

The third stage involves making use of 177 tmcft of water allocated by KWDT-2. Karnataka seeks to use 130 tmcft of water for irrigation of 5.5 lakh hectares of land in Gadag, Raichur, Bagalkot, Kalaburagi and Vijayapura districts under the Upper Krishna Project (UKP) Stage-III. 

The KWDT-II in 2013 gave the go-ahead to Karnataka to utilise 103 tmcft of water, but the state could not use it for various reasons. The riparian states, in the meantime, approached the top court. Maharashtra and Karnataka also jointly filed petitions, praying the court to issue directions to the Centre to publish the award in the official gazette.

Since the Centre has not notified the tribunal’s final award through a gazette (a mandatory process), Karnataka is unable to use the water.

“All these are legal-political matters, which the Centre could have easily resolved had it been serious enough as the majority of states have a BJP-led government,” he added.

Senior journalist Hrishikesh Bahadur Desai, who works with The Hindu, opined that invoking Lord Hanuman has undoubtedly helped the BJP ease its worries as the issue has found some takers. But at the same time, he said, it is not going to defeat the strong wave of anti-incumbency in the state.

“If you go by some versions of Ramayana, Lord Ram is an Aryan while Krishna is Dravidian. Hanuman is considered to be born in South India. And therefore, he is being invoked in the Karnataka elections. Though raking up the controversy has helped the saffron party among a small section of voters, but the road ahead is not so easy for the BJP as the polarising factors never work in any region of the state except the coastal areas,” he said.

Desai’s worries are specific. “The anti-incumbency is against corruption and price rise and not against the rise of communal forces and weakening of public institutions,” he said.

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