M. Gautham Machaiah
Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has set the cat among the pigeons by igniting the emotion of Kannada pride in the run up to the 2018 Assembly elections much to the chagrin of Hindutva and nationalism advocates.
A strong pro-Kannada, anti-Hindi ‘imperialism’ sentiment fuelled not by traditional Kannada chauvinists but by well educated, English-speaking corporate professionals and volunteers has been brewing in the State for sometime now, and Siddaramaiah has latched himself on to the bandwagon, first subtly and now boldly. The Chief Minister’s clever move seems to have caught the BJP off-guard as the “local pride” agenda does not fit into its hyper-nationalism narrative. At the same time, the newly born Kannada constituency is something the BJP cannot afford to ignore.
The Chief Minister has been deftly moving his pawns for over a year now beginning with the reservation of jobs for Kannadigas in the private sector, followed by a decision to make Kannada a compulsory language in all schools. When there were protests against the use of Hindi in Bengaluru Metro, Siddaramaiah saw an opportunity and declared rather forcefully that he would not allow “Hindi Imposition” at any cost, in contrast to BJP’s befuddled response. His most audacious move to date was the setting up of a committee to explore the possibility of a separate flag for Karnataka.
This has left the ‘nationalists’ fuming, but the Kannada brigade is thrilled. While nationalists are in favour of one-nation-one-flag, others cite the example of several federal countries which continue to remain united though each State has its own flag. The challenge before the BJP now is to arrive at a via media to guard its nationalistic flavour without hurting local sentiments.
The BJP might have suffered a set back over the Kannada issue, but it has already begun consolidating itself in other areas. The ‘vistarak’ (direct contact with workers) programme is a huge success and party has gained an edge over the Congress when it comes to ground level campaigning. The Congress may have to quickly get its act together, because emotive issues alone cannot turn the tide in its favour.
As of now, the Chief Minister seems to have driven a wedge through the Hindutva / nationalist camp by carving out a niche for himself. Is this niche big enough to make an impact during the polls? Is it sustainable? Is it just a fume that will soon evaporate or will it hover over the horizon until the elections? Answers to these questions will be known only in 2018.